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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Chenin Blanc

Wines Of Now
17 February 2021. Words by YGOW.

Chenin blanc is the heroic white variety of France’s Loire Valley, making wines up and down the scale, from vibrant and carefree sparklings to lusciously sweet whites that are some of the world’s most long-lived wines. But the grape also excels out of the cool of the Loire, being South Africa’s most important white variety, while also thriving in the heat of Western Australia’s Swan Valley where a renaissance is in full swing. And it’s not just in the West, either, with makers from South Australia also putting their hands up. With ample producers dedicated to elevating the grape, a Deep Dive was called for, so we gathered as many bottlings as we could find and enlisted the help of eight of this country’s finest palates to check in to see just where Australian chenin blanc is at.

Our panel: Kate McIntyre MW, Marketing and Business Development Manager Moorooduc Estate; Isabelle Szyman, Sommelier; Kayleen Reynolds, Manager City Wine Shop; Pierre Stock Co-owner/Director France-Soir Wine Selections; Natasha Johns DipWSET, Owner/Director Primavera Selections; Loic Avril, Wine Director LUCAS Restaurants; Anthony Pieri, Head Sommelier Brae; Ben Ranken, Vigneron/Owner Wilimee and Vineyard Manager/Winemaker Mount Monument.

We set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the top wines from the tasting.

The Top Chenin Blanc in Australia

2020 Dormilona Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $30

This was Avril’s top wine of the tasting. “Red apple flesh, quince, ripe stone fruits, with superb balance, fresh acid and purity on the palate – good phenolic grip to it,” he wrote. “Loaded with aromatic lift, the perfume and palate drive are pure and enticing,” noted Reynolds, who had it second on her sheet. “A lovely spectrum of white stone fruits with pears and apples that is met with a delicate but striking phenolic grip. Complex and beautifully balanced,” she wrote. Stock also had it as just being pipped for top spot. “Might come from cold climate and sandy soil,” he speculated. “Nose of dry hay, with quite delicate and shy aromas of lemon pith. Very similar on the palate, subtle aromas of lemon and lime. The acidity shows the wine is at an early age.” Ranken saw “green apple, lemon sherbet, spice and a lanolin/waxy lift,” describing the palate as being “bright with a fine texture, crunchy acid and medium palate weight with nice length.” He noted that it “kept building,” calling it, “delicious, plus the drinkability factor was brilliant.”

 

2018 Marri Wood Park Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $40

“This wine came in at number one for me because it did what great chenin does best: it gave me versatility,” wrote Szyman. “The nose is heady – prominent honeysuckle florals, sumptuous nectarines and crisp golden apples. The palate is a breath of fresh air, with prickly pear acidity and river stone minerality that leaves you wanting another glass. I could see it at the start of a meal with fresh seafood, at the end with a crispy skinned roast chicken and some golden potatoes, or maybe just by itself with a sliver of Comté.” Reynolds also allotted this her top ranking. “This reminded me why I love chenin blanc. It is one of my favourite grape varieties to drink and cellar. Its chameleon-like character is one of its best attributes but unfortunately has caused the variety to be misunderstood among wine consumers. This wine is tightly wound, highly composed and loaded with interest. Fresh goats’ cheese, ripe red apples and savoury spice. The phenolics seen throughout the tasting today expressed the distinct Australian style chenin blanc has to offer. This wine highlighted how to do it best. A smartly made, delightful Australian chenin blanc.” Avril also had this amongst his top-six. “Intense, good expression of ripe stone fruits, orange citrus, a pure wine. Phenolic… Good balance, too. It’s a lovely expression.”

 

2019 Vino Volta ‘Nothing Wrong with Old School’ Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley $30

Pieri registered this as his second top wine of the tasting. “After a couple of minutes in the glass,” he wrote, “the nose becomes quite open and generous with loads of custard, vanilla bean and white-flower-scented deliciousness. The palate has evolved as well into the star of the wines thus far. Very well done.” Johns also had this second on her list. “Honeysuckle, well-defined tight citrus notes, waxy apples and apple skin but delicate – this wine has great tension, great texture and great balance. Really delicious.” Reynolds declared it, “A great wine to show someone who isn’t convinced chenin blanc is their friend – there’s a chenin out there for everyone! An approachable, people pleaser this one. Driven by vibrant fruits of green apple and white nectarines, the line and drive of this wine is held together by forgiving phenolics and acidity. Suitable for any situation, whether you’re dining in a restaurant, at a barbecue or catching up with friends in the park.”

 

2020 Aphelion ‘Pir’ Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $32

This was rated highly by three tasters. “Quite pale in the glass with high-toned fruity aromatics of lemon, lime and mandarin,” wrote Pieri. “The palate is lithe, light and crunchy with bright acid and great mouthfeel without being cloying or sweet. Very well done.” Szyman called it, “Another great example of chenin that you can eat a meal with. The nose stayed on the right side of tropical for me, evoking pineapple skin, mandarin peel and preserved lemons. Ripe fruit on the palate was kept in check by lemony acidity and a saltiness on the finish. Well textured and very moreish.” “Riper citrus, juicy fruits with some interesting spice notes,” noted Johns, “fennel, nice chalky texture with some phenolic grip – quite delicate though overall, with lively acid and a lingering finish. A bit going on here and some nice ‘fun’ tension between all elements at play.”

 

2020 Geyer Chenin Blanc, Barossa Valley $32

This just missed out on top spot for Ranken. “Orange wine style, clean and fault free,” he wrote. “Aromatics of spice, nougat and orange rind. On the palate, clearly a skinsy style, but with depth and flavour. Medium weight, lovely mid-palate fruit of apple and pear drop. Reminded me of skinsy pinot grigio without the five-star spice. Notes of custard curd, spice and pith, nice length and drinkability. Enjoyed this style of orange wine, as it had finesse to go with fine phenolic structure.” Avril also noted “skin contact, with dried orange or tangerine skin notes, good extraction, clean on the palate. Fresh honey. Waxy. Why not a bit of skins! Well done!” Stock called it “a good example of a natural style, with a fresh palate of pear, mango and lychees, all well wrapped with perfect acid.”

 

2018 Aravina Estate ‘Block 4’ Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $35

This was Ranken’s top wine of the tasting. “Fantastic aromatic lift, hints of lime and spice, slight evidence of matchstick on the nose,” he wrote. “Crunchy apple and lemon pith. A subtle but focused wine with drive and great length. Creamy texture with fine bones, a delicious wine with lovely balance, fruit intensity and direction. I enjoyed this wine from the outset due to its aromatics, palate and drinkability.” “Chenin Blanc in a nutshell,” declared Reynolds. “Wet stone, ginger and quince with a waxy texture and intense fruit sweetness. The high-quality acidity was pivotal in carrying the honey-cream weight of this wine through to completeness. Delightful!” Stock was reminded of “chardonnay from Western Australia. Definitely a big wine here, with classic notes of vanilla, cashew nuts, peach, rose, white flowers, very rich but enough freshness. Needs food.”

 

2020 South by South West Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $35

“Ripe citrus peel, stone fruits and oak support,” wrote Avril, as he gave this his second top spot. “Stone fruit jelly, lovely texture and pleasant aftertaste. A touch of salinity, and a touch of oak which perfectly seasons the wine.” “Shy, reserved, refined,” noted Reynolds. “The strong mineral backbone is driving this wine which pairs nicely with a slightly bitter grapefruit back palate. Green and red apples fill the core for a complete palate-weighted wine. Smart and elegant, a drink to be consumed with thought. Very impressive!” Stock also rated this amongst his top wines of the day. “What a surprising nose of baked plum tart and exotic fruits,” he wrote. “Palate aromatic composed of citrus fruits and passionfruit. Not much acid presence but found great balance between dryness and fatness.”

 

2018 Wines of Merritt Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $40

This was rated in the top half of the score sheets of two tasters. “Quite interesting nose,” wrote Stock, “black tea, freshly crushed lemon leaves, slightly minted palate and oily on the front palate, high acid and very powerful aromatically with great balance.” “This wine stood out to me for its delicate approach,” noted Szyman. “The fruit profile was super fresh and clean, lime zest, ripe white nectarines and fennel fronds. The palate was well textured, with a phenolic chew to match brisk acidity and a surprising amount of length.”

 

2019 Express Winemakers Chenin Blanc, Great Southern $28

This trumped the tasting for Stock, with it being his top pick. “Nose of savagnin, very Jura like!” he declared. “The palate has so much freshness with high acidity, aromas of exotic fruit, passionfruit, pineapple and a bit of lime. Quite waxy on the back palate, lingering and well balanced.” While the nose reminded him of savagnin, he noted that the finish marked it as a classically varietal chenin blanc.

 

2020 Coriole Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $20

“Candied character on the nose, almost sweet smelling in nature, Turkish delight and quince paste,” wrote Pieri, giving this his top rating for the tasting. “The palate has a fair amount of heft, is dry, and rather complex, with notes of rhubarb, mandarin and white flowers that are very pleasant. The finish has textural heft that you might expect, with an added lingering and lifted acid character that is very well done, quite pleasant and dangerously moreish. I would list this wine.”

 

2020 Sherrah Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $25

This was McIntyre’s top pick of the tasting. “Pale lemon in colour with fresh, bright granny smith apple fruit on the nose and a touch of beeswax,” she wrote. “The aromas are clean and attractive with subtle grapefruit and lemon pith emerging slowly. On the palate, the lemon and apple notes are joined by honeycomb. This is tempered with a delicate bitter phenolic and firm, fine acidity on the finish. The wine is dry and refreshing with elegant yet long flavours. This would be a delightful wine to drink with fresh oysters on a warm day.”

 

2020 Paul Conti ‘Tuart Block’ Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley $18

Johns picked this as her top wine of the tasting, calling it “A joyful wine.” On the nose she noted “yellow apples and waxy orchard fruits with hints of apple skin and honeysuckle,” while on the palate registering “the juiciest of fruits with a lovely texture,” adding that it displayed “such concentration and amazing length.”

 

2011 Bella Ridge Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley $34

Szyman rated this highly, with it just missing out on her top spot. “An Australian chenin with a Loire Valley-esque twist,” she wrote. “Lovely white florals and yellow orchard fruits, matched with beeswax and cracked wheat savoury notes. Acidity unfurls on the palate, balancing nicely with perceptible sweetness, and lingers on well into the finish.”

 

2017 Coriole ‘The Optimist’ Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $32

“Tight and quite closed, this pale lemon wine took some time to open up and reveal its charm,” wrote McIntyre, as she picked this as her second-top wine of the day. “On the nose, aromas of apple skin and honey, while a hint of green pineapple emerged with time. On the palate, the wine is linear, firm and took a little time for the phenolics to settle – plenty of tangy acidity. I liked it more and more as I went back to it – excellent minerally notes and a very interesting wine.”

 

2020 Swan Valley Wines ‘Warrine’ Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley $35

Both Pieri and Szyman picked this in their top-six lists. “The wine is a bit cloudy… it could be made without fining or filtration or with some skin contact,” wrote Pieri. “There is an unmistakably French accent that speaks with the dialect of Vouvray – I know comparison isn’t the name of this game, but it’s an indication potentially of shared soil, shared winemaking, shared climate, or a delicious amalgamation of the three…. The finish is legendary. Love this wine.” “I always have time for a bit of funk in my wines,” noted Szyman. “…Heady cider apple on the orchard floor, without travelling too far… It has just the right amount of savoury to contend with vibrant stone fruit on the nose, and a refreshingly drinkable quality to the palate. You’ll see me picking this bottle out of a fridge on a hot summer’s day on my way to the park.”

 

2016 Cullen Chenin Blanc, Margaret River

“A straight-up, thought-provoking wine,” wrote Reynolds, rating this in the top three wines. “Complex, ripe primary fruit with goat’s cheese rind funk that came together seamlessly thanks to the very long and juicy acidity. A delicious, complex and well-rounded wine.”

 

2018 Castagna Chenin Blanc, Beechworth $58

This made it onto both McIntyre and Johns’ lists. “Quite a different style from my previous selections,” wrote McIntyre, “with more earthy, savoury bread notes combining with perfumed cooking apples and a touch of orange water and honey. An intriguing wine that kept me coming back for another look… The palate showed restrained apple fruit and lemon rind, a hint of blanched almond and attractive crisp acidity. A fresh wine, with extra interest and balance added by the slightly bitter, slightly chalky phenolic grip and a long lemon-honey finish. I would like to spend more time with this wine.” Johns saw “Fresh orchard fruits and quite perfumed white flowers like jasmine and honeysuckle but also some ginger spice and some honey” notes on the nose. “Nice chalky pithy phenolic texture with bright acid and good balance – a really interesting wine with lots to like.”

 

2019 Churchview Estate ‘St Johns’ Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $30

“Riper notes, moving into ripe citrus and white stone fruits, like nectarine,” wrote Johns. “Some lovely full fruit on the palate, this wine has more weight than some, in a comforting way. The palate is super concentrated and is balanced beautifully by the acidity. Quite opulent but also very tasty.” Ranken also picked this in his top six. “Waxy, creamy, lanolin with citrus and apple,” he wrote. “Nice generous fruit and palate weight with good texture. Slightly broader style, oily but fresh, as acid was medium, not bright or crunchy, but in balance with the waxy and textural tones of the wine. Certainly a creamy style, but freshness of fruit balanced the texture.”

 

2019 Vino Volta ‘Funky and Fearless’ Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley $35

McIntyre had this in the top half of her final selections. “This wine had all the aromas I love from this variety,” she wrote, “lanolin, lemon rind, honey and beeswax – less apple than some. Very clean, fresh and bright on the palate, with just enough phenolic texture to keep things interesting. Attractive acid line softened with the honeyed notes, and just a touch off dry. Not particularly intellectual or complicated, which is often a good thing! A tasty mouthful.”

 

2020 Dowie Doole ‘C Blanc’ Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $25

Avril placed this in the top half of his favourite six wines of the day. “A high-acid wine,” he noted. “Lime flesh, farmhouse apple and quince flavours,” were “well balanced with saline and mineral notes – a very pleasant wine.”

 

2020 Schwarz Wine Co. Chenin Blanc, Barossa Valley $28

Both Avril and Szyman included this amongst their top six. “Floral, sea Breeze, fresh and blossomed honeysuckle, oil, earthy, fresh Paris mushrooms, daikon. Lees is there but well balanced,” wrote Avril. “The acid is persistent and adds a lovely freshness.” Szyman found it, “A fun little chenin with a deliciously sunny disposition. An enticing nose of golden pears, lemon pith and fresh honeycomb. Waxy and citrusy on the palate, with plenty of drive to the acidity and a pleasant bitterness on the finish that added some welcome complexity.”

 

2015 Brini Estate Wines Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale $18

“Green apple and waxy notes, with good concentration of fruit and depth, medium weight but bright,” wrote Ranken. “Ripe pear, with citrus and lime, leads to a crunchy style, with nice texture, fruit concentration and drive, with a medium to long finish… parts of the wine sit in different camps, but the sum of the wine fits well and melds nicely into one whole.” McIntyre found it “savoury with hints of golden delicious apple” on the nose. “The wine shows more weight and savoury complexity than initially expected, and as it opened up, it revealed chestnut, lemon and apple notes. …it showed building power and length on the finish. …it would make an interesting match to washed rind or soft cheese at the end of a meal.”

 

2018 Pierro Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $33.90

Johns selected this amongst her top six. “Again, a waxy note here, green apples, lemon and lime juice – juicy with an explosion of fruit but some nice texture to balance,” she wrote. “There’s a lovely driving quality to this wine that makes you want to have another sip.”

 

2018 Streicker ‘Ironstone Block’ Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $28

“I love the delicate cheesy funk on the nose, mixed with custard curd, citrus lime and spice,” wrote Ranken. “Fine boned wine but layered with interest. Bright fruit, more in lemon/citrus spectrum with hints of stone fruit. Good fruit intensity and concentration, with finesse and direction. A lovely style, bright, lifted, good acidity and length, with fine phenolics and drive.”

 

2020 Rusden ‘Christian’ Chenin Blanc, Barossa Valley $28

“Ripe peach and waxy honey on the nose but otherwise quite restrained,” wrote Pieri. “There is an expectation for this variety that it will showcase some of the honeyed, woolly character that defines it globally and this example has that characteristic. The palate is singing, however, complex vanilla curd (maybe some oak?), honey, ripe melon and mandarin pithiness that is very well done; pleasant and moreish.”

 

2019 LAS Vino ‘CBDB’ Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $50

“Has a bit of flashy new oak on the nose and possibly botrytis, which I will go on record as saying I’m not averse to,” wrote Pieri. “This coupled with ripe fruit and a pithy, candied mandarin character on the nose all create a complex and complete wine, albeit with a bit of winemaking. …there is a lot going on the glass and I appreciate that.”

 

2019 tripe.Iscariot ‘Absolution – Karridale’ Chenin Blanc, Margaret River $32

“This was a surprising wine for me,” wrote McIntyre, “starting out a touch sour and salty on first taste, but with enough interest to bring me back for a second and third look. The delicate nose is pretty and perfumed with green and yellow apples, lemon, honey and a surprising note of cumquat. Delicate and lacey in structure on the palate – fresh with salted lemon notes and just a touch of quinine-like bitterness on the finish. Good line and length. Reminiscent of all the appealing things about a really good gin and tonic.”

Chenin Blanc History

While it has established a significant second home in South Africa, chenin blanc’s spiritual heartland is in France, with a history thought to stretch back over a millennium. Although South African plantings now eclipse those of chenin’s homeland, and their best expressions are compelling, world-class wines, the wealth of top examples still emerge from the Middle Loire Valley appellations of Vouvray, Anjou, Montlouis and Savennières.

Somewhat like riesling, chenin blanc is an incredibly versatile grape, making everything from racy, dry and mineral wines to opulently sweet ones, laced with botrytis. The pinnacle sweeter wines – though they make dry ones, too – mostly come from Vouvray, Anjou and Montlouis, while Savennières is associated with dry wine, though it is typically powerful, intense and age-worthy. Chenin blanc also contributes to sparkling wine, both the broadly sourced Crémant de Loire, which can come from most areas of the Middle Loire, as well as for, though to a lesser degree, Limoux further south in the Languedoc.

Also much like riesling, the best chenin blancs can age for a considerable time, with many decades not unusual, and a century not unheard of. The longest lived are typically the sweeter wines, with the qualities of the sugar paired with characteristically electric acid preserving the wines exceptionally well.

Photos courtesy of Swan Valley Winemakers, and photographer Frances Andrijich.

Chenin makes a compelling case as one of the great grapes of the world, and therefore a compelling case for it to be planted more broadly. The truth is, though, that chenin has struggled to live up to that reputation around the world, with it more often than not being overcropped and employed as a bland, high-acid contributor to generic white wines, either solo or chaperoned in blends. This has been historically true in South Africa and California, and also to an extent in Western Australia.

In Australia

Many of the earliest vineyards planted in Australia were done so with material propagated from the fabled Busby Collection. When he landed in Australia in the 1830s, James Busby brought with him a collection of over 400 different vine cuttings gathered from his travels in France and Spain. They were planted out in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia with their genetic legacy still having a lasting imprint on vines and wine, but Western Australia has a slightly different story.

Australia’s second oldest continuously producing wine region, the Swan Valley, on Perth’s doorstep, was first planted with cuttings from South Africa, which included chenin blanc, in 1829, a few years before Busby returned to Australia from England with his haul.

Western Australian plantings with South African roots

Chenin blanc came to South Africa courtesy of the Dutch East India Company, taking up residence there in the mid-17th century. Jan van Riebeeck established the first Dutch colonial settlement, which would become Cape Town, as a waystation for the company’s ships. Along with planting other crops to restock the ships, Van Riebeeck planted grapes as a means of staving off scurvy.

One of those first grapes was chenin blanc, though inconclusive record keeping, morphing nomenclature and phylloxera make it hard to properly trace. Chenin grape was referred to as “steen” for centuries, and the name is still used today, though less commonly. It wasn’t until the 1960s that steen was formally identified as chenin blanc.

Synonyms aside, some of the first vines planted in the Swan Valley – and much of the material thereafter – are descended from those early chenin plantings, with no doubt the most adapted plants – after over 150 years in a similar climate to the Swan – selected for propagation.

Chenin’s Working-Class History

Chenin blanc became a workhorse grape for centuries in South Africa, with it often going to simple wines, and later, especially in the early 20th century, it was often distilled into brandy. The technological revolution that gripped the wine world in the latter half of the century saw the grape once again become a staple for table wine, with ultra-clean and fresh wines made with temperature-controlled ferments, cultured yeasts and a quick rest in tank before an early bottling.

Chenin blanc’s ability to produce large yields of grapes per vine with good acidity made it a fine candidate for this particular industrial revolution, if genuine wine quality was not much of a consideration. On the other side of the world, chenin was performing a similar function in California, with berries bloated by irrigation to make bountiful amounts of nondescript jug wine. And in Australia, its contribution was no more celebrated.

While the variety had little recognisable identity in Australia until the latter half of the 20th century – when simple fruit-forward expressions were varietally labelled – chenin was largely responsible for one of the country’s most famous and important wines, Jack Mann’s Houghton’s White Burgundy. It is easy to deride a wine that was sold as an economical everyday white, an opaque blend where vintage was more or less irrelevant, but it genuinely changed the face of Australian wine.

Above: Old Houghton White Burgundy bottles and labels. Opposite: 90 year old chenin blanc vine in Swan Valley, photo by Kate Johnson.

Winning the Open Class at Royal Melbourne in 1937, Mann’s take on chenin blanc began to destabilise the monopoly of fortified wines, which didn’t let go of their grip on the public imagination until a couple of decades later. That wine became one of this country’s most popular – later being blended with some semillon and sauvignon blanc, and no doubt verdelho – and it also saw to it that a decent amount of chenin blanc was planted, which is now a valuable resource for makers wanting to experiment with the grape.

The Chenin Revolution

Around the world, a kind of revolution is taking place, with the grape being planted again in large amounts in South Africa, and largely with a quality focus. The potential of those more youthful vines is also being shored up by the exemplary bottlings from old vines across a range of sites, which make it South Africa’s most prized white variety. In California, too, there is a renewed interest, if a little tentative, and in Australia, and principally the Swan Valley and Margaret River, that revolution is hard to miss.

“The climates chenin is grown in South Africa span similar extremes to those of Margaret River and the Swan Valley, more or less. It ripens well here, and on the best vineyards it retains good acidity. It works really well. It makes wines with vibrant citrus and nectarine flavours as a base, but it can go in lots of different directions, depending on when it’s picked and how it’s made.”

“There are lots of expressions around, both here and around the country,” says Vino Volta’s Garth Cliff. “It’s happening everywhere, but we’re lucky as we’ve had two very successful wines over the years – Houghton’s and Amberley – which means we have lots of mature chenin vines in lots of sites, from the Swan Valley to Margaret River.”

Cliff worked as a winemaker at Houghton for a decade before branching out on his own, making the most of what he saw as a somewhat underused resource of vines in the unglamorous Swan District. Chenin is a grape that he believes performs particularly well there, even if its home territory of the Loire Valley is markedly cooler.

Climate Control

“We’ve seen with a lot of classic varieties planted around the world, that they can do well in other climates; chardonnay and shiraz are great examples,” says Cliff. “The climates chenin is grown in South Africa span similar extremes to those of Margaret River and the Swan Valley, more or less. It ripens well here, and on the best vineyards it retains good acidity. It works really well. It makes wines with vibrant citrus and nectarine flavours as a base, but it can go in lots of different directions, depending on when it’s picked and how it’s made.”

The Swan Valley makes up about 30 per cent of the 400-odd hectares of chenin blanc plantings in the country, with – like most grapes – the Riverland, Murray Darling and Riverina accounting for over half of the vineyards, with 54 per cent, but when you add in 11 per cent from Margaret River, Western Australia stakes an irrefutable claim to being the quality heartland for the grape.

Photo courtesy of Swan Valley Winemakers, and photographer Frances Andrijich.

The other region that is typically talked about, though the volume of vines is obviously markedly lower, is McLaren Vale, with smatterings in the Barossa and examples from the Adelaide Hills also popping up more and more frequently.

“I work with varieties that have a suitability to where they’re grown, and also a versatility to how they can be made, that are receptive to different techniques and processes,” says Aphelion’s Rob Mack. “Chenin ticks those requirements off. I played around with off-dry styles, earlier and later picked wines, and even one blushed with a little grenache.”

Mack makes one wine from a vineyard in Kuitpo, in the Adelaide Hills, and one from 50-year-old vines in Blewitt Springs, which he notes is a cooler part of McLaren Vale. “Even though the Vale is much warmer than the Hills, the warmer years don’t stress the vines out, with no issue with natural acidity in the fruit,” he says, noting that while it may not tolerate extreme heat, there’s still a good deal of longevity for the variety. “The Swan Valley is a lot hotter than the Vale, and they’re making some very good styles. I think it does have a future, even as the years get hotter.”

Getting Cool

Ben Ranken, winemaker/viticulturist/owner of Wilimee in the Macedon Ranges also sees great prospects for the grape in his region, with the chilly climate more in keeping with chenin’s homeland of the Loire Valley than the path that has been hewn through South Africa first then warmer zones in Australia.

“We’re at 600 metres and cool climate,” he says. “I’m interested in it because it’s easily the most diverse grape variety that we grow: you can have dry, sweet, young, old, you can make sparkling as well – very few varieties give you that flexibility. I think it’s grown in regions in Australia that are too warm, and if we can grow it without adding acid, which we don’t for anything, then that’s got a big plus to it. And if you don’t get ripeness, it can go to sparkling, so you’ve got that flexibility.”

Many Ways to Skin a Chenin Blanc

That flexibility is something that’s not lost on any of the makers, with varying climatic conditions driving styles just as much as the sheer adaptability of the grape allows winemakers to experiment. Cliff, for example, makes an “old-school style” that is fermented and matured in tank, which he believes will age particularly well, while he also makes a high-solids, barrel-ferment style, a pét-nat and even one matured under flor yeast, in the style of wines from the Jura.

Mack also believes this diversity is a strength. “I think having a couple of different styles is important, rather than nailing down one style across the whole country. The Hills wine, I pick early, ferment in stainless steel and bottle early, so people can see the varietal characters. From Blewitt Spring, I let it hang a bit longer, then put half through oak with full solids, chasing texture. I make it like chardonnay.”

Cliff says that they’re not alone, with more and more makers testing the boundaries. He also notes that a careful inclusion of phenolics at the press adds a lot of character to the wine, building texture while not compromising acidity or skewing flavours too much, which gives winemakers another tool to build detail. “Chenin juice stays bright well into the press cycle, allowing us to press a little harder, adding texture to the wine. I want a bit more edge and flavour, and the wines age so well.”

Chenin blanc is unlikely to dominate the shelves of retail stores anytime soon, but the possibility of it growing into an exciting category in the short term is a very real prospect, from Western Australia at least. With mature vines across a raft of sites coupled with relatively low fruit costs, the possibility of makers of all stripes experimenting with the grape is an accessible prospect, as evidenced by Vino Volta, Remi Guise’s tripe.Iscariot, Nic Peterkin’s LAS Vino and Jo Perry’s Dormilona, to name just a few.

In South Australia, those opportunities are there, too, though more limited, and some of Victoria’s central regions, such as Rutherglen, have some vines – often from very established estates – but there is little bottled evidence to properly judge the potential – an interesting project for a maker with the right connections. It is in the cooler zones that we’ll have to wait somewhat longer, with makers like Ranken only just dipping their toes in the water. Nonetheless, the future is looking bright, with chenin having the potential for being one of this country’s most versatile and characterful grapes.

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered as many bottlings as we could find and enlisted the help of eight of this country’s finest palates to check in to see just where Australian chenin blanc is at.

Our panel: Kate McIntyre MW, Marketing and Business Development Manager Moorooduc Estate; Isabelle Szyman, Sommelier; Kayleen Reynolds, Manager City Wine Shop; Pierre Stock Co-owner/Director France-Soir Wine Selections; Natasha Johns DipWSET, Owner/Director Primavera Selections; Loic Avril, Wine Director LUCAS Restaurants; Anthony Pieri, Head Sommelier Brae; Ben Ranken, Vigneron/Owner Wilimee and Vineyard Manager/Winemaker Mount Monument. All wines were tasted blind.

Although there were wines with some residual sugar and a handful of more mature examples, the predominant theme was wines from the last few vintages and for them to be mostly dry – with no sparkling wines included – but even within those parameters, there was still an astonishing variety of offerings, from savoury and textural wines to those explosively fruitful.

All wines tasted 'blind'. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.
“I think it’s really interesting that we’re discussing Australian chenin and we’re immediately referencing it to the Loire,” noted McIntyre, “which is excellent, but it’s also worth remembering that there’s probably equal influence from South Africa, and those traditional warmer climate, fruitier, riper styles… and I saw a few of those here.”

“It was quite varied, quite a fruit salad,” said Johns, “which is perhaps an indication of the variety of terroirs, sunshine hours, aspects etc. that we have in different parts of Australia. There were styles that were a bit more overt and further away from Loire Valley styles, but the ones that were balanced were really delicious, and then there were some that were a throw to the Loire, and I thought they were done really adeptly, too.”

“Although comparing to the Old World wasn’t really the name of this game,” commented Pieri, “using it as a stylistic compass was really interesting. Consistently in my notes were things like nectarine, peach, pear… in varying levels of ripeness…”

Kate McIntyre, Pierre Stock and Loic Avril. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

“There’s a romantic ideal of chenin blanc, of it tasting like apples and orchard fruit,” said Szyman, referring to classic Old-World examples. “And this waxy quality, that I also adore, about regions like Vouvray, but it was interesting to see how those flavours translate here. There was definitely a waxiness to some of the wines… there was still of a lot of the orchard fruit coming through, and perhaps from the warmer climates a tinned SPC-fruit salad situation happening as well…”

Pieri noted that he saw a thread of beeswax character through many of the wines. “Sometimes it showed itself as aromatic,” he said, “but it was more often a textural element on the palate… and it was there when the wines were fantastic, and it was also there when they were less fantastic, which shows that winemakers need to effectively manage that character to make a wine that is broadly appealing.”

Isabelle Szyman, Anthony Pieri and Natasha Johns. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.
“There were some that were in a very classic sauvignon blanc style and some that looked like Western Australian chardonnay, and I thought why not. If you want to please the Australian palate, then everyone can find something in chenin that they like.”

“There was a phenolic character in a lot of the wines,” agreed Johns, “which is something you see more and more in Australian wine, and I really liked that, because in some instances the fruit was quite overt, but then that textural, chalky character pulled it back a little bit and took away from the sunshine.”

“I think it’s really interesting that we’re discussing Australian chenin and we’re immediately referencing it to the Loire,” noted McIntyre, “which is excellent, but it’s also worth remembering that there’s probably equal influence from South Africa, and those traditional warmer climate, fruitier, riper styles… and I saw a few of those here.”

“I thought it was quite broad in terms of the aromatic palette,” said Stock, finding few examples that genuinely shadowed Loire Valley expressions. “There were some that were in a very classic sauvignon blanc style and some that looked like Western Australian chardonnay, and I thought why not. If you want to please the Australian palate, then everyone can find something in chenin that they like.”

Above: Kayleen Reynolds. Opposite: Isabelle Szyman. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

“Isn’t that one of the great things about chenin blanc,” agreed Szyman, “that you can create such a diverse range… I don’t think chenin gets so much play on Australian tables today, which for me is both a joy and a pity… as long as it’s cheap I can afford to buy a lot of it,” she laughed. “I don’t want everyone to know about it.”

“Where the wines fell short, was when they had that herbaceous character,” said Pieri, “where they looked like sauvignon blanc, maybe there was a ripeness or harvest stem character… but there were some that showed other-variety character: jalapeño, cut grass, herbaceousness…”

“There was one wine that smelt like wasabi!” agreed McIntyre. “That was a wine I didn’t love, but there were lots of wines I did… There weren’t a lot in those bigger richer styles… there were a couple in there, and I thought they did them pretty well, but they were a couple of odd ones out, compared to a lot of wines that were trying to embrace that cooler, more savoury, waxy style… And I agree with Anthony that the less successful ones of those were probably picked a bit early and didn’t have enough fruit ripeness.”

While chenin is grown successfully in varied climates, Avril noted that this didn’t necessarily make it an easy proposition to get right. “With chenin, you cannot force it. It has to be ripe, but not too ripe. For me, I was looking for acidity. I was not looking for aromatics; I just wanted a good acid line, a natural acid line.”

“What I take away is harvesting date,” said Ranken in agreement, “trying to find that window, you can easily go underripe, you can easily go overripe. It seems to me it’s a variety that the window is a day or two – you’ve got to nail it. As we’ve talked about, we’ve seen those sauvy-like chenins and we’ve seen those tinned pineapple characters coming through as well… and given that it’s grown here mostly in warm climates, that window is even shorter, which perhaps reinforces that we should be trying it in cooler climates to give greater flexibility.”

Kayleen Reynolds and Ben Ranken. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

“Chenin is a semi-aromatic or non-aromatic variety, so it needs texture,” noted McIntyre. “I think the most successful wines were the dry, more restrained, elegant styles, which had had time to ripen but were picked early to retain elegance, and they had nice flavours. They also had a savouriness and a depth of flavour, and the phenolics were there but managed well. There were a couple of interesting orange wines there as well …but for a couple of reasons they didn’t quite make the grade for me. But I think it’s an interesting variety to play around with skin contact because you get those lovely textures, and the aromas change as well.”

“Sometimes I felt the lees work was done too highly, sometimes the phenolics from pressing were a bit too big to a certain extent, but some of those were looking in good balance between bitterness, salinity and fruit,” said Avril. “I do think it’s a hard one for skin contact. Either you do it well or you cannot do it. For me, it’s about limiting as much bitterness as you can… and you need to have a certain ripeness to it. If it’s not ripe, it starts to get green in flavour… I think it’s a hard one with skin contact, unfortunately.”

“The fact that we’re now experiencing really high-quality chenin from the Loire and also a little bit from South Africa is only going to do good things for Australian chenin,” said McIntyre, “and we’ll hopefully get people in cooler climates to plant it. I think people haven’t planted it because it has been deeply unfashionable in Australia, and it has been for a long time. I think we’re just getting started to take chenin blanc seriously, and that’s partly down to grape-growers and winemakers, it’s partly down to consumers, it’s partly down to those of us who sell the stuff. As a variety, it’s a bit hard to pinpoint. I mean, we’re just getting our head around pinot gris!”
Opposite: Kate McIntyre. Above: Natasha Johns. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

“Chenin naturally has a bitterness on the finish to it anyway, without skin contact,” agreed McIntyre. “That little aspirin-y bitterness you get in a good dry chenin, if you accentuate it too much with time on skins it can just take over everything and it can make the texture difficult.”

“I think it was really cool to see the new wave of Australian chenin,” said Reynolds, “and to stop comparing Australian chenin to the Loire Valley. We are extremely different here, and there are a lot of those grippy textural wines that you want to drink outside in Australia. I’m surprised how many chenins we got to taste today, so imagine five- or 10-years’ time… it’s quiet exciting.”

“The fact that we’re now experiencing really high-quality chenin from the Loire and also a little bit from South Africa is only going to do good things for Australian chenin,” said McIntyre, “and we’ll hopefully get people in cooler climates to plant it. I think people haven’t planted it because it has been deeply unfashionable in Australia, and it has been for a long time. I think we’re just getting started to take chenin blanc seriously, and that’s partly down to grape-growers and winemakers, it’s partly down to consumers, it’s partly down to those of us who sell the stuff. As a variety, it’s a bit hard to pinpoint. I mean, we’re just getting our head around pinot gris!”

Pierre Stock, Loic Avril and Kayleen Reynolds. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

The Panel

Kate McIntyre MW is the Marketing and Business Development Manager of Moorooduc Estate, her family’s winery on the Mornington Peninsula. After an early foray into studying languages and the theatre, McIntyre was drawn into the world of wine, joining the parent’s estate in 2004 while studying for wine’s most gruelling qualification, becoming a Master of Wine in 2010. McIntyre also works broadly as an educator, writer, communicator and wine judge.

Ben Ranken is the owner, viticulturist and winemaker of Wilimee, home to some of the oldest vines in the Macedon Ranges. He farms chardonnay and pinot noir, making wines under his own label as well as selling fruit to some of the region’s brightest lights. He has plans to plant chenin blanc when time allows. Ranken is also the Vineyard Manager and Winemaker for Macedon’s Mount Monument in Romsey.

Isabelle Szyman worked as a sommelier at the City Wine Shop and Carlton Wine Room before taking up a role at Rathdowne Cellars in mid-2020. She has a WSET Level 3 qualification, is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently undertaking the French Wine Scholar program.

Loic Avril is the Beverage Director for LUCAS Restaurants (Kisumé, Chin Chin, Baby etc.). Avril hails from Tours, in the Loire Valley, but has spent much of his career working abroad. After apprenticing at the Michelin starred Le Grand Monarque and Anne de Bretagne, Avril worked with the legendary Gerard Basset, before moving to The Fat Duck in Bray, where he worked as the Assistant Head Sommelier until moving to Australia for the temporary relocation of The Fat Duck. He was then the Director of Wine for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal for its entire tenure in Melbourne. He has won countless accolades, including Best Young Sommelier in the World, the UK and France.

Kayleen Reynolds is the manager of the City Wine Shop, in Melbourne (the inaugural Wineslinger winner). She has worked harvests both here and in New Zealand, and is also a budding wine judge, including as an associate at the National Wine Show, and at Sommelier Australia Scholarships. She is currently a WSET Diploma student.

Pierre Stock has worked extensively in Australia and Europe as a restaurant manager, waiter and sommelier, including at the iconic three-Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse and London’s much-loved Racine and La Caprice. In Melbourne, before almost a decade working as a sommelier and curating the wine list at South Yarra’s legendary France-Soir, Stock was the restaurant manager and event director at Pearl and Vue de Monde respectively. He is also a co-owner and director of France-Soir Wine Selections, the importing, wholesale and retail arm of the restaurant.

Natasha Johns has worked in the wine industry for over 15 years, primarily in sales and marketing roles, and most recently as the Brand Manager for iconic labels Shaw + Smith and Tolpuddle. She is the owner/director of Primavera Selections, a key importer of Italian wine, while also consulting on restaurant wine lists. Johns is a holder of the prestigious WSET Diploma.

Anthony Pieri made his way through university in the United States working in restaurants with progressively detailed wine lists, ultimately passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam to become a Level 2 Certified Sommelier. Working vintages in New Zealand and Spain, Pieri eventually settling in Melbourne to work for such names as Shannon Bennett and Jacques Reymond. He is currently Head Sommelier at Dan Hunter’s Brae. He is also a French Wine Scholar and is a current Master of Wine student.