The history of Chenin Blanc
We don’t know its exact origin, but its first reference under the name of “ plant d’Anjou”, was in an essay written by Charles le Chauve in 845, stipulating he gave it to Saint-Maur de Glanfeuil Abbey, in the Loire Valley, France. The variety was renamed Chenin Blanc, after Mont Chenin, in the 15th century soon after being exported to the Touraine region in the Loire Valley.
Chenin Blanc also has a long and interesting history in South Africa and is believed to be amongst the first vine cuttings that arrived here in 1655 during the time of Governor Jan van Riebeeck. Early documents refer to three varieties: Groendruif (Semillon), Fransdruif and Steen.
Under the watchful eye of Jan van Riebeeck, on 2 February, 1659 the first grapes from three young vines were pressed, and produced fourteen and a half litres of wine. The grape varieties were named as steendruif, now known to be Chenin blanc, and hanepoot, or Muscat d’Alexandrie then called Spaanse druiven, or Spanish grapes.
The monasteries played a vital role in developing the Anjou-Saumur vineyards, as each had its own enclosed plot of vines. When Henry II became King of England in 1154, the royal court started to serve Anjou wines, as Henry became Count of Anjou and Maine upon the death of his father. As a result, the vineyards increased during the 16th and 17th centuries from their first location on the banks of the Loire.
The arrival of the French Huguenots in 1688, in exile after the Edit de Nantes Revocation, marked a turning point for the wine industry bringing with them generations of experience of wine making. Their contribution was fundamental to the improvement in quality of the grapes and wine.
The Australian Wine Industry was launched in Western Australia when the English botanist, Thomas Waters, planted Chenin Blanc vine cuttings from South Africa in the Swan Valley in 1829 and the following year dug the cellar of Olive Farm, Australia’s oldest winery.
Early opinion had it that Steen was of Germanic origin, supported by the evidence of a handwritten note, by Governor Simon van der Stel, on wine quality, that mentioned that wine made from Steen was comparable to quality German Stein wines. This saw the introduction of the Germanic spelling 'Stein'. In 1963, the then Head of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor C.J Orffer, matched Steen and Chenin Blanc leaves and finally pronounced Steen, Chenin Blanc.
Chenin Blanc in South Africa emerged as the favourite of local grape growers as it thrived at the Cape. It was easy to grow, disease and wind resistant and generated high yields. By the 1950’s it was by far the most widely planted grape in the Cape and each farm reserved their best vineyard sites for Chenin Blanc.
1964 saw the crowning of the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery brand, Lieberstein the world’s largest-selling white wine with 31 million litres, made almost entirely of Chenin with varying additions of other white wines. At a different level, but just as spectacular, Nederburg Edelkeur, a Chenin Blanc Noble Late Harvest, provided ample evidence of the quality that Chenin Blanc can deliver.
By 1988, Chenin accounted for 33.2% of the national vineyard in terms of the area covered and probably higher than that in terms of volume of wine produced. High yields and overproduction led to it being declared the workhorse of the SA wine industry, used at the base wine in the distillation of brandy. Since then Chenin has become the most widely uprooted variety each year, with the area under Chenin now a stable 18% of South African plantings. It remains the most widely planted variety in South Africa.
In 2000 the Chenin Blanc Association was formed, with two main goals, namely to promote research specifically aimed at improving the quality of Chenin Blanc both in the vineyard and in the cellar with a change to production of quality grapes instead of the previous emphasis on volume production. Secondly to identify valuable old vineyards and to prevent their uprooting as far as possible. The 10 oldest Chenin Vineyards were identified and celebrated.
2010 onwards has seen a new focus by South African winemakers to produce quality Chenin Blanc.
The inaugural Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge took place in 2014. Its purpose is to identify and reward top Chenin winemaking in the country. The organisers and sponsors recognise how important farm workers are to producing these winning wines. That's why every year a cash prize goes to every one of the top ten producers with the condition that the money is spent on projects to uplift or upskill farm workers, their families and their communities.
The Chenin Blanc International Congress (CBIC) was the first-ever congress brought together by the two largest Chenin regions in the world, South Africa and the Loire and was held at the Jean Monnier Congress Centre in Angers in July 2019. Stellenbosch, South Africa will host the second congress in November 2022.