Chenin blanc (known also as Pineau de la Loire among other names), is a white wine grape variety from the Loire valley of France. Its high acidity means it can be used to make everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine's natural vigor is not controlled. Outside the Loire it is found in most of the New World wine regions; it is the most widely planted variety in South Africa, where it is also known as Steen.
The grape may have been one of the first to be grown in South Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655, or it may have come to that country with Huguenots fleeing France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Chenin Blanc was often misidentified in Australia as well, so tracing its early history in the country is not easy. It may have been introduced in James Busby's collection of 1832, but C. Waterhouse was growing Steen at Highercombe in Houghton, South Australia by 1862.
In Australia, Chenin blanc is mostly used as a blending variety often used with Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Semillon. Australia Chenin plantings can be found in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia as well as the Swan Valley and Margaret River area of Western Australia. Wine expert James Halliday describes the style of Australia Chenin blanc as "tutti-frutti" with pronounced fruit salad notes. However the wines produced in Western Australia have been garnering more critical attention. In New Zealand, acreage of the variety has fallen to just under 250 acres (100 ha) by 2004. Planted primarily in the North Island, some examples of New Zealand Chenin blanc have drawn favorable comparisons to the sweet dessert styles Chenin from the Loire Valley. Historically the grape has been used as a blending partner with Müller-Thurgau in mass produced blends. The success of some critically acclaimed New Zealand Chenin blanc has sparked interest in planting the variety however, as experts such as Oz Clarke have noted, as long as the value of New Zealand Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc stays high there is little economic reason to pursue premium Chenin blanc production.
It provides a fairly neutral palate for the expression of terroir, vintage variation and the winemaker's treatment. In cool areas the juice is sweet but high in acid with a body full-bodied fruity palate. In the unreliable summers of northern France, the acidity of under ripen grapes was often masked with chaptalization with unsatisfactory results, whereas now the less ripe grapes are made into popular sparkling wines such as Crémant de Loire. The white wines of the Anjou AOC are perhaps the best expression of Chenin as a dry wine, with flavors of quince and apples. In nearby Vouvray AOC they aim for an off-dry style, developing honey and floral characteristics with age. In the best vintages the grapes can be left on the vines to develop noble rot, producing an intense, viscous dessert wine which may improve considerably with age.