Chenin in the Loire Valley

Chenin in the Loire Valley

Fan of chenin since the Middle Ages, the Loire Valley now claims the status of 1st Chenin Fan Zone in the world! Indeed, whether they are winegrowers, merchants, historians, ampelographers, chefs, sommeliers, wine merchants, journalists or simple amateurs, all consider that Chenin is the signature, emblematic, identity or even heritage white grape variety of this region.

This pride actually illustrates a real "revival " or return to grace of Chenin along the Loire. After several decades of questioning the place to be given back to this grape variety, the Loire Valley finally sounds the general mobilization in 2019: a marketing strategy is put in place, an International Congress of Chenin Blanc is organized, in short, a dynamic is initiated, first in the region then beyond.

A historic grape variety

  • Romantic beginnings

Chenin d'aujourd'huiIt was Renaissance literature that first popularized and celebrated Chenin. Indeed, the expression " raisins chenins " appeared in 1534 in Gargantua, a novel by François RABELAIS, a writer from the Loire Valley.

However, it is clear that from 1400 to 1800 this term is almost absent from scholarly bibliography. The Chenin grape variety does exist but under 2 other denominations, those of Pineau and Plant d'Anjou, then the best known and widespread in the Loire Valley. As early as 1523, the Anjou plant was mentioned in the Château de Chenonceau vineyard. In the 18th century, however, the term Pineau ended up supplanting it.

It was not until the years 1850-1900 that Chenin replaced Pineau (from the Loire) in the terminology of ampelographers, and this to avoid any confusion with that of Burgundy..
Until that time, the word Chenin only seemed to be present in the technical-vernacular language of certain winegrowers in the Loire Valley, mainly in the vineyards of Thouars, Chinon and Saumur.

  • A still mysterious etymology

The origin of the word Chenin remains hypothetical. Since the 19th century, 4 explanations have been proposed by historians, ampelographers or linguist lexicographers. So it would come from: 

  • « Caninus ", Latin word that literally means "canine " (or dog) and which in this case could designate a rustic grape; this explanation was put forward by the ampelographer Louis LEVADOUX in 1956, then taken up over the past 20 years by the linguist lexicographer Pierre RÉZEAU;
  • « Chenu ", an adjective synonymous with musty which, by electing the letter e, gives a " meat ch'nu ", a " cheese ch'nu " etc However, the expression “raisins ch’nus” could explain that of "Chenin grapes" in Gargantua, knowing that at that time we appreciated the sweet wines made thanks to the noble rot of the grapes precisely; 
  • « Canus", Latin word meaning gray-white, which would have given " chenu " then “Chenin” according to the ampelographers ESMANGART and JOUANNEAU in 1823;
  • « Montchenin ", which is the name of a dependency of the monastery of Cormery in Touraine; or, during the second half of the 19th century, it was considered that the Chenin had been planted there and therefore that its name would come from this place; this account was reported and amplified by the historian Alfred BOUCHARD in the work entitled Ampelography and published in 1901 by VIALA and VERMOREL.

The only certainty to date: Chenin is not a place name. The “Montchenin” hypothesis is even described as whimsical by Henri GALINIÉ, historian, specialist in Loire grape varieties. As for the hypothesis " chenu ", an old adjective probably originating from the former Province of Poitou, the research carried out since 2019 by the University of Tours does not make it possible to confirm it, to the point undoubtedly of having to give up.

  • Many synonyms

The fruit of a long history, Chenin has nearly 60 synonyms in France and abroad, 40% of which are in the Loire Valley.

Ligerian synonyms are as follows:

Anjou, Blanc d'Anjou, Blanc Emery, Blanc Macé, Blanc Massé, Confort, Gros Chenin, Gros Pineau, Gros Pineau de Vouvray, Mançais Blanc, Pineau d'Anjou , Pineau de Briollay, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau de Savennières, Pineau de Vouvray, Pineau nantais, Pinot d'Anjou, Pinot de la Loire, Plant d'Anjou, Plant de Brézé, Plant de Maillé, Plant du Clair de Lune, Pointed from Savennières. 

In France, other synonyms exist, such as:

  • in the Centre: Péra, Verdurant;
  • in Charente-Maritime, Vendée: Aunis, Blanc d’Aunis, Bon Blanc, Franc Blanc, Franche, Gout-Fort;
  • in Corrèze, Gironde and Lot: Rajoulain, Ronchalin, Rouchalin, Rouchelin, Rougelin, Rousselin, Rouxalin, Rouzoulenc;
  • in Landes and Gers: Capbreton blanc, Cruchinet, Sable blanc, Tite de Crabe, Coué-Fort, Qué-Fort;
  • in Aveyron: white Pineau;
  • in the Gard: Lombard Ugne;
  • in the Var: Plant de Salès;
  • in Isère: Cugnette;
  • in Aube: white Giboudot.

Finally, abroad, nearly 10 synonyms are used:

  • in South Africa: Steen, Vaalblaar Stein;
  • in Argentina: Pineau vert, Pinot blanco;
  • in Australia: Albillo, Sherry;
  • in Bulgaria: Shanin;
  • in Spain (Galicia): Agudelo, Agudillo.
  • Parents finally identified

Chenin descends from Savagnin and probably from Sauvignonasse. These are the conclusions of molecular research carried out during the 2010s and led in particular by ampelographers Thierry LACOMBES and Jean-Michel BOURSICOT.

According to historians, Savagnin may have been introduced to the Loire Valley as early as the Middle Ages. Indeed, a transfer of plant material from the vineyards of eastern France (Jura and its surroundings) towards those of the West, is attested from the 11th century.
As for Sauvignonasse, its relationship with Chenin has yet to be confirmed. In France, this grape variety is also called Blanc Doux, Cinquien, Sauvignon Vert. In Italy, it is called Friulano, Tai or Tuchì to give just a few examples.

  • Preciously preserved old varieties 

In the Loire Valley, Chenin has a unique genetic conservatory in the world. Located in Montreuil-Bellay and managed by the French Institute of Vine and Wine, this experimental estate brings together and preserves 500 Chenins different, i.e. the widest intra-varietal diversity linked to this grape variety.

To achieve this, prospecting campaigns are carried out, with an inventory of old plots of Chenin along the Loire but also in South Africa, where this variety has existed since the 17th century. Several criteria are taken into account: production, vigor, fertility, ampelography, maturity, absence of disease, etc.

Thanks to this conservatory, the Montreuil-Bellay estate is now able to offer new clonal selections to meet current and future production constraints, such as frost and disease. The creation of a new variety is even in progress, and this by hybridization of Chenin blanc with parents resistant to powdery mildew, mildew, but also allowing later bud burst, less susceptibility to gray rot, while retaining the organoleptic characteristics of famous Chenin.

A trendy grape variety

  • An increasing planted area

In the Loire Valley, the area planted with Chenin is no longer decreasing and is even progressing again, with 9,615 ha in 2018, i.e. 10% more than in 2012. The trend is there and should continue due to a buoyant market for white wines. All Loire grape varieties combined, the share of Chenin is also increasing, now occupying 14.6% of the regional wine-growing area, against 13.1% in 2006. Finally, 93% of regional Chenin is found in 2 departments: Maine et Loire (55%) as well as Indre et Loire (38%).

However, after having been the king grape variety of the Loire Valley for centuries, Chenin is no longer on the podium of the most planted grape varieties in the region. It is positioned behind Cabernet Franc, Melon Burgundy and Sauvignon.

On the other hand, the Loire Valley retains its title of queen region of Chenin in France but also in the world. Indeed, the region concentrates 95% of the surfaces dedicated to this grape variety in France and even 30 % all countries combined.

  • A range of wines on the offensive

Each year, Chenin is equivalent in the Loire Valley to more than half a million hectoliters produced and 60 million bottles marketeds. The wines thus offered to the market are 60-65% fine bubbles, 25-30% dry or semi-dry whites and 10-15% sweet-sweet. This distribution reflects the evolution of demand since the 1960s. Indeed, the demand for bubbles has been growing and that for sweet and sweet has clearly decreased.

3/4 of sales of Chenin ligérien are made in France, of which 1/3 in supermarkets. Exports are very mainly linked to fine bubbles, of which 30% of volumes are purchased outside France. France, and even 50% in the case of Crémant de Loire alone. Finally, in the face of competition, Chenin du Val de Loire is positioned in particular and traditionally at the heart of the market, but is now accelerating its move upmarket.

In Chenin, the Loire Valley offers “festive” wines (fine bubbles, soft), “authentic” (dry whites) and even “mythical” (sweet, dry white), all of which are almost exclusively produced in AOP. However, each type of Chenin and each PDO concerned play a role in this triptych offer: with fine bubbles and sweetness to open up certain markets, especially for export, and to win back new consumers; dry whites to express the diversity of the terroirs; and finally sweet wines and certain dry whites to make great connoisseurs dream.

  • Growing national and international demand

Market prospects are favorable for Chenin. In France, as in many other countries, demand for white wines is growing, still sparkling but now also non-sparkling, known as still wines.

However, Chenin remains much less known than other white grape varieties, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon. In the Loire region, it is used:

  • in mono-varietal by the appellations: Anjou Coteaux de la Loire, Bonnezeaux, Chinon, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, Coteaux du Layon villages, Coteaux du Layon 1 er cru Chaume, Coteaux de Saumur, Coulée de Serrant, Coteaux du Loir, Jasnières, Quarts de Chaume grand cru, Montlouis, Saumur, Savennières, Savennières Roche aux Moines, Touraine Amboise, Touraine Azay le Rideau, Vouvray
  • in main grape variety by appellations: Anjou, Crémant de Loire, Coteaux du Vendômois, Fiefs Vendéens, Saumur fines Bulles, Touraine Mesland,
    In this context, the Loire Valley relies on the uniqueness of Chenin as an alternative offer in the world of white wines. Indeed, the demand for characterful, original, even rebellious whites is a trend and no longer a simple niche. Chenin is characterized by a significant acidity potential, which gives wines with a beautiful "freshness", often quite lively, nervous, and therefore suitable for aging. Its aromas include:
  • acacia, hawthorn, linden in terms (flower aromas),
  • quince, pear, mirabelle plum, citrus fruits, orange peel, guava (fruit aromas),
  • as well as honey and mild spices.

Finally, the Loire Valley intends to raise its dry Chenin to the forefront of great white wines. Indeed, oenologists and ampelographers consider that this grape variety reveals the terroirs but also the talents. But the Loire vineyards are not lacking…

  • A growing community of fans

n 2019, #FANDECHENIN has become in the Loire Valley the rallying sign of winegrowers, retailers and consumers passionate about this grape variety. Today, this community is no longer limited to the Loire borders but extends in France and even abroad.

In addition, the places allowing the purchase and/or tasting of Chenin are now visible or identifiable thanks to the concept of #CHENINFANZONE. At the end of 2022, their number reaches 1160 and covers 7 countries (Germany, England , Belgium, Spain, Italy, Lithuania).

Finally, a #CHENINFANWEEK is organized every June for the general public. On this occasion, hundreds of Chenin Fan Zones are mobilizing to discover wines made from the famous grape variety, which they are Loire or not, soft, syrupy, dry or effervescent.

  • An emerging wine tourism theme

The Chenin is an integral part of the landscapes of the Loire Valley. Its river vineyard is even partly included in the perimeter listed in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscapes of Chenin  Ligeria have been shaped by geology, a river, but also centuries-old uses and buildings, such as closeries or landscaped parks. Over time, this wine-growing landscape has become cultural, even emblematic of certain wine-growing AOPs in the region.

Today, Chenin du Val de Loire is part of a landscape ecology. Its aesthetic, harmonious, like its production ethics, increasingly respectful of the environment, tell the story of the relationship between winegrower with his place of nature, sometimes described as a real « garden vineyard ».

Gradually, Chenin is itself becoming a wine tourism theme in the Loire Valley. Hundreds of Chenin Fan Zones in the Loire are now the base and the initiative, among themselves but also with their territorial partners, communities and tourism stakeholders.