Tired of Chardonnay, but love finding peach, apple or pear in a wine glass? Chenin Blanc may be just the ticket. A real chameleon grape, Chenin Blanc thrives in France's Loire Valley, where it is made dry, off-dry, dessert-style sweet, and even sparkling.
Flavors and aromas: No matter what the style—sec (dry), demi-sec (off-dry), or crémant (sparkling)—this fragrant wine's floral, apple, pear, and peach characters comes through because there's no oak to get in the way. It's a little sweet, yes—but especially in the Vouvray growing region, the trick with this wine is that the underlying zing has a way of turning the sweetness into pure fruit.
Color: Pale yellow/gold.
Prominent plantings: Vouvray, France is the best-known appellation (growing region). Other French versions that reach our shelves include the sparkling Crémant de Loire; minerally, bone-dry Savennières; and two sweet, but still zippy, dessert wines: Côteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume.
In South Africa, Chenin is called Steen, and bottlings that reach our shelves are usually crisp, dry bargains. Simonsig and Nederburg are reliable producers.
Pairing with food: Like so many traditional French wines, Vouvray nearly always tastes better with food, particularly shrimp and fish.
Insider tip: California Chenin Blanc is rarely grown for varietal bottlings. In fact, Chenin has long been an under-the-radar blending partner with Chardonnay (when composing less than a quarter of the blend, the wine can still be labeled Chardonnay). A noteworthy exception is from Vinum Cellars, whose bottling is wittily labeled CNW Cuvée, as in "Chard No Way."