Chenin Blanc vs. Sauvignon Blanc – a battle royale? [poll]

french_whitesOver on, I just contributed a short piece about the wines of Vouvray. Almost entirely, the wines of Vouvray are from the Chenin Blanc grape and Vouvray is in many ways the apogee of Chenin Blanc. The wines from this 5,000 acre appellation can be very rewarding, as a sparkling wine or dry, off-dry, and sweet. Moreover, the best examples are extremely age-worthy and global warming has made them more accessible in their youth.

My thoughts drifted to regional rival, Suavignon Blanc, which is considered one of the three “noble” white grapes (Riesling and Chardonnay are the others). I’ve never really cottoned to the whole aristocratic anthropomorphism for grape varieties but if I were drawing it up today, I’d prepare Sauvignon for a defenestration in favor of Chenin. Let’s measure it up:

Multiple expressions (sparkling to sweet)? Chenin has the edge
Age-worthy? Chenin
Multiple layers of complexity in the glass? Chenin
The top examples of each? Chenin has the edge
More accessible when young? Sauvignon
More popular? Sauvignon
Ability to be planted more widely? Sauvignon

Have your say in the latest poll! (note: selecting two responses is possible)

Should Chenin Blanc replace Sauvignon Blanc in the royal grape palace?

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27 Responses to “Chenin Blanc vs. Sauvignon Blanc – a battle royale? [poll]”

  1. Muscadet first, now Chenin. What’s next? Are you going to popularize Romorantin?

  2. I don’t think that the civil case of Chenin vs. Sauvignon Blanc should be decided by popular vote. Since the ruling would have profound socio-economic ramifications, it should be decided locally by a Court of Loire. Perhaps by an appellate jurisdiction in the Haute-Loire départment.

  3. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are both wonderful varietals. I wouldn’t pit one against the other. I personally would just recommend–and drink–both of them and ignore the nobility categorizations.

  4. Two somewhat contradictory thoughts:

    1. Thinking of varietals (or even regions/appellations) in terms of hierarchy really limits consumer’s approach to wines. We should consider varietals (or regions) in there variety, and more horizontally.

    2. I have always considered the white grape nobility to be Riesling, Chard, and Chenin. I see no contest.

  5. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heavan…and also every man should eat & drink and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God”

    Ecclesiastes 3;1-13.

  6. “And global warming has made them more accessible in there youth”. Huh?

  7. Unsurprisingly I think the vote has already been cast … in the marketplace. And you know who won!

    That said, I am very interested in how the Chenin Blanc vs Sauvignon Blanc debate will be resolved in South Africa, where CB has held the upper hand until recently and where the quality of both is on the rise.

  8. I agree with Sharon. They both have a place at my table… along with a whole lot of other varietals (noble and not-so-noble).

  9. If we’re talking about noble white varieties, let’s not forget Gewurztraminer. Talk about the potential for aging with the greatest bottlings of this variety from Alsace!

  10. Underdogs are always more exciting anyway.

  11. Tough one… You address the confusion issue, but seriously, Vouvray is one of the broadest AOCs in terms of sweetness and body. Every time I purchase a Chenin Blanc (from anywhere in the world) it’s a bit of a gamble. This mystery is fun for a lunchtime glass of white, but less so for a dinner party. These factors make it really difficult to recommend CB to someone.

    Frankly I’d argue for something more daring: Sauvignon Blanc over Chardonnay. While staying in the dry category, it is absolutely amazing what California is doing with SB these days, from crisp and acidic to smooth and buttery, even dark and mellow like an aged kosher SB I tried.

  12. In case your readers are missing the trend, it is clear New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has hit a wall recently. The press have been surprisingly keen to talk it down and the huge recent vintages have not helped with a lot of discounting and a proliferation of brands going on. Recent press comments range from “a drink for young ladies only” to “good for cleaning floors”. If any trend is going to do SavBlanc in it will be the New Zealand connection. And really why feel sorry, they have got away for years passing off the NZ style of SB as something special when frankly it was all you could get from uneven berry set in those cool NZ growing conditions.

  13. The whole nobility thing is more than little tired. The idea of the big six grapes – Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cab. Sauvignon and Merlot – is a barbaric Anglo-American idea teetering on irrelevance. It consists entirely of French and German varieties as if the rest of the grape world did not exist. Defenestrate it, throw it under the bus, etc.

    Still, if there is any variety truly worthy of advancement, it is Falanghina. This would actually be more of a restoration as Falanghina was the grape used in the acclaimed ancient Roman wine Falernum.

  14. First: I voted for throwing the whole “noble grape” business out.

    That said, Didier Dagueneau was SB’s greatest advocate for nobility, and he’s gone now. To the best of my knowledge, there is no SB equivalent to Savennières–and if that isn’t “noble” then nothing is.

  15. Hi, Wow am I bummed that I missed this pole when it was active! As a passionate South African wine lover (and full disclosure – salesmen) I 100% think this grape needs more recognition. If this comes from getting classifies as noble, great, if it comes from more discussions like this, even better. 50% of all Chenin Blanc vines are planted in South Africa. 15-20% of all vines in South Africa are Chenin – many old vine. Bruwer Raats makes incredible chenin blanc, as does the De Morgenzon Estate. This is a grape that South Africa can hang its hat on. Not Pinotage (other than Kanonkop). Chenin Blanc is the perfect wine – fruit like chard, acid like SB and a minerality all its own.

  16. For Sharon and Kelkeagy – hopefully your choice was represented in the poll? Throw the whole “noble” grape thing out?

    Steve – provocative with the Falanghina play! Do elaborate on your experiences!

    @Sam – the poll is still active. It works for me in Firefox, Safari and IE 8. Perhaps try another browser? Or perhaps someone in your office already voted (only one vote per IP address)?

  17. Can’t both hold “noble” status or is there something I’m missing here?

  18. I don’t know that the top example category should go to Chenin. Perhaps I need more exposure to the top Loire properly aged Chenins, but Bordeaux Blanc – albeit mixed with Semillon at times – present some compelling examples. Chenin can be a much more amorphous, perplexing, mysterious type of wine, I think, and that inconsistency can be troubling. But really I do like both.

    Of course the nobility bit is silly, and if you really wanted six you’d have to out both of these in favor of nebbiolo, and sangiovese would need a hearing as well. But that is silliness anyway.

  19. For the record, Michael Broadbent’s “noble” grape varieties are:

    Cabernet Sauvignon
    Chenin Blanc
    Pinot Noir
    Sauvignon Blanc

    (yes, the punishingly acidic Sercial makes the list!)

  20. It depends on my mood and what food I am eating which I prefer, but for pure sipping pleasure I think its Chenin Blanc hands down.

  21. @Michael – but isn’t that the Semillion talking? I was thinking straight up SB.

    @Steve – funny Broadbent casts such a wide net as to include Sercial, not often seen in a dry wine!

    So that becomes the key question then: expand the noble class or abolish it?

  22. Broadbent is allowed, he’s English. And they have long had a love affair with Madieras the age of centenarian grandmothers.

    Here’s the Ewing-Mulligan Wine for Dummies list of nobles and their reasoning for such:

    “Noble grape varieties have the potential to make great –not just good– wine. Every noble grape can claim at least one region where it’s the undisputed king. The wines made from noble grapes on their home turf can be so great that they inspire winemakers in far-flung regions to grow the same grape in their own vineyards.”

    Classic noble grapes at their best:
    Chardonnay in Burgundy France
    Chenin blanc in the Loire France
    Riesling in Mosel Rheingau Germany
    Pinot noir in Burgundy France
    Cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux France
    Syrah in northern Rhone France
    Nebbiolo in Piedmont Italy
    Sangiovese in Tuscany Italy

    sad for Sauvignon blanc, merlot, muscat, etc.

    I tend to agree with this. I love Sauvignon blanc, but Chenin blanc does everything so much more esquisitely, and the food choices are much more vast because of Chenin’s ability to show tempered acids and still have the brightness to cleanse the palate. I disagree that Chenin blanc takes a second seat in youthful drinking. Vouvray is great young. But Savennières has no equal throughout the world of wine.

  23. While we’re discussing the merits of Sauvignon Blanc, it’s interesting to note that no one has mentioned those of Chile. This has been one of the most exciting developments in the wine world as of late. Even the simple $8-$10 offerings have wonderful varietal character, but jump to the bottlings from coastal San Antonio and Leyda Valleys and you have some of the most vibrant examples of the grape made anywhere in the world.

    Brilliant wines from producers here such as Casa Marin, Amayna, Leyda and Matetic – some intensely fruity (pink grapefruit, lime), others more assertive (asparagus, gooseberry, hay), but whatever the style, truly special! (and most made with no oak). These are in the $20-$35 range and are among the finest Sauvignon Blancs made anywhere.

  24. Bob –

    Great to invoke their hierarchy. Nice list.

  25. Thnx Dr.
    I wanted to drop in Concord but couldn’t decide which is the most classic region – NY, MI, IL, OH – maybe time for a taste-off here.

  26. […] this site, we love exotic food-wine pairings. And we often talk about grapes beyond the “big six.” So it should come as no surprise that I am a fan of Evan Goldstein’s new book, Daring […]

  27. Chenin Blanc is becoming almost impossible to find in Austin. One of the markets didn’t even carry any wine from Vouvray and only one Chenin Blanc (and that, from the Hill Country of Texas and almost cloyingly sweet, with hints of insecticide).

    To my taste, Chenin Blan makes both the best and the worst of the two, with Sauvignon Blanc always somewhere in the middle.


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