Chenin Blanc has history. The late French ampelographer Pierre Galet suggests a ninth century origin for Chenin Blanc, which travelled from Burgundy to the department of Touraine in the late fifteenth century. In1496, several grape varieties were introduced in the Touraine from the Burgundy regions of Beaune, Arbis and Orleans by Thomas Bohier, a prominent winemaker who purchased land near Chenonceaux. A variety called Plant d’Anjou was planted on a newly purchased vineyard near a monastery at Montchanin. Chenin is so named because of its coming to prominence there. Chenin Blanc’s DNA analysis in 1999 indicates a genetic relationship with Trousseau and Sauvignon Blanc.
California Chenin Blanc Timeline
Chenin Blanc planted at Chalone Vineyards in Monterey County. Predating Prohibition, this is one of the oldest Chenin Blanc sites in California and was added into the list of heritage vineyards by the state’s Historic Vineyard Society (HVS). To qualify for a HVS listing, vines must be still in production, with at least one-third dating back to the original planting date, which must be no later than 1960.
UC Davis registers its first Chenin Blanc clone (01) from location K125v2 in the vineyard of the Department of Viticulture & Enology on the UC Davis campus. Chenin Blanc 01 received no treatment and successfully completed basic index testing in 1956, after which it was incorporated into the foundation grapevine collection.
18,211 ha (45,000 acres) of Chenin Blanc planted in California by this time.
Early 1990s: Charles Krug winery in Napa selling over 100,000 cases a year of Chenin Blanc. The grape emerged as a varietal wine in the late 1950s/early 1960s, largely because of the winery’s immensely popular interpretation.
Over 300,000 tons crushed during the grape’s peak popularity, mostly in the Central Valley. Chenin is prized for its acidity and used as an inexpensive blending grape in bulk wine for that purpose.
French clone Chenin Blanc 982, ENTAV is entered into the UC Davis FPS (Foundation Plant Services). It originated from the Maine-et-Loire department in west-central France, in the Pays de la Loire.
Chenin Blanc plantings stood at 4,265 acres (4,172 bearing and 94 non-bearing acres), i.e. 1,725.98 hectares (1,688.35 bearing and 38.04 non-bearing hectares) through year-end 2020, representing 0.0091% of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.
If you went for a stroll in the vineyards of Napa Valley in the early 1970s, what would you expect to see among the most common grape varieties? Cabernet Sauvignon? Chardonnay? Merlot? The correct answer may surprise you, but there was indeed a time when Chenin Blanc was one of the most planted varieties in the Napa Valley. Really. In fact, there was more of it in California at one point than in its ancestral home in France’s Loire Valley! The variety did not appear significantly in California until after World War II when some North Coast wineries acquired vines from the collection at UC Davis for premium table wine production. Acreage expanded rapidly in the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and has since declined. In 1980, there were some 12,950 ha (32,000 acres) of Chenin Blanc planted in California; by 2020 that had fallen to fewer than 2,024 ha (5,000 acres).
The truth is that most of the Chenin produced back then was used as a cheap blender in jug wines, and as fashion changed, it was pulled out and budded over for more chic and profitable varieties. It was popular then for the same reason it is coming back into style now; it has an ability to retain acidity through the arduous heat of a California summer and provides a shapeshifting nature that fits a variety of wine styles.