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Chenin Blanc: Multiple uses for Chenin Blanc 
at Churchview

A view across the Churchview Vineyard

By Ray Fokkema, Managing Director, Churchview, Margaret River, Western Australia
Churchview’s 2018 St Johns Chenin Blanc received a silver medal at last year’s Margaret River Wine Show so we asked managing director Ray Fokkema to tell us his winery’s story in producing this variety.

Chenin Blanc originates in the Loire Valley region of France and is classified as one of the 18 noble grape varieties. However, ask the average consumer on the eastern seaboard of Australia about Chenin Blanc and most have not he it. I mention the eastern seaboard as opposed to the western as in Western Australia Chenin Blanc has had a long history. Potentially high yielding in warm climates with an ability to retain good acid levels made it an ideal variety for the early wine industry of Western Australia in the warm to hot Swan Valley; Chenin Blanc is still one of the larger plantings in the Swan district region.

Being born and bred West Aussies Chenin Blanc was well known to us. When we started planting our vineyard in 1999 we had our land mapped out according to soil types. We were looking to see what varieties suited the differing soil types on our 100ha block. Our vineyard has two valleys and corresponding ridge lines and the soils range from gravelly loams to quartz and laterite and then to sandy soils over clays and ironstone at depth.

Being in Margaret River we planted the majority of the vineyard to the classical varieties that have a record for performing well in the local climate. We planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz as the major varieties.

However we had one corner of the block that sloped away to the northeast and was fairly sandy compared to the rest our block. It was a 5ha area and we wanted a variety with a strong root system to get down to the underlying clays and ironstone. Chenin was a variety that appealed to us; it could be vigorous to over vigorous if planted in highly fertile sites, but this site was going to make it work a bit.

In spring 2003 Chenin Blanc rootlings were planted at 2m spacings. The vines are pruned and trained using a Smart Dyson system where we split half the canopy up and half down. There are five foliage wires; four wires are used for the vertically-positioned shoots with one pin-down wire for the downward positioned shoots. This was done to manage the vigorous nature of Chenin Blanc and to expose as many leaves to the sunlight as possible. It also thins out the canopy depth to allow good airflow and spray penetration.
The canopy is trimmed to a height of 2m and closely trimmed on the eastern or morning side to allow as much morning sun exposure without having to leaf pluck; the western or afternoon side of the vines are left with a couple of leaves covering the fruit to protect the fruit from the afternoon sun. While Chenin Blanc is still quite vigorous on this site it is quite manageable and now that the vines are well established they only require watering in the hotter or drier years.

Yield wise Chenin Blanc is one of our larger yielders; one year it cropped 14t/ha while in other years it has been down to 10t/ha. We have found that on this site the vines will quite happily handle 12t/ha. Chenin Blanc is reasonably susceptible to both powdery mildew and botrytis so a tight spray program is required. Our vineyard is certified organic so our sprays are primarily sulfur with some early copper sprays. We also use Trichoderma products for controlling botrytis and use fish, seaweed and potassium humates for nutrition.
We make three different wines from our Chenin Blanc: a sparkling (St Johns Vintage Brut), an easy drinking, stainless steel-fermented, just off dry table wine (Silverleaf Chenin Blanc) and an oak-fermented style (St Johns Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc).

When making picking decisions for the St Johns sparkling we are looking for flavours somewhere between Granny Smith and the sweeter Pink Lady apple, whilst maintaining crunchy acidity. The fruit is gently crushed and only about 400 litres per tonne is taken. As soon as the crush needs any mechanical assistance we stop; we use only the free run juice. The fermentation process is activated naturally with wild yeast; there is no inoculation. Half the wine is put into French oak barrels and the other half fermented in tanks. There are plenty of solids in the wine including lees; this adds the all-important texture to this wine. Although the majority of the wine is from one vintage we do use some back vintage wines that have been held in barrel to give it our distinctive ‘house’ style. After the simple and clean ferment the wine is bottled for its secondary fermentation; after 60 months the wine is riddled and disgorged ready for the market.

With the St Johns Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc we hand pick the fruit; here we are looking for just-ripe pear characters. We run a small picking team so the fruit is carefully graded in the vineyard as we only want clean fruit that has had some exposure to the morning sun. This mean the pickers only work one side of the vines and just pick the bunches that are perfectly exposed. The remaining fruit is machine harvested for other ranges.

The fruit is then whole bunch pressed with the juice going straight into French oak puncheons comprising a mix of ages from new to four years old. There is no inoculation; we rely purely on the indigenous yeast from the vineyard. We also have a few barrels in which we put whole bunches to add to the mouthfeel and depth of palate. The wine is allowed to naturally ferment and then mature on lees and skin for 10 months before assembling for bottling. No fining agents are used and the wine is minimally filtered. This wine has a great line of acidity and complexity in both bouquet and palate. It will happily cellar for at least 10 years in which it will develop great artefact characters.

The Silverleaf Chenin is an easy drinking style of wine and we are looking for Red Delicious apple and ripe pear characters. So, generally this is the last pick of the Chenin Blanc. We machine harvest early in the morning. The fruit is pressed, cold settled and inoculated for a cool ferment to retain freshness and the delicate aromatics. This is generally bottled in July-August for release onto the market. So, from a winery and business perspective this is a nice product to make. Like all Chenin Blancs it does have a good shelf life and, although not specifically made to age like our St Johns Chenin Blanc, it does not lose its appeal like a Sauvignon Blanc blend does after 18 months. We sell this product predominately in Western Australia as the market knows this style. We just need the rest of Australia to realise how good Chenin Blancs 
can be!

 

Chenin Blanc

By Peter Dry, Emeritus Fellow, 
The Australian Wine Research Institute

Background

Chenin Blanc (shennin blonk) is an old variety that has been known in the Loire since at least the 15thcentury — some sources claim as early as the 9th century. DNA analysis has shown that Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are likely siblings (offspring of Savagnin Blanc and an unknown parent). Synonyms include Agudelo, Agudillo (Spain), Anjou, Blanc d’Aunis, Gros Pineau, Ronchalin (France) and Steen (South Africa). The global area was 35,164ha in 2010, down 23% since 2000, with most of the decrease outside of France. South Africa has the largest area (53% of global), followed by France (28%) and USA (9%).
In South Africa, it is grown in every region and used for many wine types. High quality table wines from old bush vines are well regarded. In France, Chenin Blanc is mainly grown in the central Loire Valley where it produces a wide range of styles. It is the base of many sparkling wines; for example, Cremant de Loire and others from Saumur and Vouvray. It is also used for late-picked sweet wines. Chenin is rare in the rest of France except in the south in Limoux (Languedoc) where it is a required component (20 to 40%) of the blend for Cremant de Limoux (with Chardonnay, Mauzac Blanc and 
Pinot Noir).
California had 2923ha in 2010 (more than halved since 2000), mainly in the central valley counties of Fresno, Madera and Kern. Higher quality wines are produced from lower yielding vineyards in northern California. South America has limited plantings except in Argentina where it is mainly grown in Mendoza and usually blended with other varieties such as Chardonnay.
In Australia there were 520ha in 2012 (mainly Riverland, Swan Districts and Margaret River) and at least 140 wine producers. Until the 1970s, all Chenin Blanc in Western Australia and the Barossa Valley was incorrectly known as Semillon and Albillo/Sherry, respectively.

Viticulture

Budburst is early and maturity is mid-season. Vigour is high with semi-erect growth habit. Bunches are medium, well-filled to compact with small berries. Yield is high. Spur pruning is used in Australia. It is susceptible to oidium (powdery mildew) but more tolerant of downy mildew. Bunches are very susceptible to bunch rot. There are at least 12 clones available in Australia, approximately half of which are 
local selections.

Wine

Chenin Blanc is a very versatile variety used for many wine styles from sparkling to fortified. Its high natural acidity is said to confer good ageing potential. Very often it is used as a workhorse variety, producing relatively neutral wines for blended commercial styles. However, at its best, as a dry table wine, it can be crisp and flavoursome when young and complex with age. Descriptors include herbal, floral, green apple, melon and tropical fruit; and with age, almond, marzipan and honey.