When Decanter magazine produced a list of '100 wines to try before you die', hidden among the usual suspects of top Bordeaux and Burgundy labels was the 1947 Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Moelleux Vouvray. The wine is a chenin blanc, a variety that will not jump to most drinkers' minds when selecting a white wine.
In France, chenin blanc is grown in the Loire River Valley; the district of Savennieres produces mainly dry wines, while Vouvray has a diversity of styles from dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling wines. Coteaux du Layon and its subdistrict of Bonnezeaux are known for their rich dessert wines made from late-harvested grapes infected with 'noble rot' (Botrytis cinerea).
South Africa, with its large area under vines, springs to mind as a producer of chenin blancs. The grape, locally known as steen, accounts for 18 per cent of all vines planted, more than chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. California's Central Valley is also home to significant plantings, and there the grape is the base for the 'cheap and cheerful jug wines'.
In New Zealand, a few boutique producers are making high-quality chenin blanc akin to the French style, but neither there nor in Australia is the grape a major variety.
For winemakers, chenin blanc is a blank canvas - the perfect variety for expressing the origin and climate in which the grape is grown, with techniques emphasising the wine's purity and terroir. Generally, winemakers avoid accenting the wine with wood as it can overpower its fruit flavour.
These are not wines that will go through secondary fermentation as this would destroy their crisp acidity - an acidity that means the wines can age for several decades. As the wine matures, it develops a deep, golden hue and the flavours evolve to take on increasingly honeyed and nutty notes.
As a blank canvas, the grape can produce wines that range from the dry to semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling. Examples from cooler climates have flavours of green apples and floral and mineral notes, with perhaps a touch of lanolin - often described as wet wool. (Imagine the smell of your jumper when it gets wet.)
Chenin blancs from warmer climates, however, such as South Africa, will have fruit forward styles with flavours of tropical fruit such as pineapple, passion fruit and melon. On the palate the wine is medium bodied with a naturally high acidity, an acidity that makes it a favoured variety in warmer regions. The acidity also highlights the fruit flavours and makes the wine more refreshing to drink. Semi-sweet wines such as Bonnezeaux from the Loire are honeyed, marmalade and multilayered in texture.
One of the challenges of drinking chenin blanc is the difficulty of finding good examples in Hong Kong, as the wine does not feature very highly on restaurant lists or on supermarket shelves. For lovers of these wines, a few treasures may be found in specialist wine shops.
Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc 2009, South Africa, HK$105, altayawines.com
Milton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2008, New Zealand, HK$134, winenthingshk.com
Domaine Huet Vouvray, Moelleux, Le Clos du Bourg 1ere Trie 2008, France, HK$558, Watsons Wine Cellar