Will the Old be New Again?
Jancis Robinson, widely acknowledged as a leading authority on wine grapes, calls Chenin Blanc “probably the world’s most versatile grape variety.” It seems strange then that its qualities and potential are not more widely appreciated. Perhaps part of the problem is that the grape’s strengths can also be its weaknesses. This has been especially true in the New World, no more so than in South Africa, where it was traditionally known as “Steen.” The grape’s long history in South Africa likely began with the arrival in the 1600s of Huguenot settlers from France. Despite having fallen out of favour more recently, Chenin Blanc continues to be the country’s most widely planted variety, white or red.
What then is the problem? In South Africa, when the focus was on quantity rather than quality, Chenin produced very high yields of “cheap and cheerful” wine with relative ease, making it a natural workhorse grape. It also has high natural acidity, which it retains even in the warmer climate of the region. This is a huge asset where ripening conditions typically lead to lower acidity. It was all too easy to blend Chenin with other varieties to produce well-balanced inexpensive blends. Subsequently, with a major push to improve wine quality, the perception of Chenin as a high yielding, blue-collar grape rapidly pushed it to the sidelines. The trend gained added impetus with the lifting of Apartheid-era embargos, which opened new opportunities for quality South African wines in international markets. Growers were able to double their income by growing more respected varieties like Sauvignon Blanc. There was a lot of pressure to pull out what were sometimes very old vines in order to plant more profitable varieties.
enter the association
Chenin Blanc has a core of passionate supporters among South Africans, most important among them an active group of the country’s most respected producers. About a decade ago they formed an association, which now has close to 70 members. One of the association’s key goals is exploring ways to market this grape as the country’s flagship white. As recently as November 2011, the group held a conference in Stellenbosch that focused on just how to make this idea a reality.
Savvy wine people, especially those with experience in international markets, recognise that South Africa needs its own, clearly identifiable emblematic varieties. New Zealand has cornered the market on Sauvignon, Argentina has its Malbec, Chile has Carmenère, and even the small Canadian wine industry is clearly identified by its Icewine. Among reds, South Africa does have Pinotage, but no white grape has yet established a uniquely South African personality.
The case for this uprooted grape is very strong. It is more widely planted in South Africa and in more disparate terroirs than in its native France, or for that matter, anywhere else. I had the opportunity to speak about this with Niel Groenewald, the well-respected winemaker for Bellingham, and a prominent member of the Chenin Blanc Association. In his view, the varietal’s reputation as a workhorse grape must be addressed. If yields are controlled, or the age of the vines increases, he says, quality is vastly superior. He also points out that if properly managed, the variety will produce consistent quality, as it is well adapted to South African conditions, windy summers, and an abundance of sunlight.
Chenin is so adaptable, it can grow in almost any conditions present in South Africa. “It starts with what style you want to make,” says Groenewald. “If you want minerality, weathered granite from Stellenbosch will do the trick. For rich ripe tropical flavours, you will source more grapes in the Dryland, Malmesbury Agter-Paarl region. Also, I have made some interesting Chenin from the Darling Hills, deep red soils approximately 10 kilometers from the cold Atlantic Ocean, offering cool sea breezes to lengthen the ripening process. The highest quality comes from vineyards that are naturally in balance. This mainly comes from vineyard age and correct farming practices.”
Groenewald also points to the fact that Jancis Robinson describes Chenin Blanc as a noble variety because of its ability to generate secondary and tertiary flavours. “The wine,” he says, “really just gets better with age. Not only the sweet wines but the drier styles too. I did a vertical of the Bernard series, my own super premium Chenin Blanc made from 40-year-old bush vines, with a winemaker friend from Vouvray. We tasted from 2004 to 2011. 2004 is still drinking very well, unheard of for South African dry whites.”
I tasted a cross section of South African Chenin Blancs in a variety of styles. The results speak for themselves. Several earned some of the highest scores I have ever awarded.
south african chenin blanc tasting notes
85 Man Vintners Chenin Blanc 2009, Coastal Region ($12)
Tropical, citrus and ripe melon scents with clean citrus flavour on the palate, secondary tropical and melon notes and a crisp, mineral finish.
87 Leopard’s Leap Chenin Blanc 2008, Western Cape ($15)
Lemon drop candy scent with honeyed and vanilla notes. Lemon butter, a splash of vanilla and spicy lemon butter finish. Richness is countered by brisk acidity and gravelly mineral.
88 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc 2010, Western Cape ($14)
Tropical fruit, ripe grapefruit and a whiff of mineral on the nose, with yellow and citrus fruit flavours, mineral, a touch of honey and zesty acidity. Just a trace of residual sweetness on the long finish.
89 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2008, Stellenbosch ($18)
Piquant aromatic bouquet highlights lemon/lime, tropical fruit and stony mineral. Fresh ripe yellow fruit backed by a squeeze of lime, vibrant acidity and mineral grip fills the mouth. Succulent fruit and refreshing acidity linger on the palate.
91 Ken Forrester The FMC (Forrester Meinert Chenin) Chenin Blanc 2008, Stellenbosch ($45)
Hand selected grapes, mainly from low yielding old bush vines planted in 1974, are fermented in new French oak barrels using natural wild yeast, and matured on the lees for 12 months. Rich toasty butter, citrus, tropical fruit and subtle fine spice on the nose. Citrus and tropical fruit themes flow through on the palate, harmoniously balanced with well-modulated acidity. Despite weight, shows surprisingly delicate fruit, lingering floral notes and discreet oak on the finish.
90 Rudera De Tradisie Chenin Blanc 2009, Stellenbosch ($18)
Opulent aromatics proffer citrus and tropical fruit, a hint of mineral, vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg. More restrained on the palate, with pleasingly austere mineral grip and crisp acidity toning down ripe fruit and buttery richness. A big, complex wine to pair with grand dishes like Lobster Thermidor.
95 De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc 2007, Stellenbosch ($20)
Produced from old, low-yielding bush vines in mountain vineyards influenced by cool oceanic breezes. Best bunches are hand picked. Free run juices are fermented with wild yeasts in French oak barrels, lightly filtered and bottled without stabilization. Shows burnished gold colour and oily viscosity in the glass. Intensely ripe citrus and tropical fruit and unctuously rich, buttery, spicy character with appetizingly bright acidity and lean, stony mineral. Although the grape is different, the richness combined with focused acidity and minerality remind you of Grand Cru Burgundy or top California Chardonnay. A great wine.
91 Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2010, Coastal Region ($20)
Harvested from high altitude old bush vines that ripened well in 2010, this one presents an elegantly restrained bouquet with stone fruit and tropical, floral and mineral notes. Boldly expressive flavours embrace crisp peach, citrus and a hint of tropical fruit. Lively acidity and austere minerality are counterbalanced by a layer of creaminess. A fine combination of Old World understatement with subtle New World ripeness.
90 Raats Chenin Blanc 2009, Stellenbosch ($14)
Green apple, citrus and steely mineral on the nose, delivering a similar fruit profile in the mouth, but with a touch of sweet ripeness. Dynamic acid balance, a firm mineral note and a lick of creamery butter on the finish. A lovely wine that hearkens back to the Loire heritage of the variety.
88 False Bay Chenin Blanc 2009, Western Cape ($14)
This modestly priced version is aged on the lees and offers complex green fruit and creamy brioche on the nose with lively fruit, brisk acidity and mineral zest wrapped up in creamy richness on the palate. All elements are well integrated on the finish.
92 Kanu Kia Ora Noble Late Harvest 2006, Stellenbosch ($25/375 ml)
Chenin is the main grape here, though the blend is unspecified (in the 2003 vintage Chenin was supplemented with 15% Hárslevelü, the aromatic Hungarian variety). Complex, botrytis-influenced aromatic profile presents both lemon and orangey citrus with intense floral and honeyed notes. In the mouth, sweet, richly complex citrus, honey, caramel and spice are dynamically balanced with lively acidity and firm mineral. Lingering, very complex finish.