When I first started delivering the WSET Diploma lectures on South Africa back in 1996, Chenin Blanc accounted for a massive one-third of total – red and white – Cape vineyard plantings. South African Chenin Blanc coming to the UK in those early post-Apartheid days tended to be off-dry, clean but rather neutral. And, when I met him in 2000, the well-known young winemaker, Eben Sadie, asserted “95% of Chenin Blanc in South Africa is crap.”
By 2009, with around a 10% increase in total vineyard plantings in South Africa over the past decade, Chenin still accounted for 18% with around 18,000 hectares planted – and it was definitely high time to see whether it’s perception had improved and indeed the wines too.
This January saw my first visit to the Cape vineyards for just over ten years, with a group from the Circle of Wine Writers (CWW), supported by Wines of South Africa (WOSA). My previous visit in 2000 had also been supported by the wine promotional body but had been with the Association of Wine Educators (AWE) – during which trip we met the infamous, quote-a-minute Eben Sadie. During the programme for these two educational tours of South African vineyards, only one presentation/tasting was more-or-less a repeat, and that was from the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA), only formed in 2000.
Driving Quality for Chenin Blanc
The CBA was founded to create a quality image for the variety, as well as to provide education on the variety for the growers (reducing yields a priority) and for winemakers on best ways to handle the grape. Back in 2000 the AWE group was treated to an evening talk and tasting. We tasted eight wines and my notes indicate a tasting that was not only varied in styles but in quality too with some South African Chenins better than any I had tasted before, others not so good.
Leap forward ten years and this, now established association presented CWW members with a an interesting presentation and a tasting followed by an excellent dinner at one of their member wineries – Kleine Zalze (who own an award-winning restaurant, named Terroir). Bruwer Raats of Raats Winery speaking on behalf of the CBA explained that today the association continues to focus on education for its 70 members and with South Africa producing more Chenin than anyone else in the world (around 50% compared to the Loire’s 25%) it is looking to champion the variety worldwide. He pointed out that in France the variety is not even named on the label! The CBA has begun an active campaign to deter farmers from uprooting old vines, considering them as ‘national treasures’ – these old vines are often bush trained, even though trellis is now often preferred.
The wines we tasted were even more diverse in style than a decade ago, but there has been a real, dramatic improvement in quality, and looking back at my notes, this was borne out in tasting Chenin wines throughout our trip in South Africa, and confirmed by a press tasting put on by WOSA in London since my return. Really interesting wines are being produced at different price levels, with oak often a feature, but producers seem to have learnt to handle the oak better to really enhance, not detract from the wines’ intrinsic flavours. The CBA website gives a breakdown of different Chenin styles produced, though they hope to make this categorisation simpler in future.
Seeking out Chenin Blanc
Since our return from South Africa I’ve really been hankering for and seeking out Chenin as to me it increasingly seems the most interesting, important white variety whose potential has simply not been realized, either by wine producers or by consumers. The variety has that versatility that comes from intrinsic high acidity, giving structure, but a potential to show a wealth of flavours.
At a quick visit to the California generic tasting in London, I found an old favourite tasting still good, though not great – Dry Creek Valley from the Clarksburg region, thought of as the best California district for Chenin. (California produces almost as much as the Loire Valley). The only other sample there disappointed in that it had too much residual sugar.
Then, last month almost by chance we took a short trip to the Loire, and I was really keen to taste the dry Anjous in particular to see how they compared with the South African Chenins, fresh in our minds. I loved them, of course! Savennières still offers perhaps the pinnacle of dry Chenin, but I do think that the interesting flavours do emerge at a lower price level than that of a decent Savennières. I will write more about our Anjou wine tour later this month on the Wine Travel Guides blog.
So, South Africa CBA, if you can encourage improvements and awareness of this great variety not only in your own country, but outside, I’m certainly ready to applaud your efforts!
In the meantime, here is a roll call of a few South African Chenins from 2009 or 2010 that I particularly appreciated on the trip or have enjoyed since:
Under £10 (UK) or below 100 Rand
Mulderbosch, Kleine Zalze Bush Vine, Ken Forrester (Workhouse for Marks & Spencer or Tesco Finest), Raats Original, Graham Beck Bowed Head, and Fairview from Darling.
Over £10 or 100 Rand
Land of Hope Reserve, Bellingham The Bernard Series, Spier Private Collection, Reyneke, Rudera Platinum, and De Trafford.
Scali Blanc (a blend of 70% Chenin with Chardonnay and Viognier) and two ‘Natural Late Harvest’ wines – from Joostenberg and the Ken Forrester Theresa.