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Talking to the SA Chenin #wine Kings

by Graham Howe
Chenin Blanc may be South Africa’s great white hope. Graham Howe reports on the trend towards a new style – and the winemakers who are defining it as a focus variety.
“We believe Chenin Blanc is a great variety – and try to express its diversity. The most successful Chenins seduce with a light touch of oak – and avoid the danger of making another Chardonnay” – Razvan Macici, cellar master, Nederburg.

Chenin Blanc has been in the spotlight at recent wine tastings where a handful of top Cape cellars have declared it their focus white variety. At the opening of Planet, the new fine dining restaurant at The Mount Nelson, Razvan Macici opened his salvo of five-star wines like Ingenuity White and Red with his Winemaster’s Reserve Chenin Blanc 2009 – a wine regarded by many as “a template for Chenin”. He says, “We use old bush vines to express the fruit – and light wood to add structure.”

Johan Joubert, cellar master of Klein Zalze, also praised the virtues of this quintessential South African variety at a vertical tasting of Chenin from 2004 to 2010. Their focus variety is made in three versions at the cellar – barrel fermented, bush vine and in the entry-level range. He commented, “Chenin Blanc is a versatile variety that over-delivers. We’re experimenting with different styles of winemaking. The newer vintages express the pure, clean fruit consumers like – Chenin made in the modern style. Chenin is a best-seller for Kleine Zalze in the on-trade in the UK and SA”.

Kleine Zalze won a double whammy at last year’s Chenin Challenge 2010 – winning the Chenin crown with the Barrel Fermented 2008 and best value Chenin with its Bush Vine 2009. Chenin usually plays Cinderella to big step-sisters Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – but always find her missing slipper at Wine’s annual Chenin Challenge. Speaking at this year’s Chenin Challenge 2011, Jeff Grier of Villiera, a former winner, announced that the Chenin Blanc Association is working on a project with the University of Stellenbosch to develop a visual key with clear descriptors to go on wine labels to remove consumer confusion about the different styles of Chenin Blanc.

“Chenin Blanc is all about versatility with different price-points for different styles. It has great value at the entry-level – while overseas buyers like to go for the cheaper categories, South African consumers will spend more on a serious style of Chenin. Sometimes you want a fresh and fruity Chenin, at others a rich, ripe, wooded Chenin.”

Significantly, the old dividing line between wooded and unwooded categories in previous Chenin challenges fell away this year – while the top ten was enlarged to a top twelve. The overall winner, Perdeberg Rex Equus 2008 (50% wooded) won with an older vintage – demonstrating the great maturation potential of this variety. The overall winner lives up to its “king of horses” moniker. Winemaker Riaan Moller identified the winning formula – a complex assemblage of barrel-fermented, unwooded and rich, ripe Chenin “to provide the edge with a twist of sugar”.

Douglas Green 2010 – an unwooded wine which shows the pure fruit and natural acidity of Chenin – won the best value category. Winemaker Jaco Potgieter made the winning best-value Chenin in high volume (650 000 litres) from 100% bush vine vineyards in Wellington. He comments, “Bush Vine Chenin produces wine with great structure, body and a typical honeyed character. The smaller berries produce concentration and complexity – and newer clones contribute exciting new flavours.”

Old bush vines play a key role in the renaissance of Chenin. Two Chenins won five stars in Platter’s SA Wines 2011 – Botanica Chenin Blanc 2009, the only wine made at a new wine farm in Devon Valley (from fifty year-old dryland bush vines in Clanwilliam); and Stellenrust’s “45” Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2009 (named after the age of the single vineyard in Bottelary). Stellenbosch to the Swartland have a golden track record for growing great Chenin. And Johan Reyneke won Wine’s Nedbank Green Wine Awards 2010 with Reyneke Woolworths Chenin Blanc 2009 – best overall wine from organically grown grapes. Chenin is on a roll.

At a recent tasting at Bombay Brasserie at The Taj, Van Zyl du Toit winemaker at Allée Bleue showcased Chenin Blanc and Pinotage as typically South African cultivars in his new Allée Bleue MCC Brut Rosé 2009. He comments, “They are conducive to creating great wines. We will be focusing on both varietals in future. Consumers like a middle-of-the-road Chenin with rich, ripe fruit flavours, lively acidity and light wood treatment. We age on lees in barrel for six months.” His Chenin Blanc 2009 went amazingly well with the spicy fare at Bombay Brasserie.

All of the Chenin Blanc tastings have proven that Chenin is a versatile food wines. Van Zyl believes that Chenin is a great match for spicy South African fare. When I commented that I find the print on the back label of his new Allée Bleue MCC is difficult to read, the big bubbly winemaker who specialised in making sparkling wine at Simonsig for years quipped, “But how do you read your hymn book in church?”

At a tasting at Dornier, Chenin was clearly identified as the focus variety. Dornier produces three tiers of Chenin as well as the flagship white, Donatus, a Chenin-led blend with Semillon. Winemaker JC Steyn explains, “We currently offer three of the six styles recognised by the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa: Cocoa Hill Chenin Blanc fits into the ‘fresh and fruity’ category, Dornier Chenin Blanc falls into the ‘rich and ripe unwooded’ category; and our flagship white wine – Donatus, falls into the ‘rich and ripe wooded’ category’. Chenin handles wood ageing really well.”

Michael Fridjhon, panel chairman for Wine’s Chenin Challenge 2011, concludes on the style evolution – “We are seeing less showy, more nuanced wines. A relatively vast resource of old Chenin vineyards means the category is far more dynamic than most others. Winemakers have a wider choice of Chenin sites, and a more extensive range of flavour profiles than in any other category in the Cape wine industry.”

The ranks of the Chenin kings are swelling, led by winemakers who carry the torch for South Africa’s most planted variety – inter alia Teddy Hall, Bruwer Raats, Frans Smit, Ken Forrester, Martin Meinert, Jean Daneel, Jeff Grier and David Trafford (all past winners of Wine’s Chenin Challenge). If you’re looking for my own dozen top Chenin labels, look out for Beaumont, Forrester Meinert, Raats Family Wines, Rijk’s, Kanu, Kleine Zalze, Perdeberg, Rudera, Simonsig, Spier, Teddy Hall and Villiera.




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