The wine writer Eric Asimov from the New York Times is concerned about the fall in quality of SA chenin –
“I lamented the shortage of options for good chenin blanc wines outside the Loire Valley of France, the grape’s spiritual home, while suggesting that South African chenin blancs might prove a welcome refuge.
After all, chenin blanc had long been widely planted in South Africa, encompassing twice as many acres as in the Loire. While the South African wines did not approach the heights of a good Vouvray or Savennières, the wine panel back then found them to be, well, forgive me if I quote myself, “wines of freshness and character with prices that make them exceptional values.”
Now, five years later, it seemed time to refresh our sense that chenin blanc in South Africa remained a trove of inexpensive, rewarding wines. Yet at a recent tasting of 20 bottles, the wine panel was surprised, and not in a good way.
Instead of finding many bottles that we’d enjoy drinking, we were instead hard pressed to find many that we liked at all, and somewhat mystified as to why this might be so. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Pascaline Lepeltier, wine director at Rouge Tomate, and Carla Rzeszewski, wine director of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar.
All of us treasure chenin blancs and are gratified to discover the occasional good bottle from California or Long Island, regions where making chenin blanc is a sign of idiosyncrasy. We were well disposed to the South African wines, all from recent vintages, and looked forward to a pleasurable tasting.
But many of the wines we tasted were hard to identify as chenin blanc. They lacked the signature floral, minerals and citrus aromas and flavors, often underscored by a suggestion of honey. On paper, those flavors may sound as if they could come from scores of other white wines. But served cool in the glass, they are carried by the indelible texture of chenin blanc, thick and rich on the tongue yet improbably light. No other grape offers a texture so immediately identifiable as chenin blanc.
“I didn’t expect to find Loire wines, but I did expect to find chenin blanc,” Pascaline said.
Sadly, many of the wines also lacked the structural hallmark of chenin blanc: great acidity. Like riesling, chenin blanc depends on high acidity not only for its zesty, refreshing energy, but also for its fine bone structure, which gives it the versatility to glow like a fashion model in a full range of styles, from austerely dry to lusciously sweet. Instead, we tasted too many wines that seemed either flabby or dispiriting.
What could the problem have been? Here, we must speculate. Were the wines excessively manipulated? That is, were the grapes lacking in balance, requiring winemakers to add acid, which can sometimes seem artificial, or carbon dioxide, which can lighten a wine and make it seem fruity, for a little while, anyway?
“The grape is not being celebrated here,” Carla said. “These have veered into a drink, rather than a wine.”
Perhaps the vintage was the problem. Of our 20 wines, 13 were from 2010, which by most accounts was difficult. Four more were from 2011, which was difficult as well, while three were from 2009, often termed a dream vintage.
Still, even in poor vintages, good producers can generally make interesting wines. And the vintage doesn’t explain why the 2009 F.M.C. from Ken Forrester, one of the leading names in South African chenin blanc, seemed so sweet, oaky, unbalanced and fatiguing. It did not make our top 10, although it was by far the most expensive wine in the tasting at $75.
Most of the wines were much cheaper, with 13 for $15 or less, and 4 more up to $19. While this is good in theory, might it also indicate that many South African growers don’t take chenin blanc very seriously? Many of the wines tasted that way.
Even so, we found some wines that we liked quite a bit, like our No. 1 bottle, the 2010 Secateurs from Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, which was full bodied yet well shaped and distinctly chenin blanc. Though it was not the cheapest among our top 10, it was our best value at $16 because we liked it so much better.
Our other favorite, the 2010 Mullineux, was a different sort of wine, enjoyable now but intended for aging. It was only 80 percent chenin blanc, with 10 percent each of clairette and viognier, and while the exuberant fruitiness of the viognier was apparent, so was the structure and the essence of chenin blanc. At $31, it was the most expensive wine among our top 10, but also the only one that seemed to have a real sense of place.
Many of the other wines on our list seemed somewhat interchangeable, though we preferred the 2010 La Capra from Fairview and the 2011 Man Vintners to the other two-star wines.
More interesting to me were wines that did not make the list, like the 2010 Raats Original Unwooded, a wine I’ve liked before, and the 2010 Graham Beck Game Reserve, another wine I’ve enjoyed in the past.
Has my taste changed? Or have the wines? Or was this an anomalous tasting that warrants another look before too long? We also wondered whether the grape yields were too high for some of the producers, which could have explained the muted flavors.
Eighteen of the bottles came with screw caps, which led to further speculation. Care must be taken when making wine specifically for the more air-deprived environment of screw caps rather than cork-topped bottles, which permit the interchange of tiny amounts of air. If adjustments to the winemaking are not made, flavors can be suppressed as well.
Our tasting did not lead to many answers. But we were left with plenty of questions.
Badenhorst Family Wines
Secateurs Chenin Blanc Swartland 2010 $16 ** ½
Full-bodied yet discreet and inviting, with herbal, floral and citrus flavors.
Mullineux Swartland 2010 $31 ** ½
Well structured and balanced with aromas of honeysuckle, citrus, oak and minerals.
Fairview La Capra
Chenin Blanc South Africa 2010 $13 **
Clean and succinct with flavors that span sweet and savory.
Chenin Blanc Coastal 2011 $11 **
Juicy with citrus and floral aromas.
Indaba Chenin Blanc Western Cape 2011 $8 **
Light floral and lemon flavors, bland but palatable.
Robertson Chenin Blanc South Africa 2010 $13 **
Light and pleasant with honeysuckle and lemon aromas.
Chenin Blanc Western Cape Steen Op Hout 2010 $15 **
Light and unstructured, with lime and melon flavors; pleasant but not much about it says chenin blanc.
Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2010 $10 * ½
Lightly fruity with a touch of salinity.
Chenin Blanc Western Cape La Cotte Mill 2010 $13 * ½
Pungent tropical flavors and a bit of residual sweetness.
Chenin Blanc Swartland 2009 $17 * ½
Floral, but dominated by oaky aromas and flavors.