Tasting assessments, The Top Six ‘Classic’ Chenin Blancs

Tasting assessments, The Top Six ‘Classic’ Chenin Blancs

The consensus about this line-up was that it was one of the best showings of Chenin – a pleasure to taste – largely due to the diversity of styles, the range of wines from oaked to unoaked, rich and full-bodied to elegant and pure.

There were enough differences to keep taste buds not only stimulated but actually engaged, and looking forward to the next experience. Chenin Blanc is most likely one of the first vines to be grown in South Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655, or it may have come with Huguenots who fled from France in 1685.

The panel’s impression was that Chenin’s long-anticipated quality revolution was evident in this tasting. Chenin is no longer trying to copy other wines but rather finding its own expression, the creation of the best possible wine from a particular terroir or within a particular style, even if this is as a well-priced quaffer. Over the past 10 years there had been individual handcrafted wines made that impressed international and local audiences, but what was shown here was a depth of quality, not just a few gems. 

For far too long Chenin has been burdened with a ‘cheap and cheerful’ image, no doubt compounded by the low prices still available for many of the wines on supermarket shelves.

Winnie Bowman commented, ‘Most are probably underpriced, that’s the sadness.’ Without guidance, consumers will stick to what they know, which is trusted brand names and a price expectation. For example, they would probably pay more for a Sauvignon Blanc than a Chenin Blanc, because that pattern was set historically. And without any wine advisors in supermarket stores to give them new information, explain Chenin’s changed status, that’s likely to continue. Conversely, there are also those producers that have priced their wines at levels reflecting their intrinsic value, pushing them to prices equivalent to top Chardonnays or white blends. And quite right too – some Chenins have been earning 90-plus ratings in international competitions, Decanter, Wine Spectator and other publications for long enough that it can no longer be passed off as a flash in the pan. Often available in top-end restaurants, their merits can be explained by sommeliers, or at wine shows, and such wines have developed a following, even iconic status. 

Particular points were made by the panel on oaking, residual sugar, wild yeast ferments, oxidative winemaking and acidity. Only a few wines were deemed over-oaked, there was admirable balance in the majority, as well as a diversity of styles, from leesy/lightly oaked through to a fuller, bolder treatment when the wine’s ripeness and high extract could handle it. And no longer did wooded wines overshadow unwooded ones; there were enough examples of wines so joyously fruity that oaking them would have been a travesty – they stood proudly on their own. Chenin is one of the few varieties that can accommodate some residual sugar without tasting sweet, because the high natural acidity converts it into a tangy, almost sweet/sour taste, adding to the palate appeal. The high-rated wines ranged from dry to off-dry and both had merit, but the panel was surprised that there seemed to be a reversal of the recent trend towards off-dry, big showy wines. There were many more full-bodied dry wines than expected. Unlike most white varieties, Chenin also seems to benefit from oxidative winemaking, and there were a number of impressive examples.

Generally, the wines were found to have a good acid balance, and whether natural or added, the acidity supported the fruit and in most cases didn’t intrude. What was the surprise, in analysing the results, was finding that every one of the Top Six wines had been fermented without the use of commercial yeast. Their own natural yeast population in the vineyard and cellar was sufficient to not only carry the fermentation through to its conclusion, but as the tasting notes show, give a very good result. 
Much to celebrate therefore; many aspects contributed to Chenin’s good showing in this tasting, including, from Howard: ‘Winemakers are trying to get more concentration and they’re concentrating on the vineyards.’

A summary of findings
There were very few faulty or ordinary wines, as the statistics confirm: nearly half (44%) of the wines were rated 3 Stars or higher. This wasn’t a wine competition where producers sent in their best wines, this was a tasting of the Chenins that were on the market, a snapshot, if you like, of the category. The wines at the lower end of the ratings were marked down because of lack of varietal character; they were often picked too early, were too Sauvignon-like or were just plain dry whites.

What was remarkable was that 19 wines (13%) were judged worthy of 4 Stars or more, which included different styles, different regions and ages. An unequivocal confirmation of Chenin’s ability to age: all Top Six wines were older than 2012, and 44 of the 3-plus Star wines tasted were from vintages between 2010 and 2006. 

Star Hill wines also featured in the Top Six Chenin Blancs. Winemaker Lourens van der Westhuizen from Star Hill enjoys making Chenin from the 5ha of this vine in single vineyard blocks. 

The Top Chenin Blanc

Kanu KCB
Who or what holds the key to Chenin success? That’s a question many people would like to have the answer to, with this noble French variety still making more wines than any other in SA. The Chenin Blanc Association is halfway through a study with Stellenbosch University that is uncovering various areas of concern and a few for celebration and contemplation.

One of the issues the Stellenbosch University team will be investigating in the second half of their study is how the wide range of flavours of which Chenin is capable are achieved from the same grape – is it clonal, is it terroir-driven, or is it perhaps the winemaking process?

According to Dr Hélène Nieuwoudt, who is in charge of the project, a particularly interesting area of research is the effect of natural yeasts versus inoculated yeasts and how or whether consumers perceive the difference. She and her team have identified some of the many different strains of yeast present on grapes and then tracked their proliferation and survival through a natural fermentation process. Eventually, the familiar Saccharomyces cerevisiaetriumphs, as it is the yeast that copes best with high levels of ethanol, but along the way various different strains of yeast add additional flavours that do not survive if Saccharomyces cerevisiaeis inoculated, as it just takes over from the start.

Dr Nieuwoudt’s research is based on three lines of enquiry – firstly, can consumers taste the difference between spontaneous and inoculated fermented wines? Secondly, does their perception of wines that have been naturally fermented change when they know what they are tasting? (Dr Niewoudt says her previous research shows that, ‘There is huge sentiment in consumers for beautiful stories. When they have understood all the history behind labelling a wine as coming from a “bush vine”, their perception of the wine changes in a positive fashion.’) And finally, what are the descriptors used by consumers to describe wines made by spontaneous fermentation? She is seeking to find a common thread of taste perceptions for spontaneously fermented Chenins that can be identified and then used to help clarify the labelling and marketing of Chenin in the future.

A large amount of the research so far is based on untrained consumers, and already the results have proved both useful and interesting to the team and the wine industry at large. From the list of winners below, it certainly seems as if trained palates are able to identify and appreciate differences between inoculated and spontaneously fermented Chenins, as this is the only link between all these four winning wines. ‘Natural’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘minimal intervention’, ‘hands-off’ – these are all buzzwords for food and wine trends around the world at the moment, and if the Chenin Blanc Association and Stellenbosch University can find a way of conveying them on the bottle, and getting the general consumer to understand the grape more, then maybe this would be the success key we’ve all been seeking.

‘KCB – yeah, that stands for “Killer Chenin Blanc!”’ quips Johan Grimbeek before hastily backtracking, saying that he was just kidding and officially it is Kanu Chenin Blanc. But the nickname sticks, particularly in and around the cellar where Johan and his team have been specialising in the production of three different styles of Chenin for many years now, with this version being regarded as the cellar’s flagship. It was Teddy Hall who established Kanu as a hotbed of top Chenin over a decade ago and Johan is happy to credit his own love of the variety to his time spent working alongside Teddy (Johan also makes a Chenin under his own label, Aeternitas, although demands from the day job have meant that the latest vintage is 2010). As Johan says, ‘It’s easy to get into the rhythm of Chenin when you work with Teddy!’ 

The KCB is Kanu’s wooded version with 100% of the wine being fermented in new oak. The grapes come from two separate blocks from the same grower. It’s a dryland vineyard with the vines being around 30 years old, and produces around eight tons per hectare. Johan always uses a natural ferment, which he believes adds more complexity and intrigue to the final wine, and after fermentation starts, the wine spends nine months in barrel in total – none of it undergoes malolactic fermentation during that time. The natural fermentation results in a fair amount of residual sugar – just under 12g for the 2009 – but this is balanced out by the high natural acidity of the wine, giving it a youthful freshness that appealed to the judges.

Rudera De Tradisie Chenin Blanc 2010 - Top Six 'Classic' Chenin Blancs

Johan believes he makes wines to keep and he is delighted that they have been able to hang onto this wine for three years to allow it to reach its full potential in bottle. He reckons on enjoying the KCB over the next five years, noting that they found a few pallets of the 2006 in the cellar recently that they sent on a special order to Canada where it is proving very popular and garnering lots of favourable reviews. Which is great news for Chenin Blanc-lovers and winemakers, who often have a permanent battle with people thinking that all white wine should be drunk young. ‘For us at Kanu, Chenin Blanc is the backbone of what we do and the biggest feature of our collection,’ says Johan. ‘The challenge is for people to understand what it is all about and to get them to enjoy the wine.’

Kanu KCB 2009 
***** 5 STARS
The only 5 Star awarded and the oldest wine among the Top Six, proving beyond a doubt that good Chenin can age. KCB (Kanu Chenin Blanc) in the name differentiates it from an unwooded version. Golden-hued, with roasted nuts and baked apple, this is a showy wine with oak and some sweetness but the effect is sumptuous because of the perfect balance of all the elements. There was lots of care in the making, six hours skin contact, natural ferment, eight months in 100% new barrels (mix French, Hungarian, American) and a dash of Noble Late Harvest in the final blend.

Price R85

The Top Six Chenin Blancs:

5 Stars
Kanu KCB 2009

4½ Stars
De Trafford Chenin Blanc Four V NV
Star Hill Chenin Blanc 2010
Teddy Hall Hendrik Biebouw Auction Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011

4 Stars
Radford Dale Renaissance Chenin Blanc 2011
Rudera De Tradisie Chenin Blanc 2010

See the Dec 2013/Jan 2014 issue of Classic Wine for the full category listing or click HERE to download the full report – PDF file