The Chenin Kings On The Beach

The Chenin Kings On The Beach

Graham Howe reports on the first major tasting of the year – The Magic of Chenin Blanc – a showcase for consumers held in Cape Town in April.

Chenin Blanc has come a long way over the last two decades. The makeover of South Africa’s most planted variety, the great white hope of the winelands, shows how the re-branding of a single variety can grow new consumer markets. The Diner’s Club Winemaker of the Year put Chenin in the spotlight in 2016 – won by Pierre Wahl of Rijk’s Private Cellar in Tulbagh for his Chenin Blanc 2014. The style evolution of Chenin was demonstrated by forty producers who offered one-on-one tastings to enthusiastic wine consumers at an inaugural showcase in Cape Town in April 2017.

Ina Smith of the Chenin Blanc Association, says, “Our aim was to showcase South Africa’s iconic white wine to the consumer in a special setting.” With stalls set out on the beach at the Grand Africa Café under the full moon in Granger Bay, the synergy between the brand intrinsics of the variety and location was perfect. Some 255 consumers voted with their pockets, paying 450 per ticket. Ina adds, “What we achieved via an extensive social media campaign was an awareness of Chenin. The CBA would like to add the event to the annual calendar – at full moon before Easter!”

Chenin Blanc has become the hero white variety for many Cape wineries – a trend evident in the offering of three or more Chenin labels (typically unwooded, wooded and dessert) by many wineries. Leading producers of Chenin – inter alia Ken Forrester, Kaapzicht, Kleine Zalze, Joostenberg, L’Avenir, Mulderbosch, Raats, Simonsig, Villiera and Winery of Good Hope – led tastings of two to three tiers of Chenin, ranging from fresh ‘n fruity to rich ‘n ripe, unwooded and barrel-fermented, dessert and super-premium single vineyard expressions. The growing popularity of Chenin blends as a distinct category was another trend – adding to the diversity of the brand – while tastings of back vintages demonstrated the ageing potential of Chenin.      

Stellenbosch and the ten producers of the Breedekloof Makers – a region which is spearheading Chenin as its signature variety and brand – made up the biggest blocs at the Magic of Chenin showcase. But the diversity of Chenin style and terroir was demonstrated by the geographical spread of wine producers present from Bot River, Cederberg and Olifants River to Paarl and the Swartland. Moving from stall to stall, it was fascinating to eavesdrop on conversations about Chenin initiated by winemakers and consumers about the different winemaking techniques and styles of the variety.

Winemaker and viticulturist Adam Mason of Mulderbosch worked overtime at his stall, pouring flights of his single-vineyard trilogy of three single block Chenin Blanc wines. The winery which pioneered the iconic Steen op Hout (Chenin on Wood) years ago, has used identical vinification methods – whole-bunch pressed, barrel-fermented and aged on lees – to amplify the distinction in terroir of three different Stellenbosch blocks. The label, branded as single vineyard Chenin Blanc, bears the names of each block, and demonstrates the key role played by micro-climate and sandy, shale and granite soils in shaping the wine. A master class in Chenin terroir from Adam Mason.

Cellar master Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines is one of the Cape’s Chenin Kings. At the showcase, he poured a flight of three tiers of Chenin, starting with his (unwooded) Original Chenin Blanc and (wooded in old oak) Old Vine Chenin Blanc – stunning wines which both express the purity, concentration and texture of bushvines older than forty years. The acidity, minerality and typical Chenin flavours of quince, white peach, melon, green apple and pear are the hallmarks. We tasted his Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin 2015, a super-premium wine, sourced from vines individually staked (“stok by paaltjie”). Whole- bunch pressed, barrel-fermented using natural yeast, it has a steely minerality, fine texture and fennel/ginger twist.

Joostenberg Wines is a family-owned winery which focuses on Chenin. Sonel Zeeman comments, “Chenin is part of our heritage. It is in our DNA. Gnarly old vines planted by fathers and grand-fathers soak up the sun and the wind. It’s not easy being a vine in the Cape! Salt of the earth wines with a whole lot of soul.” I enjoyed a flight of Joostenberg Chenin which expresses the organic terroir of old dryland vineyards planted up to 35 years ago. Whole-bunch pressed, natural ferment, aged on lees in old barrels and concrete eggs, Die Agteros Chenin was one of my favourite wines at the showcase – an elegant Chenin with wonderful mouth-feel. It lives up to its marvellous moniker – meaning “the hind ox also gets to the kraal” – or a long wait is rewarded. It ended with Joostenberg’s botrytis elixir – the luscious Chenin Noble Late Harvest.  

Ken Forrester, CBA chairman, is yet another of the Cape’s Chenin kings. A flight of Ken Forrester Wines took visitors from Sparklehorse MCC – one of a handful of sublime bottle-fermented Chenin Blancs made in the Cape – to Old Vine Reserve Chenin and the benchmark old (1974) bush vine FMC. We were treated to a similar flight of Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc at a fabulous lunch on the twenty-first anniversary of 96 Winery Road in Stellenbosch in late March. Ken comments, “This grape variety is produced in a range of styles, reflecting diverse terroir and the versatility of the grape. Chenin offers wine lovers the body and texture they enjoy, as well as an aromatic generosity and a freshness so many wine consumers crave. We honestly believe Chenin Blanc has the ability to be our national flagship.”

Carla Joubert of Overhex Wines showed a range of Chenin Blanc under their delightfully quirky Balance and (Nguni) Survivor labels. Made from Swartland grapes, Survivor Chenin is made using reductive techniques to retain the purity of the natural fruit flavours and zesty lime acidity of the variety. Rated 4,5 stars by Platter, this was one of my favourite wines at the tasting – and another example of innovative techniques used by Chenin winemakers (down to using untoasted French oak). While Balance Chenin is a great example of great value for money wine – proving that Chenin as a variety consistently over-delivers at all price-points – the quirky new Survivor Offspring Blend (Chenin, Sauvignon and Viognier) is intriguing – a typical example of the new generation of excellent Chenin Blanc based blends.  

Jeff Grier of Villiera Wines is yet another of the Chenin Kings. This family-owned winery in Stellenbosch has been a standard-bearer for the variety for three decades. I always enjoy the medley of fresh fruit in the best-selling Villiera Chenin Blanc which expresses hallmark guava, pear and pineapple flavours with a clean, zesty finish. The Traditional Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc epitomises the rich ‘n ripe category, showcasing the tropical fruit with a creamy mouthfeel, subtle spice with a brush of honeyed botrytis. Another of my favourite wines on the show. Jeff Grier comments, “Chenin Blanc has great structure and it performs well at full ripeness. When picked ripe the longevity is enhanced by fermenting in oak. The barrels also allow additional flavour, greater complexity. Chenin Blanc really does lend itself to this style.”

It is difficult to do justice to the great 2015 and 2016 vintages of Chenin at the showcase. But I should also mention the sublime Chenin by Rudera made from 40 – 50 year old dryland bush vines – Robusto and De Tradisie. I’m also a huge fan of the trio from Kleine Zalze in Stellenbosch which has made Chenin its hero white variety from the start: Bush Vine, Barrel-Fermented Vineyard Selection and Family Reserve (the last two rated in the Chenin Blanc Top Ten 2016). Last I enjoyed the Perdeberg Chenins from the Swartland – especially the Dry Land Barrel Fermented (another Chenin Blanc Top Ten 2016 winner) and Nederburg’s The Anchorman Chenin Blanc.

Keeping the Chenin flag flying, the fourth global #DrinkChenin Day is celebrated in the USA, Europe and South Africa on 17 June. First held in ten cities across the USA in 2014, the mid-year date for the campaign coincides with summer in the northern hemisphere – but also works well in winter down south, underscoring the message that Chenin is a variety for all seasons. The bi-annual summer and winter showcases presented by the CBA to South African wine media underline the seasonal appeal of different styles of Chenin. This year, the CBA is working with WOSA to spread the #DrinkChenin message in European markets. Chenin rules. Watch this space.

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Photos courtesy of Andrés Lizana Prado.