Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape varietal in South Africa. There are just under 19,000 hectares of the vine rooted, accounting for around 1/5 of the country’s total vineyard space. Yet it plays second fiddle to SA’s current darling, Sauvignon Blanc. Originating in the Loire Valley – spiritual home also to Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc – Chenin plantings here are now double that of those in France, a country that boasts around 800,000 hectares of vines.
So what does SA have that France doesn’t that makes Chenin Blanc shine here? We have warmer weather and also what is termed “cool sunshine”: the grapes get plenty of sun to ripen and develop enough sugar that will then be turned into alcohol, but enough coolness to ensure gradual ripening which makes sure that flavours can develop properly, thus producing more complex flavours in the wine.
So why isn’t it that we see a Chenin Blanc – also know as Steen in SA – at most wine estates? Well, most Chenin is turned into brandy, much of which is for mass production (for a more high end brandy experience, head out along the R62 in and around Robertson.) Mass plantings of the grape were cultivated in the early to mid twentieth century for bulk production of various wines, liqueurs and even perfume. These vines are now our “old vines” that produce some high quality Chenins. As a vine grows older, it produces less grapes per bunch/vine as the years go by. Fewer grapes mean that the flavours, sugars, acidity and everything else that makes delicious wine are concentrated, thus theoretically making higher quality grapes and thereafter, higher quality wine. But this isn’t always the case, even though “old vine” is now used as a selling point, as it implies quality.
Most Chenin Blanc is planted around the hot inland areas of Swartland and Paarl and it’s our warmer climate that imbues Chenin with those wild and exotic tropical fruit flavours – quite a departure from the French style hailing from Vouvray. In France, fermentation of the grapes is carried out at higher temperatures, which mean that those tropical flavour compounds are lost, leaving more conventional citrus notes. Some of SA’s loveliest Chenins come from regions which get enough heat but also benefit from cooling influences such as altitude in places like the Elgin Valley (try Spioenkop’s awesome creamy, slightly herby Chenin) and the Cederberg, or the cooling Atlantic sea breezes that grace areas like Bot Rivier (Beaumont) and the Helderberg (Ken Forrester).
What makes Chenin exciting from a wine making perspective is that on its own it is a pretty neutral grape – it doesn’t have signature aromas, unlike Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, to name a few. Instead it is a blank canvas onto which terroir and wine making techniques (oaked vs non oaked) can be projected to make wines in a range of exciting styles. Fresh and fruity vs complex and matured.
Two people you need to know about if you like your Chenin – Bruwer Raats and Ken Forrester. Both are behind the Chenin Association and both are passionate about seeing Chenin blossoming as a superior quality wine in its own right – as opposed to its mass cultivation for brandy purposes or as a frivolous easy drinking varietal for by the pool: although, those wines are also needed!
Raats does an unwooded Chenin, a wooded one – the French think we over oak here in South Africa, apparently – and also a lovely little number for Woolies. Ken Forester produces Chenin in many guises – an MCC, a couple of dry wines and also a stupendously delicious Noble Late Harvest Chenin which I think rivals the stuff that comes out of Sauternes: a sweet wine made from Botrytis infected Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadel from the wine appellation in France’s Bordeaux.
Other must taste Chenins are Beaumont’s wooded Chenin, the Barrel Select from Wildekrans, Jordan’s partially barrel fermented one, Demorgenzon’s Reserve Chenin and Dorrance Wine’s Kama. Dorrance’s Chenin is grown in Paardeberg and then made and matured at Dorrance Wines, located right in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD. Kama is the Sanskrit word for pleasure or sensual gratification – can’t get more fitting than that when it comes to vino – a rounded wine with fresh apples, pears and stone fruit and a great creamy texture. Pair a Chenin with any of our Cape Malay dishes or spicy boerewors (trust me on this one) and you’ve got dinner sorted.