This is what Tim Atkin, Master of Wine, called Chenin Blanc in his 2019 SA Report. Some might think of the noble variety Chardonnay, but I tend to agree with Tim Atkin on this.
Not only is Chenin Blanc the most planted variety in South Africa, it also has a rich history in the country dating back to the late 1650’s. Back then it was referred to as ‘Steen’ and there weren’t many high-quality 100% Chenin Blanc wines produced as it was mainly used to make base wine for brandy production. However, what the wine industry gained from this long history of Chenin Blanc is that we have many old bush vine vineyards in South Africa and by now it is has been proven that some of the best examples come from such vineyards, giving intensely flavoured wines from lower yielding vineyards. So, the potential is already there in the vineyards, to be used as the building blocks to greatness.
As a sommelier, I get asked the question more than I can count – “what is your favourite wine?”
Honestly, an impossible question to answer; or that is what I find at least. I can’t even answer the question “what is your favourite cultivar?”. The answer to these questions changes – as our palate changes, our exposure to wines grows, techniques and understanding of winemaking evolves producing increasingly better-quality wines which only makes it harder to choose a favourite. Not to mention that it also depends on the occasion, on the company and budget unfortunately; so many variables to consider.
However, if you asked me what cultivar I am most excited about currently, that would be an easier question to answer – South African Chenin Blanc. We have phenomenal quality examples to choose from currently in the market, with many of them able to stand up next to the other great white wines of the world.
During my recent farm visits, it was interesting to taste a variety of Chenin Blanc and what was exciting was the different styles being produced. Just looking at 3 of the producers that I visited, they each took a different approach to this cultivar which showcases the exceptional versatility of Chenin Blanc.
“What is not surprising is that standards continue to rise. As a group, local winemakers are continually upping their game.”
If we look at De Trafford, they produce 3 different styles of Chenin Blanc where they focus on the winemaking techniques as the main point of difference. From extended barrel maturation on the Reserva, for nearly 2 years, adding a creamier mouthfeel on the palate; to a skin macerated style giving a dry, grippy wine which just begs for a perfect food pairing.
Then from a different point of view we look at Mullineux Wines where they instead focus on single vineyards with different soil types, with minimum intervention in the cellar to allow the terroir to express itself alongside the beautiful characteristics of Chenin Blanc. They also work with some older vineyards but from this point of view we look at Kaapzicht, where they put emphasis on the age of the vineyards to showcase what older Chenin Blanc vines can add to the quality of the wine.
‘The King of Chenin Blanc in South Africa,’ as Ken Forrester has been referred to many times over the years, shares in the excitement about the future of this special grape: “What is not surprising is that standards continue to rise. As a group, local winemakers are continually upping their game.”
Surely, we can all find a Chenin Blanc to our taste to enjoy! And with the versatility of Chenin Blanc, it can pair with a wide range of food. Next time when you are having your favourite dish, why not grab a bottle of South African Chenin Blanc and put it to the test.
-René, Restaurant Mosaic Sommelier