Chenin Blanc might not be the most recognisable grape variety but it’s an old one that dates back well over 1,000 years. It’s as versatile as Riesling and can make everything from traditional-method sparkling to bone dry table wines and from textured off-dry fruity wines to lusciously sweet dessert wines. So why is it not more popular?
During the latter half of the 20th century, Chenin was misunderstood and occasionally maligned by the wider public, revered only by wine aficionados who were ‘in the know’. This is mainly because in South Africa, it was a high-cropping table wine with little character and priced accordingly. Fortunately, the tide has since turned and a new generation of conscientious winemakers are taking this heritage variety to new heights.
When did Chenin first arrive into the Cape
From its spiritual home around Anjou in France, Chenin found its way to the Cape in the mid 1600s, via the Dutch East India Company, making it one of the first grape varieties to be introduced. Known at the time as Steen, it’s still possible to find wines labelled with this moniker today.
As a high-yielding variety with noticeable acidity, it became particularly popular during the early 20th century as a base for distillation into brandy. As the world demand for table wines took hold over the past 50 years, Cape producers began switching to high-volume table wines instead.
The different faces of South African Chenin Blancs
‘Terroir’, ‘old bush vines’, ‘natural fermentation’ and ‘oak influence’ are terms you’ll hear referenced a lot among winemakers around the Cape. The newer wave of winemakers get really animated when you ask for their thoughts about any of these elements. Technological advancements in soil mapping, discovery and recovery of abandoned plots of ancient vines and a lighter touch towards winemaking are leading to more pure expressions of Chenin Blanc that have clear sub-regional distinctions.
Vines that are grown in the cooler areas, so that’s either at altitude or in close proximity to coastal breezes, tend to be fresher, zippier, sometimes saline and quite citrus in terms of flavour profile. Move further inland and towards sea level and it takes on a more textural, weightier feel in the mouth with flavours that lean more towards Gala apple and honeydew melon. Ancient granitic soils produce a very zingy, linear-edged style while soils that are heavier with clay add a roundness and riper, orchard fruit flavours.
Chenin is a little bit like Chardonnay in that it does act a bit like a sponge and can take on external influences easily. This is partly what attracts winemakers to work with Chenin in the first place, because not only do they want the wines to have a sense of place, they also want to put their own mark on the wines too.
Chenin Blanc in the mix
While Chenin does very well at expressing itself on its own, its relative neutrality in flavour and high acidity means it can marry nicely with varieties that are lower in acidity but more textural and exotic in flavour. Sémillon, another Cape heritage variety, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc can all be found blended with Chenin in fun, easy-drinking wines as well as more serious barrel-fermented styles.
The ‘Cape blend’ is an expression that we’re hearing referenced more and more and that applies as much to red wines as it does to whites. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Are you ready to taste the new wave of Chenin Blancs?
Don’t just take my word for it, the fun is in the tasting and I’ve got three brilliant examples to introduce to you that really sum up why these wines deserve greater attention.
First up is the Hazy View Chenin Blanc, Western Cape. A step up from the everyday ‘familiar label’ Chenins that are widely available, this is sourced from select vineyards dotted around the Western Cape and then gently handled at the winery in Paarl. Raised in stainless steel at lower temperatures, this is a modern, fresh and aromatic style with tangy green apple flavours, crisp acidity and a pleasing finish. This is perfect to pair with an asparagus and cheese tart with a green salad.
My next interpretation comes from Stellenbosch, right at the very heart of the quality wine movement. Bruwer Raats is regarded as something of a Chenin Blanc specialist and very much falls into the camp of what we discussed earlier, paying particular attention to terroir, seeking old bush vines and working with a gentle but deft touch in the cellars. His Raats Original Chenin Blanc is unwooded, so it draws all its character from the vines themselves and the soils upon which they’re grown, aided only by some subtle lees work in the cellar post-fermentation.
The vines are planted partly on decomposed granite and partly on Table Mountain sandstone which give both a linear element and a broader structured feel respectively. They’re also a mix of freestanding bush vines and trellised vines, both with good maturity and lower-yielding. For an unoaked wine this is very sensory and reveals a lime character on the one hand from the granite and more Golden Delicious apple and melon on the other from the sandstone. It finishes very clean and long thanks to the mineral effect that carries the flavours. A delicious accompaniment with light to medium hot curries as well as oysters.
For something that adds a further dimension when oak ageing is brought into play, I would encourage you to try the Olifantsberg ‘The Lark’ Chenin Blanc, Breedekloof. The pinnacle of the range from this boutique farm, the name not only references the Red-Capped Lark that can be found throughout the valley, but is also a nod towards the Leeuwerik’s that own the farm (Dutch for ‘Lark’). The vineyards lie at altitude on the slopes of the Olifantsberg mountain to the north of Cape Town and inland along the Breede river. The soils up here are a unique blend of shale, schist and sandstone on a clay base which helps to retain some level of moisture. The vineyards are worked sustainably without chemicals and receive plenty of sunshine to ripen the grapes, but without excessive heat due to its elevation and exposure to strong prevailing winds.
The winemaking is low intervention and very gentle with whole bunch pressing, natural yeast fermentation and then maturation in a combination of oak casks from 500 litre French and Hungarian puncheons to 2,000 litre oval-shaped French oak foudres. Only a small percentage of the oak was new. After 10 months spent on the lees, the wine is bottled. Elizma Visser is the talent behind the winemaking here and she was recognised last year as Tim Atkin MW’s ‘Winemaker of the Year’.
Elegant, clean-cut and beautifully textured, there’s a lovely balance between cool citrus notes and fresh stone fruits, building layers in the mouth before finishing long. No need to rush to drink it either as it will age gracefully over the next few years. Pair with a warm smoked mackerel salad or creamy mussels.
Saturday marks international Drink Chenin Blanc Day, so why not give this underrated variety a chance to show you its new colours and discover why Chenin is creating such a buzz around the Cape right now.