South African Chenin Blanc at full gallop
By Samarie Smith-Meletiou DipWSET, posted on 12 June 2023
South Africa has by far the most Chenin Blanc plantings in the world, constituting 50% of all global plantings. As a variety in South Africa, Chenin has unleashed a wine culture bereft of profanities, pretence, and the fear of imperfection. Instead, through the lucid exploration of Chenin over decades, authentic stories surfaced, many rooted in old vines discovered throughout the Cape Winelands. As a wine, it steers creatives and empowers people. And as a phenomenon, its character, quality, and success in diverse styles stir the interest of the global wine community.
Perdeberg is known for producing a variety of Chenin Blanc, from everyday drinking to award-winning fne wine.
Chenin Blanc Association collaborating with InterLoire
Ina Smith has been at the helm of the CBA as managing director since the start of a new world renaissance for Chenin Blanc. The organisation plays a crucial part in how the varietal is perceived and enjoyed and contributes to farmworkers' livelihoods.
"Chenin Blanc is the champion of the South African wine industry. The Top 10 Chenin Blanc competition awards a cash prize to each producer of the top Chenin selected annually since 2014, on the condition that the prize money is used to enhance the lives of farm workers. As a result, R2,1m has been invested in community projects, providing tangible acknowledgement to farm workers of their role in making award-winning wines."
These projects vary from early-learning programmes to tertiary training with crèches, aftercare facilities, libraries, computer rooms and other educational resources for learners and workers established on some farms.
Smith proudly shares how the second edition of the International Chenin Blanc Congress hosted by the Chenin Blanc Association in Stellenbosch in 2022 (in close association with the Académie du Chenin, Destination Angers, and the City of Angers) drew 230 delegates from South Africa, France, Germany, the UK, the US, and Australia.
"At the time, Stellenbosch Mayor Gesie van Deventer, CEO of Visit Stellenbosch, Jeanneret Momberg, Mathilde Favre D'Anne deputy mayor and Valérie Mathieu-Fichot director of Angers CVB at Destination Angers, met to discuss avenues encouraging wine tourism between South African wine destinations and Angers and the Loire Valley. Subsequently, in partnership with InterLoire (#FandeChenin), and the CBA (#Drinkchenin), future bilateral projects will promote these bodies at various events, including comparative Chenin tastings, dinners and market support."
The diversity of Chenin echoes the rainbow nation of the South African people, gregariously celebrating 11 official languages, hence translating the SA Chenin Aroma Wheel to include a broader community of wine educators, learners, and sommeliers. Funded by Winetech, three more proposed languages, namely Xhosa, Zulu and Shona, will feature in the Chenin aroma vocabulary, encompassing sensory attributes unique to South Africa and its people. Among the CBA endeavours highlighting the complexity of Chenin Blanc and its ability to grow old, research continues to advance the understanding of its genetics, disease resilience and climatic adaptability.
The kaapzicht Family - Danie SNR and Danie JNR with their wives and the little young vines started a new generation.
Like father like son, The Kaapzicht Legacy lives on as Danie Steytler JNR follows in his father's footsteps.
Chenin chiselled stalwarts
"I adore working with Chenin!"
Danie Steytler, a spirited farmer with a refined palate, looks at his farm Kaapzicht Estate in the Bottelary ward of Stellenbosch and sees the footprints of 80 years left by his father and grandfather, followed by himself and his son, Danie jnr. Kaapzicht is home to a 1947-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyard, the second oldest surviving Chenin Blanc vineyard in South Africa today. The "rich, layered and complex" 2022 Kaapzicht 1947 Chenin Blanc produced from these vines moved the Gilbert & Galliard tasting panel, scoring the wine 93 points, as with the equally alluring 2022 Kaapzicht Kliprug Chenin Blanc.
"Chenin Blanc is naturally adapted to our climate. It emerged at the Chenin Blanc Congress that SA Chenin Blanc's genetics differs from that in France. This mutation happened over time, and winemakers are embracing its regionality. As custodians of this land and its vines, we celebrate the fruit and don't hide its purity behind new oak."
Bottelary Chenin Blanc is no stranger on the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge podium, with the Kaapzicht Kliprug Chenin Blanc 2021 one of its reigning champions.
Where Ken Forrester goes, his dogs follow and where chenin is discussed, He Leads.
Chenin shattered the assumption of being a mere workhorse, rammed to produce profitable tons for brandy and co-op production in the 1970s. Rightfully so, it was reborn as a "Sparkle Horse".
The first Cap Classique (using the traditional method) made in South Africa in 1973 - Kaapse Vonkel - was based on Chenin Blanc. And in 2016, Ken Forrester named his Cap Classique made from 100% Chenin Blanc - Sparklehorse - acknowledging how far this grape has come. Devotion to innovation and how South African-produced Chenin Blanc is perceived globally, earned Ken Forrester the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award at the 2023 Wine Harvest Commemorative Event. The KF Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2021 was awarded the world's top Chenin Blanc at the 2022 Decanter World Wine Awards, and the Gilbert & Galliard panel concurred, scoring the 2022 vintage 91 points. Committed to creating a Chenin for every palate, including a delightful everyday wine to a meticulously made husk spirit, the decorated KF FMC remains a force of nature (93 points), illustrating the detailed expression possible at the cultivar's apex.
Forrester bought his then-derelict Stellenbosch farm in 1993, just as the country entered a new dispensation and people left. But Mr Chenin chose to swim upstream, gaining experience in the Loire in 1994, working with renegade Bernard Germain at Château de Fesles, then returning to South Africa, inspired to elevate SA Chenin.
"People drink to style," says Forrester. "Give five chefs each a box of apples and tell them to bake an apple pie. You will get five different apple pies. The best one for you will be the one that tastes the nicest to you. As with Chenin, its expressions are endless! Chenin styles can be light and bright or rich and oaked; its structural acidity allows that. So, we never harvest on sugar; we look at acid. Sugar is what happened because the fruit was harvested."
Hagen Viljoen, Zevenwatch Cellamaster.
Standing among the Chenin Blanc Vines at Zevenwacht, also situated on the Stellenbosch Wine Route, a soft smile rests on winemaker Hagen Viljoen's face. Two Old Vine Chenin blocks lie adjacent, repeatedly producing exceptional fruit that sets this Polkadraai Chenin apart.
"Not only is this one of the most beautiful looking blocks on the farm with its south-west facing slopes looking onto Table Mountain and False Bay from its 300m above sea-level vantage point, but it is also doused with cool breezes mitigating summer temperatures."
The Zevenwacht Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2022 (91 points) is an intriguing flavour spectacle of yellow fruit, apricot, and quince with a limy gloss adding to the linearity of the wine.
"I use some whole bunch fruit to add finesse, and creating various building blocks adds to the expression of place. Depending on the vintage, I may allow a portion to go through malolactic conversion. Still, the concrete egg element lifts the richness and shapes the wine. Given this fantastic site, Chenin remains a tremendous grape to work with!
This is the formidable winemaking team from Durbanville hills from left to right: Kobus Gerber, wilhelm coetzee, Martin Moore and Jenna Higgens.
Albert Gerber, Managing Director of Durbanville Hills believes that taking the road less travelled is born from the South African farming spirit never to give up. "'n Boer maak n plan," says Gerber - loosely translated that a South African farmer will always plan to succeed, no matter the odds.
Although they had vast Chenin Blanc planted in the past, this cooler area called for Sauvignon Blanc to be the focus. "But this is changing. Chenin Blanc and Pinotage would be our primary focus if we could start over. Although our Chenin vines are young, they are now planted on the best-suited soils."
Sourcing fruit from vast areas enables them to accumulate flavour building blocks, and fruit from the cooler centre of the valley and warmer northern aspects contribute to the style.
Their Collectors Reserve The Cape Garden 2022 (92 points) is an ode to the Cape, the labels in this range illustrated by South African artist, Theo Vorster.
Their ethos, art meets art, is further demonstrated through the way this wine is made.
"It is like building a Lego toy. Different vineyard pockets build intense layers of tropical and citrus aromas into a wine that is already poised on a natural acidity."
The best fruit is selected and applied to various sophisticated winemaking techniques building complexity, including a portion fermented in stainless steel, French oak barrels, and amphora of which last mentioned adds a sought-after flintiness. Texture and mouthfeel are derived from skin contact, lees stirring and batonnage balancing the linearity with a creamy edge.
Nederburg winermarker pieter Badenhorst dubbed chenin the swiss army knife of sa wine - a Multi-faceted grape excelling in varied styles.
Heading to Nederburg in Paarl, Chenin continues its trajectory in the hands of white winemaker Pieter Badenhorst.
"The wines are doing exceptional," and the Nederburg Heritage Heroes The Anchorman Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2021 attests to this (92 points). Here, the multifarious capacity of a legendary estate such as Nederburg, gives Badenhorst free range to develop building blocks for his final wine fermented in first, second, third and fourth fill 300 L and 500 L barrels, stainless steel tanks and amphoras.
"My philosophy has always been to create as many building blocks as possible to make a layered and balanced wine. Seeing how Chenin anchors our industry and how the world perceives us, it is fitting for the wine to be named after Nederburg's founder, Philippus Wolvaart, who established the farm in 1791."
Badenhorst gained experience at Domaine Vincent Carême in 2019 when he visited the Loire to learn more about their approach to Chenin in the vineyard and cellar.
"It was an incredible experience to see a cellar focused on a single grape varietal!”
Durbanville Hills aerial view.
The driveway at Ken Forrrester vineyards in Stellenbosch, leading to many Chenin Blanc stories.
Perdeberg has a team of wnermakers focusing on specific areas. From left to right- Natalie Kühne. Albertus Louw (production manager). Andri Le Roux, Lodewyk Botha.
Perdeberg Winery entered five wines to be tasted by the Gilbert & Galliard panel, of which three scored 90 points and up. But when the only female winemaker in the group, Natalie Kühne, sets off on the topic of Chenin Blanc, stories about five more products made from Chenin Blanc emerge, with another one to soon join the stable. No wonder they are registered as the Home of Chenin Blanc!
"Still, it is vital that the consumers don't label us a co-op, as we have shed that connotation with adamant efforts to produce everything from natural sweet and organic Chenin to a stellar single vineyard Chenin."
Currently exporting 80% of their wines, the consumer's needs had to be met, so they recently developed a characterful, low-alcohol Chenin Blanc significantly different from many low-alcohol wines on the market, completely stripped of their vinous personalities. They also produce one of two Cap Classique wines made from old vines, theirs planted in 1977 and The Vineyard Collection Chenin Blanc received its Old Vine seal this year.
With 90% of their grapes hailing from dryland vineyards, their awarded range - The Dry Land Collection - continues to impress. The sublime balance of the Dryland Collection Fortitude Fortified Chenin Blanc 2021, earned it a well-deserved 93 points with the
Courageous Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2022 in the same range scoring 92 points.
"Despite dry years, these vineyards are producing fruit with incredible concentration. We can see how old vines can cope with drier conditions, and the intensity of flavour they award you with is amazing!
Heritage is celebrated at Nederburg with its Manor House at the centre.
Divahn Oliphant and arthur Basson are two more winemarkers playing a pivotal role at Perdeberg.
Divahn Oliphant and arthur Basson are two more winemarkers playing a pivotal role at Perdeberg.
Old Vine Project roots for Chenin Blanc
The Old Vine Project (OVP) is arguably one of the fastest-growing wine
initiatives in South Africa, with a remarkable set of objectives aimed at protecting the country's wine heritage. But most important, illustrating the profound quality of grapes produced by Old Vines finally warrants higher prices per tonnage that subsequently improves the livelihoods of grape farmers and their workers. Albeit old vines are celebrated in various countries, South Africa boasts a world first with its certification, the only country with an industry body like SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information and Systems) with relevant documentation of plantings dating back to 1900.
Many believe Chenin Blanc made from old vines is gifted with an extra flavour dimension, a subtle essence manifested in texture, staying power, white stone fruit, and sheer flintiness.
"After all, these wines are made from vines that rely on their accumulated wealth and understand how to employ their resources to produce desirable fruit," explains André Morgenthal who manages the OVP.
Under the auspices of the OVP (since 2017) a remarkable transformation took place where Chenin took centre stage. And as esoteric as it may sound, weathered old vines have proven to produce superior fruit encompassing this unique eminence that now encourages farmers to keep these low-yielding vines in the ground. Spearheaded by the tenacity of viticulturist
them globally, Morgenthal stepped in as somewhat of an old vine shepherd, managing the seat funding that enabled them to spread the gospel, not knowing how this would lead to a project of global significance.
Kruger believes the reasons why old vines mostly produce wines with complexity and beautiful texture remain a mystery.
"We know the yield per vine is less, the roots are more, and we know they have been in intimate contact with their landscape for decades, with every season gaining wisdom and building reserves in the same earth, year after year."
Advocating for these uncanny old vines that can read the seasons and mitigate the onslaught of nature, especially in the light of climate change, wine producers now aspire for their vines to reach 35 years - the official age globally for vines to receive certified heritage
status. This was evident in most wines submitted to be tasted by Gilbert & Galliard carrying the Certified Heritage Vineyards seal.
Throughout the year, members of the OVP receive guidelines on honouring a more hands-off approach to viticulture and winemaking. Since the seal was launched in 2018, restaurants followed suit, creating curated OVP wine lists, wine competitions became attuned to this category and consumers and the wine trade are requesting more.
Morgenthal says: "The project started with 3,000 hectares of old vines on record. Growing to 4,500 old vines over five years is a clear marker of a renewed sentiment to keep the vines in the ground."
From humbling "sometimes dark" beginnings, this project set out to protect old vines quickly morphed into a tangible pursuit driving sustainability, heritage, environmental and social responsibility, with an economic impact benefiting the broader wine community.
The Old Vine Academy was also born to raise awareness and offer training from
pruning to selling the wines in the trade.
Morgenthal coined "Plant to grow Old" and believes old vine Chenin Blanc plays a vital role as a source of scientific research to indicate the way forward. Buying them has a social impact for the consumer, preserving our heritage and the future of all people.
"But it had to work for the farmers with an economically viable model in place rewarding farmers with significantly profitable margins which directly impact their workforce."
This doesn't mean that younger Chenin Blanc Vines in South Africa don't produce superb, world-class wines. They are still growing up, and the OVP will allow them to do so. What it does project, is that South African Chenin Blanc is rooted front of mind whenever fine wine is debated.
"Great white wine, is great white wine; it could come from anywhere," remains Forrester's mantra. "It could be from Chateau Montelena, which won the Judgement of Paris in 1976, or from Grgich Gurgage Hills in Napa; a white Burgundy from Pernand Vergelesses, or a Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It will still be a great white wine."
Rosa Kruger, viticulturist and old vine philanthropist.
Chenin Blanc was planted in 1974 at Beaumont Family Wines, Botrivier.
Ken Forrester Sparklehorse Chenin Blanc, planted in 1975 Stellenbosch.
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