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South Africa Chenin Blanc Notches Up A Gear

Posted: Monday, 16 November 2015 11:31


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Feature: South Africa Chenin Blanc Notches Up A Gear

Nov 16: South Africa’s Chenin Blanc Association is gearing up to release the findings of a major research project conducted principally by the Stellenbosch University into the aromatic and flavour characteristics of South African chenin blanc wines versus those from the Loire, with the results of the study to be published towards the month-end, writes Cathy van Zyl , Master of Wine from South Africa where, she affirms this variety has notched up a gear in recent years

Methodology of the Study

Click For Large ViewThe study, which was co-ordinated by the Association’s manager Ina Smith, comprised two main parts. First, between 2010 and 2012, the university analysed hundreds of wines to compile a database on the chemical composition (particularly the volatile compounds) of chenin blancs from South Africa. It was intended that this database would primarily assist users to interpret the sensory profiles of the wines analysed and help them investigate consumer preferences, both locally and internationally. Second, between 2014 and 2015, the university and association sought to determine if consumers familiar with chenin blanc could distinguish between French and South African chenin blanc wines.

The test set of 14 wines (seven from South Africa and seven from the Loire, France) were shown to 100 consumers in South Africa and 100 consumers in France. All the 115 members of the Chenin Blanc Association areeagerly awaiting the results. They believe that knowledge will help them lift quality levels across all styles of chenin blanc, and assist them promote the variety and raise its image worldwide.

 Work horse and driver of the industry

“We honestly believe chenin blanc is a fantastic driver, probably the most effective, for our industry. It’s a wine category worth investing in, on all levels,” said association chairman, Ken Forrester.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more, and was thrilled when president of Indian Wine Academy and editor of delWine, Subhash Arora, mentioned to me that the wine category that had impressed him most when he judged in South Africa earlier this year was chenin blanc.

Chenin blanc has historically been the work horse of the South African industry used for the production of brandy; to make sparkling wines; to make sweet wines; to make off-dry (think Liebfraumilch-inspired) and dry wines; for unwooded styles and for wooded styles; for easy-drinking wines; for those bottled as a single variety and for those to lead or plump out a blend.

Most widely planted variety in Cape

It’s one of the oldest varieties in the Cape, was originally referred to as ‘Steen’ (according to Tim James in his most recent book ‘Wines of the New South Africa’, it was only in 1963 that professor Orffer matched it to the Loire variety) and was for many years the most widely planted variety in the Cape, a position it still holds although not with such impressive margins.

Today, Wines of South Africa claims that, of South Africa’s 99,463 hectares of wine grapes, white varieties constitute 54.6% of the plantings, with chenin blanc accounting for some 18.0% –  or 17, 903 hectares – of the total. This is around double that in the Loire.

Click For Large ViewAt a brief meeting in London recently, Karishma Grover of Grover Zampa Vineyards mentioned that chenin blanc in India is, similarly, one of the most planted varieties. However, it is not experiencing the renaissance that chenin blanc in South Africa is enjoying, she said.

Multitude of Styles

According to Platter’s SA Wine Guide 2016 (which was released less than a month ago) there are About 41 off-dry or semi sweet style chenin coming from the Cape, some 253 dry and unwooded bottling, and 228 dry and wooded wines.

Understandably (because how many lists can anyone guide publish without falling foul of over- analysis?), the guide doesn’t provide a breakdown of how many blends with chenin there are – think of the utterly fantastic AA Badenhorst Family White, Alheit Cartology,David & Nadia Sadie Aristagos and Sadie Family Wines Palladius to name just a few; nor how many sparkling wines are made from the variety – Ken Forrester Wines’ Sparkle Horse is a favourite; nor  how many late harvest, special Late Harvest or noble late harvest wines rely on the variety – here Nederburg’s Edelkeur, one of the Cape’s first unfortified but botrytised dessert wines, is a global icon.

A Viticulturist’s View point

Click For Large ViewAccording to consulting viticulturist Rosa Kruger, the beauty of chenin in South Africa is that it can grow in many different climates and still make a good wine in each.  It can also bear a decent crop (7 tons per hectare) and still make a good wine. At the same time in the richer soils, it can bear a really heavy crop and make money for the farmer, if not what wine anoraks would classify as ‘good wine’.

“In South Africa, chenin blanc can really be the workhorse and the legend, depending on where it grows and how it is farmed. Think of the old vine chenins of Skurfberg at 5 tons per hectare and the chenins growing next to some rivers at 30 tons per hectare ... in a diverse wine market, each has its place,” she said.

While chenin is planted in most of South Africa’s diverse appellations (or wine producing areas), Kruger has found that in Stellenbosch, the good chenin grows on the ridges or well drained soils, not on the very rich soils you can find on the Helderberg. In the Paardeberg, it shines on granite and then again also on the red sand on clay in the aforementioned Skurfberg.

“I will always love the chenins from Skurfberg crafted by Eben Sadie. For me, those wines exhibit the heat and fynbos and red sand of that terroir so beautifully.”

Chenin from Old Vines

The real excitement when it comes to chenin blanc at the moment is to be found in wines made from old vines. ‘Old vine’ in a South African context is a moveable target but Kruger’s web site – – lists vineyard sites that are older than 35 years. Several of the vineyards that are providing the fruit for complex, concentrated, steely and almost ethereal wines are closer to 65 years old.

Much is made of the fact that the ‘old vine goodies’ are coming out of the Swartland but, in truth, old chenin vineyards can be found in the Breedekloof (oldest planted in 1962), Klein Karoo (1965 – but there’s much older palomino and muscat here), Olifantsrivier/Olifants River (1960), Paarl (1952), Robertson (1948), Stellenbosch (1942), Swartland (1961) and Worcester (1974).

‘Old vine goodies’ are also typically small production and relatively pricy but they don’t disappoint. Personal favourites new to the market this year are Adoro Wines’ Naudé Old Vines Chenin Blanc, David & Nadia Sadie’s Skaliekop Chenin Blanc and Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc, and Overhex The Survivor Chenin Blanc.

Typically, Kruger puts her finger on the pulse of where the future of chenin in South Africa might lie: “The co-ops are the real landlords of the vineyards in South Africa, and some co-ops are now making old vine chenin separately in smaller tanks. I can’t wait to see what they are going to present to us from their old blocks that we don't even know exist.”

Click For Large ViewCathy Van Zyl MW

Cathy is the first South African Master of Wine who has cleared the exam while living on the tip of Africa. She judges locally and internationally and is the chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine's education committee. She contributes occasionally to wine journals and web sites around the world, but spends most of her wine-time as the associate editor of Platter's South African Wine Guide.

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