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Posted: Saturday, 26 October 2019 09:43

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Rise and Rise of Chenin Blanc in South Africa

Oct 26: While previously grown almost exclusively in South Africa and France, Chenin Blanc is now cultivated in 23 countries including India and has become the world’s 26th most planted variety, covering about 33000-36,000 hA. With 17,000 hA in South Africa and this year’s winners of the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge in that country, provide ample evidence of its major advances with the variety, including vinifying a variety of styles at different price-points so as to please every palate and pocket, writes Cathy Van Zyl MW, a South African resident and ardent follower of the variety

There were 150 entries from 87 producers in this year’s Challenge. This is slightly less than the 159 entries in 2018, but still higher than the 136 entries in 2017, the 124 in 2016 and the 126 for the 2014 Challenge, and also tops the previous high of 145 entries received for the 2015 Challenge.

Of the 150 entries, 113 wines were indicated as wooded on the entry form (2018 – 113), equivalent to 75% (2018 - 71%). Obviously, 37 wines were unwooded (2018 – 46), equivalent to 25% (29%). However, this distinction between wooded and unwooded is becoming more and more moot as we see the rise in the use of older barrels, eggs, concrete tanks and amphoras.

Indeed, of the 2019 Top 10 wines, one wine included a 35% portion fermented in concrete eggs (Stellenrust), all 10 wines included portions either fermented or matured in wood, the largest new oak percentage was 70% and three only used older oak. There was also a wine using American barrels (Durbanville Hills).

Older vineyards dominate

Again, one of the characteristics of this year’s Top 10 Challenge 2018 wines is the dominance of older vineyards. While one of the winners comes from 8-year old vines and another from a 10-year old vineyard, the others come from vines that are older than 30 years. Indeed, the oldest vineyard in the line-up is 55-years old.

Residual sugars seem to be creeping up, but in conjunction with higher levels of acidity. One of the winners has a residual sugar of 7.6 g/l (with a corresponding acidity of 6.2 g/l – Ken Forrester Wines) and the lowest was 1.9 g/l residual (6.45 g/l acidity – Durbanville Hills). There are five wines with over 4 g/l residual sugar.

My fellow judges and I only briefly discussed what I term the ‘sauvignon-esque’ characters shown by a few of the entries. A few years ago, I would have argued vociferously against a Chenin wine with grassy, herbaceous and green apple tones. Today, however, I believe there is a place for these wines – just as there are for those bottled under screwcaps – and I have been known to drink a few!

A South Africa wine writer, Graham Howe, picked up on my use of the term and wrote about it here. He also mentioned that the association has launched a new sensory aroma wheel based on the aromas of South African Chenin Blanc wines to replace the older wheel based on sugar and ripeness levels.

Finally, I personally think it very encouraging that the average price per bottle for the winning wines had risen to R255,80 (US$17.50) this year, compared with the average in 2018 of $13.67.  Winemakers anywhere producing to world-class standards certainly deserve fair compensation.

The Chenin Blanc Association’s chairman, Ken Forrester, maintains that the growing focus on Chenin by international tastemakers has undoubtedly raised the quality benchmark. I have to agree with him, as the panel had to work hard to find a definitive list of Top 10 wines. It was, as it so often is with this Challenge, a case of whittling down the number of wines worthy of Top 10 status rather than searching to find wines of good enough quality to deserve a place on the list.

Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge2019 winners, in alphabetical order:
· Cederberg Cellars Five Generations Chenin Blanc 2017
· DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2018
· Durbanville Hills Collector's Reserve The Cape Garden Chenin Blanc 2018
· Flagstone Winery Tributary Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2018
· Ken Forrester Wines The FMC 2018
· Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2018
· Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc 2018
· Rijk's Cellar Touch of Oak Chenin Blanc 2017
· Slanghoek Wynkelder Legends Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017
· Stellenrust The Mothership Chenin Blanc 2018

Stellenrust is the only producer to have featured in every one of the Top Ten Challenge lists since the competition’s inception in 2014. DeMorgenzon has appeared every year since 2015. Making their maiden entry to the top 10 line-up are Durbanville Hills, Flagstone and Ken Forrester.

Standard Bank has awarded a cash prize of R25 000 for each of the winning wines to be spent by producers in a way that “reinforces economic and social benefits in the workplace".

Cathy van Zyl MW has chaired the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge for three years, the maximum period permitted by the competition’s protocol. She now steps down as chair but will continue to #drinkchenin.

Cathy Van Zyl MW

Cathy started her wine journey on a bicycle: she asked her husband to ride SA’s famed Cape Town Cycle Tour with her; he accepted if she attended a wine course with him. She has since notched up more than 21 tours - and passed the prestigious Master of Wine examination in 2005. Previously chair of the Institute of Masters of Wine’s education committee, she is now a member of its Council. Cathy judges locally and internationally, occasionally contributes to wine journals and websites around the world, but spends most of her wine-time as associate editor of Platter's South African Wine Guide. In 2019, she was named as the Cape Wine Masters' Personality of the Year for her passionate promotion of South African wine at every conceivable opportunity.

For an earlier related Article, please visit:

Feature: South Africa Chenin Blanc Notches Up A Gear


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