June 25: International Drink Chenin Day was celebrated on June 20, 2020 without much fanfare in India where most wineries have it in their portfolio but the two top producing countries France (Loire Valley) and South Africa were more enthusiastic, even though it has a lot of scope for improvement in India as vines get older and producers experiment with aging in barrels, concrete eggs or amphoras- important factors along with Terroir as observed in two blind competitions, writes Subhash Arora
The first ‘Drink Chenin Day’ was celebrated on 12 June, 2014 in New York and 10 other cities across the USA as the brainchild of a group of US retailers and sommeliers. South Africa joined the campaign in 2016 through its Chenin Blanc Association. It has since expanded to an international celebration with Swan Valley Winemakers in Australia, and Academie du Chenin and Fan de Chenin from Loire joining in.
<INDIAN WINE DAY CURATED BY INDIAN WINE ACADEMY IS CELEBRATED ON 16 NOV>
Over the last couple of decades, Chenin Blanc has been steadily becoming the most important white grape in South Africa which has been hoping to be a leader in this variety. The last couple of decades have seen many improvements; they did not happen overnight as Ken Forrester, a passionate producer and President of the Association, explained when I met him in Cape Town 5 years ago. At my request, Cathy Van Zyl MW who is a Chenin connoisseur and expert in the varietal and resides in Somerset West in the Western Cape, consented to pen an Article for delWine.
“We honestly believe Chenin Blanc is a fantastic driver, probably the most effective, for our industry. It’s a wine category worth investing in, at all levels,” the Forrester had then told us.
‘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 this year was Chenin Blanc,’ wrote Cathy.
‘Chenin blanc has historically been the work horse of the South African industry used for the production of brandy; making sparkling wines, sweet wines, Liebfraumilch-inspired off-dry and dry wines; for unwooded as well as wooded styles; for easy-drinking wines and for those bottled as a single variety and for those to lead or plump out a blend,’ she opined.
Inaugural Chenin Blanc Report from WineMag
Two days before the ‘Day’, the inaugural Prescient Chenin Blanc Report convened by Winemag.co.za was released. There were 88 entries from 57 producers, tasted blind by a panel of 3 tasters. All the scores are published in winemag:
In addition to the Top Ten, 57 wines rated 90/100 points or higher. Thus 76% of the line-up crossed the 90-point threshold. The discussions centred around various styles and divergent expressions. Judges found that there was a real confidence and clarity of vision in the winemaking that generally shone through. “When to pick, how reductive or oxidative to be during vinification and how much new oak to apply” are decisions taken by the winemaking team judiciously. They do not force a particular style but remain true to the Terroir.
A quick scan of the Report’s top 10 reveals that alcohol varied from 12.5% -14.3% and vinification involved all types of vessels, including barrel, concrete egg and foudre (large wooden vats over 300 hL capacity).
Chenin Blanc in South Africa
Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most planted variety with over17,000 hA of surface area, making it 19% of the total vineyard surface. This variety comprised over half the country’s 3,505 hA vines that are older than 35 years. It is extraordinarily versatile grape, capable of producing wines in several styles-from dry to very sweet and even sparkling. One of the oldest and most planted variety in the Cape, it was originally known as Steen. In 1963 it was discovered that it had the same DNA as Chenin in Loire Valley which plants less than half.
Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge 2019
Interestingly, our specialist writer Cathy Van Zyl had already judged in a similar Blind Tasting last year. Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge had 150 entries from 87 producers. Out of these, 113 wines (75%) were wood- aged. However, the distinction between wooded and unwooded is becoming less important with a rise in the use of older barrels, eggs, concrete tanks and amphoras. Of the Top Ten, one wine included a 35% portion fermented in concrete eggs whereas all 10 included portions either fermented or matured in wood, the largest new oak percentage being 70% with only 3 using older oak.
Older vineyards dominate
There was a dominance of older vineyards. While 2 winners came from 8 to10-year-old vines, the others come from vines older than 30 years, oldest being 55-years old! Residual sugars were slightly higher but carried higher levels of acidity. The winner with highest residual sugar had 7.6 g/l (with acidity of 6.2 g/l) while the lowest was 1.9 g/l with 6.45 g/l acidity); 5 wines had over 4 g/l residual sugar. It was interesting to taste Chenin with grassy, herbaceous and green apple tones like Sauvignon Blanc.
‘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. It provides 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’, wrote Cathy.
Chenin Blanc in India
In India, Chenin Blanc is perhaps the most widely grown white variety. Accurate figures are not available, but it is produced in dry to off-dry form with a few producers crafting the Late Harvest sweet version at affordable prices. Due to high yields of up to 5 tons an acre, it is a darling for producers making low-ended wines. Sula, Grover, York and Fratelli make quality drinkable versions. Every producer makes it in different variants, with many buying grapes from contracted farmers as it is the easiest planted variety. Hazarding a guess, I would put it about 300,000-400,000 cases of Chenin Blanc used in all variants across the spectrum.
Chenin makes excellent quality Sparkling wine. In fact, most Indian producers, after graduating from Thompson Seedless grapes grown by the now-defunct Indage Vintners, switched to Chenin Blanc.
Sula also makes a Reserve version by aging a little in oak and making it more complex and creamy. It pioneered Chenin Blanc as a varietal with high sugar content of about 2%- penetrating into the novices’ market with penchant for slightly sweet wines and suggested paring with spicy Indian food. It has brought it down now to 12-14 gms/liter and would bring down further with market preference.
Grover has imported concrete eggs and amphoras and will undoubtedly bring out a top variant. It also blends it in One Tree Hill with Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. York makes an off-dry version, partially fermented and matured in French Oak Barrels.
It has been otherwise a workhorse for producers but with no significant improvement in quality over the years; one reason being its relatively high yields, making it available at very reasonable prices.
Terroir as a factor
While the ageing of wine and yields is an important factor as is the age of vines to make high quality Chenin Blanc, terroir is even more relevant as the well-known viticulture consultant Rosa Kruger explained in the Article by Cathy.
Rosa recommends bush vines with a little irrigation and fertilisers with well-drained soil and not much vigour. Warm climate during the day and cool temperature at night like in Nashik, Bangalore and Hampi is fine if there is not much problem of rains diluting the grape during harvest. Granite, sand, clay or soft shale are recommended soils. She also affirms that older vines are important for better quality wines. One thinks of KRISMA wines in Karnataka right away-pity they did not consider planting these vines 12 years ago- today they could have been ready with the best Chenin Blanc in India.
Although there may be an increasing number of these vines in India with 20- years age. Special selection of grapes and a balance of oak and fruits could give an elegant wine, but it is doubtful if the Terroir was looked into. A vast majority of producers used to buy the grapes and still do, without impeccable control on quality and the yields.
Chenin Blanc has not been given enough respect. But producers with penchant for elegance and complexity would do well to give it another look-beyond making it an easy selling off- dry version available in India generally.
The following Articles by our Chenin Blanc resident expert from South Africa, Cathy Van Zyl MW are worth looking at. For any comments or query, please write:
Rise and Rise of Chenin Blanc in South Africa
Feature: South Africa Chenin Blanc Notches Up A Gear