Archive for February, 2009

Chenin Blanc SA’s signature grape?

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Ray Charles famously sang about having Georgia on his mind but, for me, the past few weeks have been about Chenin Blanc. Starting it all off was the WINE mag SurePure Chenin Blanc Challenge awards where I was mightily impressed by the three top wines on display. The judges got it spot on in awarding the Mooiplaas 2008 Chenin Blanc bush vine the top accolade over the Bellingham Maverick and Koelenbosch.

Last week was spent in KwaZulu-Natal, ostensibly to swim the Midmar Mile, but I ended up in the trout fishing mecca of Underberg, hosting a tasting for a group of fledgling wine drinkers. (Note that they specified themselves as ‘drinkers’ and not ‘tasters’!) I’d taken along three Chenins: Simonsig’s 2008 that was judged the Platter Guide’s Superquaffer of the Year (and in the interests of transparency I must state “for the record” that I am an Associate Editor of Platter), Kleine Zalze’s Vineyard Selection 2008 and the winning Mooiplaas bushvine.

What made me choose Chenin over other wines? One reason was probably what Ken Forrester had to say at the awards lunch: that those gathered at Catherina’s restaurant at Steenberg were already the converted. There’s a need to take the message to “the broader church” and make people aware of South Africa’s unsung vinous hero.

As so often happens at tastings, people who were too shy or intimidated to comment publicly, quietly approached me to chat afterwards. Without fail, they loved the stylistic diversity. OK, so “stylistic diversity” is my own winespeak for what they picked up as the noticeable differences in the wines. They might not have got the slight apricot nuances on the Mooiplaas courtesy of a small portion of botrytis – or been able to attribute the nuttiness of the Kleine Zalze to wood influence – but their novice palates had been able to appreciate that there was a difference. I felt as though I’d hit the jackpot! I could see little lightbulbs going on… These people would be less intimidated approaching the array of labels lined up on liquor store or supermarket shelves. They’d do so with less trepidation and a greater spirit of adventure – certainly when it came to Chenin.

And in a strange coincidence of synchronicity, I picked up a copy of the Financial Times Weekend to read on the return flight to Cape Town. Naturally, Jancis Robinson’s column was one of the first items I read. She’s very involved in the Red Nose charity efforts in the UK and I found it really interesting that Ms Robinson had highlighted the wines selected for this year’s fundraisers. The Red Nose White is a…. 2008 Chenin from Paarl, of which she’d written the following: “Distinctly superior, bright-fruited dry white made from South Africa’s signature grape. A bargain.”

The italics are my own, to highlight the increasing esteem for SA Chenin. In a recent blog post, Neil Pendock repeated the Top 50 wines which Matthew Jukes ( another top UK wine writer) tasted at Cape Wine 2008, the national vinous showcase put on by Wines of South Africa. Check out just how many of the wines he raves about are… Chenin Blanc!

So often you’ll hear winemakers say: “wine is made in the vineyard…” – because it’s true. Once the grapes hit the cellar, they won’t improve. It’s also true that the Chenin Blanc portion of the national vineyard has dropped from 33% in 1987 to 18% currently. Old Chenin Blanc vines (20 years or more) are vinous treasures and growers who have these gems should be rewarded for persisting with them. The Chenin Blanc Association has recognised this and moves are afoot to improve the prices paid per ton for old – particularly bush vine – Chenin.

One of the impediments to Chenin being taken seriously over the past decade has been its cheapness. As our winemakers have honed their skills and produced wines with refinement and true class, the average price hasn’t kept pace. But the days of cheap Chenin are numbered. The improving regard for Chenin by both critics and winemakers will translate into higher prices – which is not a bad thing. I’m all for Chenin being taken more seriously.

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