From 82 rand, €9.95, £10.99, NZ$24.99
Visiting South Africa again six weeks ago, I was excited by the number of producers making and shouting about Chenin Blanc.
As is well documented in the Oxford Companion and elsewhere, Chenin – or Steen in local parlance – was the high-volume workhorse of the South African wine industry. In the post-apartheid decade, the variety was overlooked in favour of international varieties. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay stole the white limelight, while Cabernet and Shiraz leapt forward.
Since, back then, Argentina was using its signature variety Malbec to differentiate itself and carve a strong niche in global markets, while Australia, New Zealand and Chile were producing many a Sauvignon and Chardonnay that was either cheaper or finer than South African versions, surely, as the only place outside France with significant plantings of Chenin Blanc, South Africa could have made more of its signature variety?
Time has of course shown that, with wines such as Syrahs from Mullineux and Boekenhoutskloof, Chardonnays like those of Richard Kershaw MW and Iona Chardonnay from Elgin, or Klein Constantia’s Sauvignon Blancs, South Africa can do great things with these international varieties. Nevertheless, the point holds that opportunities for Chenin were perhaps missed.
Thankfully Chenin now seems to be getting the attention it deserves, not least through the impact of work done by Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch and the ‘rebels’ of the Swartland to recuperate the image of the variety, as well as remind South Africa of its viticultural heritage.
And viticultural heritage is a critical point.
Chenin’s history means older vineyards. Of its 17,200 ha (42,500 acres) – the largest plantings of any variety in South Africa – 35.5% are over 20 years of age, compared with 24.5% of Chardonnay, 22.5% of Sauvignon Blanc, 17% of Cabernet and just 13% of Shiraz.
According to the exciting Old Vines Project, out of a grand total of 3,505 ha (8,660 acres) qualifying for OVP status by being over 35 years of age, 1,362 ha are Chenin Blanc. The variety is widely planted across the Cape, but Stellenbosch and Paarl with almost 400 ha each, and Swartland with 335 ha, have the majority of these old vines.
In Stellenbosch, Johan Reyneke, philosophy graduate, surfer dude and champion of biodynamics in South Africa, is one of those helping to drive the Chenin resurgence. The Reyneke Uitzicht winery, which has been bottling wine since 1998, is on the northern side of the region, to the west of the town of Stellenbosch, on the borders of the Polkadraai Hills subregion. As part of the Vinimark Group, Reyneke is a sister brand to the aforementioned Boekenhoutskloof, and winemaker Rudiger Gretschel was previously at Boekenhoutskloof.
Here, the estate’s vineyards include two planted with Chenin Blanc vines that are well over 40 years of age, and these provide the fruit for the OVP-qualifying, Biodynamic Chenin Blanc, shown on the right of my picture above. This is a particularly fine example of what Chenin can do.
But it is the Reyneke Organic Chenin, the wine on the left, that is my wine of the week. The Organic range is their entry-level range, designed to be in a more accessible style than the more structured, restrained wines of the more expensive Biodynamic and Reserve ranges. Here fruit is bought in to augment estate fruit, thus being certified organic rather than biodynamic.
Entry-level these may be, but I found plenty of value in each of three wines tasted, with scores of 15, 15.5 and 16 for the 2018 Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, 2019 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and 2019 Chenin Blanc respectively. Given that these retail for just £10.99 (€12.99, $14.57) in the UK’s smartest supermarket, Waitrose, the Chenin especially stood out as good value (GV).
In the case of the Organic Chenin, a Swartland vineyard 32 km (20 miles) from the Atlantic provides the grapes, which undergo fermentation in stainless steel. This gives that accessibility in the form of bright, generous guava and stone fruit, but with touches of jasmine and nuttiness to add attractive complexity. It’s full and rich, but Chenin’s characteristic acidity still comes through even in this richer, riper style, with a length that’s impressive at this price. Drink it happily over the next two years.
For those outside the UK, Wine-Searcher shows that there’s good availability of the 2018 vintage across Europe, as well as in New Zealand and, of course, in South Africa itself. The 2019 is just hitting the market and available in South Africa, the UK and through Finland’s Alko monopoly.