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World's Best Budget Quaffing Wine: South African Chenin Blanc
By Michael Franz
Aug 23, 2016
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For better and worse, I live in Washington, D.C., where the entire month of August is akin to a steam bath.  On the plus side, D.C. is also the USA’s leading city in terms of per capita wine consumption, so those living here know a little bit about what to drink when temperatures soar.  What’s the best wine to drink during torrid summer conditions?  I’ve already tipped my hand with the title of this column, but let me assert my answer again:  Chenin Blanc from South Africa is the best choice for anyone who wants a highly consistent, thoroughly satisfying, surprisingly durable, excitingly refreshing wine that offers outstanding value and excellent versatility at the table. 

If my assertion doesn’t immediately convince you, perhaps that’s because you haven’t kept abreast of the phenomenal rise in quality that South African wine has shown in overall terms during recent years.  Or, alternatively, it may be because you’ve tasted some underwhelming renditions of the Chenin Blanc grape variety, of which there are--admittedly--more than a few from around the world.  But read on.  South Africa has succeeded brilliantly in getting excellent quality from this variety, and it is selling them at extremely attractive prices.

If past encounters have prevented you from recognizing Chenin Blanc as a thoroughbred, that’s probably because it is most often employed as a workhorse--or even a cash cow.  Its natural attributes suit it to these inglorious roles (and all-too-well, for the sake of its reputation).  Vigorous in growth and abundant in yield, Chenin vines are also resistant to heat, wind, and many maladies and pests that afflict other varieties.

Consequently, virtually every country and region that has planted Chenin Blanc has employed this hardy, heavy-bearing variety as a base for vin ordinaire.  This is emphatically the case in California, where yields in the hot Central Valley are cranked up as high as 10 tons per acre (or 175 hectoliters per hectare).  Much the same is true elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand.

Historically, winegrowers in South Africa have also been quite content to exploit Chenin's productivity.  It is widely believed that Chenin was among the first bundles of vine cuttings imported by industry pioneer Jan van Riebeeck in 1655, along with Semillon (or Groendruif) and Listan, which is better known as Palomino in Spain.  Chenin has played a major role in South African viticulture ever since.

The grape was known as "Steen" from early on, and the name persists as a synonym to this day.  The leading theory attributes this to confusion between grapes, followed by Dutch settlers transforming the French word "Listan" to "La Stan," then to "De Steen," and finally to "Steen."  Long thought to be of Germanic origin, Steen was not reconnected to its European source until 1963, when Viticulture Professor C. J. Orffer from the University of Stellenbosch definitively identified Steen as Chenin Blanc.

Chenin Blanc's identity may have remained unclear for centuries in South Africa, but its strong and versatile performance characteristics were apparently clear from the outset.  Chenin fared particularly well once planted, handling all the viticultural challenges thrown its way in the broader Cape region.  Its performance in the cellar was at least as strong as in the vineyard, and enterprising South Africans found it suitable not only for all manner of sweet, dry and sparkling wines, but also for a wide range of fortified wines and spirits.

Impressive though this versatility may be, it was also a hindrance to appreciation of South Africa’s Chenins in world markets, as there wasn’t a single, dominant product profile for consumers to rely upon.  That has changed in recent years, however, and when you now see a bottle on a retail store shelf or wine list, here’s what you’re overwhelmingly likely to get:  A medium-bodied, essentially dry wine, with subtle aromas but satisfying mid-palate substance, energized by bright acidity that is usually softened by just the slightest bit of residual sweetness.  The wine may also be softened a bit by ageing in oak, but almost all vintners in South Africa have now turned against using new wood, which was a trend of note about a decade ago.  Many renditions are vinified solely in steel tanks, and most are now finished with screw cap closures.

All of this adds up to a wine with outstanding refreshment value--like Sauvignon Blanc--but without the pungency or shrillness that turns many consumers away from Sauvignon, and with broader usefulness at the table.

Many of these wines ring up for less than $15 in the USA, and sometimes less than $10, but offer excellent quality as well as eye-popping value.  The U.S. Dollar’s strength against South Africa’s Rand is partly to account for this, but in any case, these wines are very tough competitors in their price range against any whites from anywhere else in the world. 

The list of recommended wines below includes a few special bottlings that are higher in price, but in most cases, the producer also offers entry-level wines that are very affordable.  For example, Ken Forrester’s “The FMC” is selling for $50 - $65 across the USA, but the “Petit” bottling is being offered for as little as $8…and it is consistently delicious.  Wines are listed by producer in alphabetical order, and I’ve deliberately left vintage dates out for two reasons:  Almost all of these wines actually improve for at least a year or two after release, so there’s no reason to worry about buying a vintage that is a couple of years old, and second, there’s relatively little vintage variation in the broader Cape region from whence all of these wines are sourced:

Alvi’s Drift (Worcester) “Signature”:  A textured wine with good grip despite some fleshiness, with acidity that can be so prominent as to be pleasantly “stinging”

Badenhorst Family (Swartland) “Secateurs”:  Always beautifully balanced, with satisfying flavors but excellent freshness.  And when I write, “always,” I really mean it:  I’ve never tasted a vintage of this wine that wasn’t totally convincing

Beaumont (Bot River) “Hope Marguerite”:  This is often softer in style than the norm, with a faintly honeyed character

Bryant MacRobert Wines (Swartland):  Ripe and rounded, but with good mid-palate grip and sneaky acidity that provides lift and cut in the finish

DeMorgenzon (Stellenbosch) Reserve:  Often a dramatic, impressively layered wine featuring opulent notes of peaches and honey, but with zesty citrus edging

Doran Vineyards (Swartland) Barrel Fermented:  Don’t let the mention of wood scare you off, as the oak does not stand out as an overt element, and the wine comes off as complete and balanced

Jean Daneel (Western Cape) “Signature”:  Even after several years in bottle, this can show intricate floral aromas and interesting mineral nuances in the finish

Kaapzicht (Stellenbosch):  Made from very old vines (no kidding…nearly 70 years old), this starts subtly, but builds to an almost dramatic finish with surprising intensity of flavor and very well integrated acidity

Kleine Zalze (Stellenbosch) “Vineyard Selection”:  Delightfully expressive and lifted, with floral topnotes and very fresh fruit flavors

KWV (Paarl) “The Mentors”:  A “statement” wine that shows a lot of power and grip, but still comes off as graceful

Mulderbosch (Stellenbosch) Single Vineyard “Block W”:  Mulderbosch makes a standard-issue Chenin that is always quite solid, but look for this special bottling, which is capable of 5-10 years of positive development

Pederberg (Paarl) “Dry Land Collection” Barrel Fermented”:  You’d probably never know that this was barrel fermented if the label didn’t set this forth, as the wine is fresh, floral and juicy, with very open flavors

Raats Family (Stellenbosch) “Original,” and “Old Vines”:  The “Original” bottling is quite fresh and very consistent, whereas the “Old Vines” rendition is richer and capable of improvement for at least 5 years

Ken Forrester (Stellenbosch) “Petite,” “Old Vine,” and “The FMC”:  The “Petite” bottling is among the world’s best affordable wines; the “Old Vine” version adds weight but still offers excellent refreshment, and “The FMC” is one of the world’s most complex and complete renderings of this grape from anywhere in the world…the kind of wine that makes for sleepless nights in France’s Loire Valley

Opstal Estate (Slanghoek) “Carl Everson”:  This shows a little more honeyed sweetness than most contemporary Chenins, but there’s plenty of crisp acidity to achieve a balanced finish

Simonsig (Stellenbosch):  Consistently very well balanced and integrated, with plenty of layering and nuance

Spier 1692 (Tygerberg) “21 Gables”:  Juicy and open fruit character can make this seem a little obvious when first sipped, but then crackly acidity in the finish shows this to be a serious wine with excellent texture and interplay between fruit and structure