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South African Chenin Blanc: From Workhorse to Thoroughbred
By Michael Franz
May 12, 2015
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As we near the 10th anniversary of Wine Review Online in early August, I’ve been reflecting on the most important developments in the world of wine over that time span.  One of them is the rapid rise of quality of wines from South Africa, and another of them is the increasing respect now accorded to the Chenin Blanc grape variety by wine aficionados and writers.  To some extent, these are distinct developments, as South African wine has improved quite broadly, with different regions and varieties showing impressive development.  Likewise, Chenins from France’s Loire Valley and a few other quarters around the world have both caused and benefitted from the updraft in critical acclaim for Chenin.  Nevertheless, the two trends definitely run in parallel, as South African Chenin has greatly benefitted both the country and the cultivar by rocketing up in quality while holding steady on price.

To be sure, Chenin Blanc still gets its share of bad press, but before addressing that, we should remember that every grape variety bearing the capacity to make great wines with distinctive character must also bear the occasional insult.

Sauvignon Blanc's detractors call it pungent and shrill.  Cabernet's critics chide it for being angular and hard, and Merlot gets maligned for being gutless and facile.  However, anyone with a fair mind and an experienced palate knows that these are great grapes, and that their greatness is undiminished by the fact that a partisan critic could point to plenty of poor renditions.  If you've tasted just one great bottle of Latour or Petrus, no one will ever be able to convince you that Cabernet or Merlot is a second-rate variety.

Chenin Blanc belongs in this league of great grapes, but its greatness is underappreciated for two key reasons.  First, its reputation suffers from the sad fact that many Chenins made around the world really are boringly bland or downright offensive.

Second, few consumers have tasted a truly great Chenin Blanc that could immunize their opinion of the grape against all of those bland or offensive renditions.  Excellent Cabernets are made in many places around the world, and they have long convinced millions of tasters that the Cabernet variety ought not to be dismissed on account of its less attractive representatives.  By contrast, excellent Chenins have trickled into world markets during the past century from only one tributary:  France's Loire Valley.

That, however, has changed.  During the past 15 years or so, many South African vintners have heightened the seriousness with which they craft Chenin Blanc, and the seriously delicious wines they are now exporting are helping to teach the world an important lesson about the heights this grape can reach.

Chenin's African Past

Those who fail to recognize Chenin Blanc as a thoroughbred can be excused on the ground that 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.

Thanks to its resilience and versatility, Chenin Blanc was South Africa's most widely planted variety when the country resumed exports to all global markets in the early 1990s.  With over 30,000 hectares (or 70,000 acres) devoted to it, Chenin claimed more than a third of South Africa's vineyard area.

Chenin Hits Bottom

There was, however, one thing that South African Chenin Blanc could not claim in the early 1990s:  Greatness.  Consumers within and beyond South Africa tended overwhelmingly to regard the grape with indifference, with the result that no real market existed for serious renditions of the grape.

Indifference among consumers is easy enough to understand.  If South Africa was guilty of treating Chenin as a workhorse, so too were all of the other countries working with it outside of France.  One or two vintners in each country were trying to get something special out of the grape, but their efforts hardly attained a critical mass that could impact global perceptions.

Within France, serious regard for Chenin never waned, at least among the most conscientious vignerons.  However, even in the Loire, a candid appraisal reveals that truly great Chenins are only made in small quantities by relatively few producers and in favorable growing seasons--which are anything but routine in the Anjou-Touraine region.  Great renditions are vastly outnumbered by négotiant bottlings that are correct at best and, at worst, sulfurous, sugary, sharp or dirty.

Where global perceptions among consumers are concerned, there is also the serious problem that great examples from the Loire do not carry the name Chenin Blanc--much less Steen.  It is only the rare connoisseur and not the average wine shopper (even within France itself) who knows anything substantial about Savennières, Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Quarts-de-Chaume, Montlouis or Jasnières.

Few consumers know these appellations, and fewer still know that Chenin Blanc is the grape behind them.  More know of Vouvray, but Vouvray is made in so many styles that it hardly helps fix Chenin's profile for consumers.  And there is also the problem that many of the sulfurous, sharp bottlings that drag down perceptions are precisely négotiant Vouvrays.

This, then, was the grim situation confronting South African producers in the 1990s.  International markets were unknowing or unenthusiastic about Chenin or Steen, and domestic consumers regarded the wines as bland stuff unbefitting a special occasion or even a moderate price.

This depressed prices for Chenin grapes within the wine trade, prompting some producers to compensate by bumping up crop yields to levels that further aggravated the blandness problem.  Others cut bait on Chenin Blanc altogether, turning their attention toward Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

Chenin on the Rebound

Chenin Blanc had nowhere to go but up by the second half of the 1990s.  But up it came, thanks to the fact that potential greatness confers a certain buoyancy upon a grape that neither historical nor commercial misfortune can deflate.

An initial impetus for taking Chenin more seriously was exerted in 1995 when a group of British Masters of Wine visited the Cape region.  By all accounts, the MWs expressed admiration for the best South African Chenins-but also dismay that so many fine grapes were being lost by inclusion in mediocre, multi-variety blends.

Encouragement from this contingent to take Chenin more seriously had an almost immediate effect on several different fronts.  Masters of Wine based around the Cape organized a Chenin Blanc Symposium in 1996 that facilitated an exchange of technical information while also greatly enhancing general enthusiasm for the grape among producers.  Another important stimulus was provided by South Africa-based Wine magazine, which began an annual Chenin Blanc Challenge that continues to draw wide notice each year among consumers and members of the trade alike.

Perhaps the most significant development was the formation of the Chenin Blanc Association, a cooperative endeavor of more than 65 producers devoted to enhancing both the quality and image of the variety.  By providing strategic guidance, tactics for marketing, and technical assistance regarding viticultural and winemaking practices, the Chenin Blanc Association has provided a highly dynamic core for the general effort to actualize all of the grape's strong latent potential in South Africa.

Several changes in vineyards and wineries seem to provide the keys to unlocking that potential.  The most important involves recognition that yields must be restricted.  A related recognition is that old, low-yielding, head-pruned "bush" vines should be treasured rather than spurned on account of their meager but high quality fruit.  Additionally, yields are being restricted for younger vines by means of more rigorous pruning.  Many producers are also picking Chenin at a later, riper stage to assure full flavor development.

In winemaking circles, a great deal of experimentation has been undertaken with oak, including both new and more mature wood (used for fermentation, for ageing, or for both).  Whether the effects of oak are appropriate for South African Chenin remains a hot topic of controversy.  However, there can be no question that these experiments have greatly diversified the range of wines now available to consumers, and one also senses that the controversy itself has pushed winemakers from all camps to intensify their efforts to provide exemplary wines as representatives for their preferred profile.

The delightful result of all of this is that we now have access to a broad set of wines displaying all the different dimensions of which Chenin Blanc is capable.  The grape can make very fine sparkling wines, and these remain especially important in the domestic market.  Among still table wines, some are impeccably dry, featuring fresh primary fruit with crisp acidity.  Others are fuller and riper but still based squarely on character drawn from fruit rather than oak.  Another style shares the fuller, riper profile but seeks to augment fruit notes with spicy, smoky accents from oak.

Almost all of the different styles now sold within South Africa and in export markets are rounder in texture and less acidic than their famous Loire counterparts, and are usually finished with less residual sugar. 

Perhaps the most important category of South African Chenins now sold in the American market is dry, inexpensive, and screw-capped for freshness as well as convenience.  These wines ring up for less than $15 and sometimes less than $10, but offer excellent quality as well as eye-popping value.  The 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.  Particular wines to look for include Badenhorst Family “Secateurs,” Dornier “Coco Hill,” Essay, Graham Beck “The Game Reserve,” Indaba, Ken Forrester “Old Vine Reserve,” Ken Forrester “Petit,” Man, Protea, Raats, Raats “Original,” Remhoogte, Robertson Winery, and Simonsig.  These wines are very strong performers at price levels that can entice an entire new generation of wine lovers, suggesting that South Africa can help return Chenin Blanc to its rightful rank among the world's best and most widely admired wines.