Chenin Blanc Struts Its Stuff

South Africa’s iconic white wine has evolved into a multifaceted star, molded by the hands of inspired winemakers.


Published:

While the Loire Valley may be the viticultural birthplace of Chenin Blanc, the variety has found a second home in South Africa. Representing 18% of the country’s total acreage under vine, Chenin Blanc is currently that country’s most widely planted grape.

Chenin’s popularity in the New World originally stemmed from its vigorous, high-yielding vines. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc was used in the semisweet Lieberstein (once the world’s largest-selling bottled wine), to add acidity to bulk blends or as the base for brandy distillation.

The result was a reputation as a workhorse variety that offered a neutral experience, rather than one driven by terroir or complexity.

“We have a long history with Chenin, and it really is the cornerstone of our industry,” says Chris Mullineux of Mullineux Family Wines. “It’s no coincidence that in Afrikaans, a brick is translated as Steen [an alias of the grape],” he says. “It’s the most widely planted grape variety in the country, and what makes it unique is how versatile it is here.”

Today, South African Chenin Blanc is having a moment of reinvention and reintroduction to the world, proving itself a noble variety capable of producing world-class wines. Chenin Blanc thrives in many of the country’s designated WO (Wine of Origin) regions, producing particularly stunning wines in Stellenbosch, Swartland and the Coastal Region.

“We have the most plantings of Chenin Blanc of any wine region in the world, and it’s distributed across many different sites,” says Ken Forrester, current chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA) and winemaker at his eponymous winery in Stellenbosch.

“As well as having the most, we also have a large percentage of older vineyards,” he adds, speaking to the renewed interest in old-vine Chenin Blanc. Old bush vines whose yields have been controlled are said to produce the most intensely flavored selections and best express their individual terroirs.

Formed in 2000, the CBA was established to promote Chenin’s noble heritage and establish a new, high-quality image for the variety. While there are no official rules on labeling styles yet, the CBA currently recognizes six different styles of Chenin Blanc. Labeling regulations are in the works to help consumers understand what they can expect from any given bottle.

“Chenin’s big challenge is to convey a strong stylistic image that consumers can identify with,” says Mullineux.

To simplify things and help you identify the Chenin style you like best, here are snapshots of four main categories: fresh and fruity, oaked, sweet and blended.

Fresh and Fruity

Meant to be consumed young, the fresh-and-fruity category is a refreshing and approachable style of Chenin Blanc. “Maturation in tank allows the true fruit expression of Chenin to come through,” says Sebastian Beaumont, winemaker at Beaumont Wines.

Bright, fruit-forward aromas and flavors can range from tart Granny Smith apple, green plum and lime to more robust notes of ripe stone or tropical fruit, melon and clementine, framed by lifting acidity. There can also be lively herbal or floral characters, like wild scrub bush or orange blossom. Attractive nuances of fynbos—the Afrikaans term for the natural shrubs and vegetation that stretch across the Western Cape—often add a distinctly South African character to the bouquet, as do delicate mineral hints of slate, chalk and flint.

“The Chenin Blanc style I prefer must show white and yellow fruit on the nose, combined with soft citrus flavors and mineral hints,” says Bruwer Raats, owner and winemaker of Raats Family Wines. “The palate must show a bright entrance, richness on the midpalate, with a very fresh and clean finish that shows a well-balanced minerality and acidity. If you can produce a Chenin Blanc like this, it doesn’t matter whether oak was used or not.”

Fresh and fruity Chenin is an attractive alternative to unoaked Chardonnay. “The magic of Chardonnay is its amazing ability to interact with barrels and transform itself from something quite simple to something rich and complex,” says David Trafford, owner and winemaker of De Trafford Wines and Sijnn. “Rich and ripe unwooded Chenin from South Africa is a far better option.”

Three to try:

88 Raats Family 2011 Original Unwooded Chenin Blanc (Coastal Region). Cape Classics.
abv:
13%         Price: $15

87 MAN Vintners 2011 Cuvée V Chenin Blanc (Coastal Region). Vineyard Brands. Best Buy.
abv:
12.5%      Price: $11

86 Spier 2011 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Indigo Wine Group. Best Buy.
abv:
13%         Price: $10

Oaked

Traditionally, most South African Chenin Blanc was made in a fresh and fruit-forward style. Recently, though, there has been more attention placed upon rich, oaked selections that display depth of flavor, power and potential to age.

“We have worked hard over the years to get the oaking in balance,” says Beaumont. “Chenin doesn’t like a lot of new wood, so finding the balance is critical, and then allowing the wine to fill out with oxidation and lees contact is fantastic. These wines can age and develop fantastic complexity.”

Oaked Chenins exhibit woody or nutty characteristics, including notes of sweet spices, toast, vanilla and cream, and a ripe fruit core. The oak-derived accents can also complement a wine’s minerality, especially when that’s expressed as flint or slate.

“We aim for balance and complexity,” says Mullineux. “We do not aim for overly reductive or oxidative styles; we want some richness and texture, but there must always be freshness. Our Chenins tend to be mostly fermented in neutral (used) barriques, and are dry, with good texture and not excessive alcohols.”

The naturally high acidity of the variety, rich fruit and lushly textured palate give the promise of longevity to judiciously oaked Chenins. With time, the components of the wine will mellow and integrate, resulting in a smooth, nuanced wine that’s best consumed three or more years after release.

“I love Chenin to show its pure white fruit, pears and apples as well as some honey character, but importantly, one should always taste [and] feel the minerality,” says Forrester. “I do prefer the fuller, riper style, and balance is everything.”

Three to try:

92 Beaumont 2010 Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc (Bot River). wine@34south 
abv:
13%      Price: $28

92 Jean Daneel 2010 Signature Chenin Blanc (Western Cape). Z Wines USA.
abv:
14%      Price: $28

91 Simonsig 2010 Avec Chêne Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Quintessential Wines.
abv:
14%      Price: $35

Blended

Given its amiable character and high acidity, Chenin Blanc makes a great blending grape. Although its fruit character varies depending on where it’s sourced from, the grape often lends great zip and freshness to a blend.

The variety is well suited to a wide range of terroirs, and can contribute different characteristics to a final wine depending on the source site. “The decomposed Table Mountain sandstone-based soils give you white and yellow fruit with a lot of structure and richness,” notes Raats, “whereas the decomposed Dolomite granite soils give you citrus, lime and minerality on the nose, and linearity on the palate with great acidity and freshness.”

Thanks to it’s overall versatility, Chenin Blanc acts as an adaptable canvas of aromas and flavors as a base for a blend, playing well with others while adding its own identity and terroir.

“We feel Chenin works really well in blends, and in the Swartland, we believe it works best in blends,” says Mullineux. “Because we are slightly warmer, our growing season is a bit shorter than other regions. Chenin doesn’t have as much time to build aromatic complexity, so blending is a way to make up for this.”

Chenin’s most common blending partners include Sauvignon Blanc for aggressive fruit, Viognier for floral aromas, Chardonnay or Clairette for a rounder mouthfeel and body and Grenache Blanc for weight and freshness.

“I think that Chenin as a blending grape works very well,” says Beaumont. “I think the trick is again elegance and lightness, rather than powering a wine with one after the other heavy layer of fruit.”

Three to try:

90 Mullineux 2010 White (Swartland). Kysela Père et Fils.
abv:
13.5%      Price: $28

90 Sijnn 2010 White (Malgas). Boutique Wine Collection.
abv:
14.5%      Price: $35

88 Thokozani 2010 Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay-Viognier (Wellington). Cahoots.
abv:
13.5%      Price: $17

Sweet

Chenin Blanc produces some of the world’s most stunningly balanced dessert wines. Their concentrated flavors result in intense, layered wines in which decadent fruit flavors of dried apricots and honeyed peaches are matched with cleansing acidity.

Sweet wines usually take a long time to ferment due to their high sugar content, and they typically spend a good amount of time in oak. Although the type of barrel used and length of aging will vary, many sweet Chenins exhibit developed, woody notes of nuts, toast and sweet spices, like cinnamon, clove and ginger. Because of their intense concentration and high natural acidity, sweet wines are ideal for long-term cellaring, often drinking beautifully 5, 10 or 20 years after release.

The most common methods of production include selective late harvesting and partial drying. Late harvest wines are produced from grapes that are typically infected with Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which causes the grapes to lose their water content. Straw wines are produced from grapes that are dried after harvesting to concentrate their juice.

“The Straw Wine is really a labor of love,” says Trafford. Not only do the grapes need to be laid out on drying racks and turned every two weeks while any bad berries are removed, but additional perils and long-term responsibilities abound.

“If we get substantial rain, the crop or the batch that’s drying can be ruined,” says Trafford. “Pressing takes ages and keeping the volatile acidity down is difficult. The wine usually takes at least a year to ferment, so [it] has to be constantly monitored.”

Three to try:

93 De Trafford 2008 Straw Wine (Stellenbosch). Boutique Wine Collection.
abv:
13.5%     Price: $50/375 ml

92 Ken Forrester 2009 T Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Cape Classics.
abv:
12.5%     Price: $55/375 ml

90 Rudera 2008 Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). DRG Imports.
abv:
12.5%     Price: $27/375 ml

Aging Chenin Blanc

One of the most remarkable qualities of Chenin Blanc is its ability to age gracefully. Although some styles are best consumed young, many have the potential to fill your cellar at a fraction of the cost of other collectible white and dessert wines. Five South African winemakers share their thoughts on cellaring special Chenins.

Bruwer Raats, Raats Family Wines “It is well-known that Chenin Blanc has the ability to age well because of its low pH and higher acidity. With aging, Chenin Blanc becomes richer and more complex and starts to show that honey, hay and spiciness that makes older Chenin Blanc so desirable. Chenin Blanc also has the ability to show great power with elegance and freshness, perfect for food…great acidity, lots of fruit and minerality, but not overpowering, and become very complex with aging.”

Chris Mullineux, Mullineux Family Wines “We think they age really well, especially wines made from older vineyards where we get fantastic pHs. Some styles are made to drink now, but great examples from South Africa can easily age 10 years and more—our Straw Wine for much longer (20 years easily).”

David Trafford, De Trafford Wines and Sijnn “Chenin Blanc ages extremely well, especially the sweeter wines. Most consumers don’t seem to be too fond of mature, dry white wines, but they’re missing a lot. Most of the top 10 or 20 dry Chenins in South Africa are appealing in their first few years, but are probably best between three and six years. It does vary a lot, though, and we don’t yet have the critical mass of great wines to be able to confidently generalize.”

Ken Forrester, Ken Forrester Vineyards “Chenin Blanc—good, well-balanced Chenin— ages beautifully. Fresh and fruity wines are probably for early drinking. As you head towards fuller wines, they need to be balanced with minerality and acidity, and these wines can be perfectly poised to last a very long time, certainly 10 years and perhaps as long as 20 years. Sweet, dessert-styled Chenin from botrytis grapes is also generally able to age and improve for a great deal of time, perhaps 20 years as well.”

Sebastian Beaumont, Beaumont Wines “Like with all varieties, it depends mostly on the pH-acid relationship and the weight of the wine. Look at the Loire styles as extreme proof of this.”

To get three ultimate Chenin Blanc-and-food pairings, click here.

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