The great Chenin mystery: Why is South African Chenin Blanc underappreciated?

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

15 January 2019

It has been in South Africa for centuries, and has versatility and value for money to burn. So why isn’t Chenin Blanc the Cape’s answer to Marlborough Sauvignon or Mendozan Malbec? Chris Losh dons his deerstalker to find out

Corner a New World winemaker after a few beers and they will often admit that vast swathes of their country are planted with the wrong grape varieties. That what’s there doesn’t suit the terrain or climate, and if they had the chance to tear it all up and start again, they’d do it very differently.

This isn’t the case for Chenin Blanc in South Africa. In fact, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction: the more the Cape’s growers and winemakers come to terms with the grape, the more they realise it’s a variety that’s in the right place.

It might, admittedly, have got there as much by accident as by design. Chenin cuttings arrived on some of the earliest Dutch ships to dock at the foot of Africa 350 years ago, and nobody seems to know why they were carrying varieties from the Loire.

But the grape’s continued presence ever since is testament to its good fit. Indeed, there’s more Chenin in South Africa now than in its French homeland.

It’s just that it’s often called Steen which, frankly, sounds a lot less enticing than its Gallic equivalent.

Until recently, it must be said that the relationship between Chenin and the country’s growers was more business partnership than starry-eyed romance. Chenin cropped at good levels, wasn’t too temperamental and had a naturally high acidity, all of which made it perfect for South Africa’s brandy industry.

If it started out as a variety that was loved because it rolled up its sleeves, took the bins out when required and didn’t complain too loudly if the grower came back late from the pub, the last 30 years or so have seen a massive change in attitude. Because as well as being a trooper, Chenin Blanc has been discovered to have great potential for making still wine.

Chenin is like a drunk comedian with a personality disorder – it can literally be anything

Leon Coetzee

It has, of course, always been used for this purpose, but it was typically blended with other white varieties for a market that didn’t take whites all that seriously.

This changed in the early 1990s, however, which is when winemaker Ken Forrester estimates the first ambitious single-varietal Chenin Blanc was made by Boschendal.

‘People took to it because it was oaky like Chardonnay. At that time we didn’t have a lot of Chardonnay around,’ he said.

Ken Forrester
Ken Forrester

But conventional thinking regarding the grape didn’t change overnight. Forrester himself bought his first vineyard a few years after Boschendal’s first launch. Just 5km from the ocean, it was 65% planted to Chenin Blanc. All the advice at the time was that he should replace it with Sauvignon Blanc.

Fortunately, given that he’s gone on to become the face of South African Chenin Blanc and a vocal champion of the variety, Forrester held back.

‘I thought it would be presumptuous of me to take out a vineyard that had been there for 25 years,’ he says wryly. ‘I figured if it had been there that long, it couldn’t have been all bad.’

The key point is that Chenin Blanc – a grape that actively likes sun but retains its acidity as it ripens – thrives in what Forrester neatly calls ‘cool sunshine’.

‘In the Loire they have cool in the bag and beg for sunshine, here we have sunshine in the bag and beg for cool,’ he explains. ‘If you can create a site that has elevation or ocean proximity, that bags cool for us – and that’s what makes great Chenin.’

For this reason, Forrester believes that Stellenbosch, with its five hills ‘all pointing in different directions’, multiple soils and proximity to the sea, is where the best Cape Chenins are made.

‘We’re starting to understand Chenin grown on granite, on old decomposed soils and on sandy soils. It’s apparent even in the Loire that those are the biggest differences,’ he concludes.

Green to yellow

In a Chenin Blanc tasting during Cape Wine 2018, the influence of granite was significant, lifting wines grown even in the heat of Wellington, outside Cape Town. In fact, the variety greatly changes personality depending on soil type.

According to Leon Coetzee of The Fledge & Co winery, granite brings acidity, schist gives yellow fruit and fatness, ironstone lends yellow citrus with rosemary, and sandstone a pithy quality.

‘It’s like a drunk comedian with a personality disorder,’ he says cheerfully. ‘It can literally be anything. It’s a metaphor for South Africa because it’s so diverse.’

This variation is due to terroir, but it’s down to picking choices and winemaking too. Pick Chenin early and cold ferment it in stainless steel and you get something in the citrus/grass/white-fruit spectrum, like a blend of unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. But pick it riper, add in some barrel and lees work, and you’ll have a wine that is more in the Chardonnay spectrum – richer, riper and more tropical.

As Diemersfontein’s David Sonnenberg puts it, ‘It can be made well in a lighter style, but with the right treatment it can equate to a good Chardonnay. And it knocks the socks off Sauvignon Blanc!’

Chenin Blanc in restaurants
South Africa’s ‘Mr Chenin’ on why to list it and how to sell it

Why stock Chenin?
Chenin is one of the most food-friendly wines available. It doesn’t attack spice, it’s a gentle wine and it restores your palate. But it doesn’t jump off the list. The work’s got to be done with the public.

So how do you do that?
It’s amazing value. If you put it on by the glass, that’s where people try stuff out. And since it fits stylistically anywhere along the line from Pinot Grigio to Chardonnay, it’s rarely out of place.

How should I create a Chenin section?
You probably need five or six, from fresh and light through riper but unoaked to rich and discreetly oaked. I think you’d also want to have some older wines, too. Old Chenin starts to tell a real story. When you start to taste Chenin that’s 10 years old, you get real wow factor. They’re crazy good value. Old Chenin is a convincing statement all on its own.

The Chardonnay style is, however, changing. ‘There’s a big trend for less oak and more balanced oak, so more fruit characters come through,’ says Abraham de Villiers, winemaker at Stellenbosch Vineyards. ‘We’re often using second-, third- or fourth-fill barrels, but they’re not the [unoaked] easy-drinking Chenins of old – there’s more depth and minerality.’

Those qualities increase with vine age. Ironically, many of the old Chenin vines were originally planted with high-yielding clones for brandy or cheap table wine. But over time, their yields have dropped to give fruit of real character. And here, Chenin has an advantage over some other varieties.

‘The vineyards aren’t like Cabernet in the Cape – they want to go on for a long time,’ says Forrester. ‘I know Chenin vineyards that are over 50-years-old. I don’t know any Cabernet vineyards [here] that are that age.’

A slippery beast

With so much going for the grape, all’s good in the realm of Chenin Blanc, right? Well, not quite. Consumer engagement remains frustratingly low.

Partly it’s because of the dominance of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. But equally that same wide spread of styles that makes Chenin Blanc so interesting to sommeliers and winemakers makes it confusing to punters.

Is it light? Zesty? Rich? Oaky? Sweet? Dry? The answer to all of these questions, unhelpfully, is ‘yes’. Customers know what to expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but Cape Chenin is a much more slippery beast to pin down.

Yet it’s worth the effort. On a small list, Chenin Blanc can cover multiple bases. On larger lists, the more ambitious (and particularly older) wines can give amazing complexity for money. And you can cross-sell into it with confidence.

Kobie Viljoen, winemaker at Villion Family Wines in Botrivier, perhaps sums it up best. ‘I’m keen that it’s used as our flagship wine,’ he says. ‘It’s something unique – we just need customers to start asking for it.’

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