Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

A Chenin Blanc welcome

On Sunday I arrived in South Africa to do a 10-day research trip for the WSET, a fantastic opportunity to see the South African wine revolution at first hand.  The trip has been organised and in part supported by the Wines of South Africa. This is the national body which promotes the wines, funded by a small levy on all wine exported from this country.  And what could be more appropriate to spent part of the first morning with the Chenin Blanc Assocation? – Pinotage follows tomorrow.  As I did on my visits to Australia and New Zealand back in 2016, I am going to write some short ‘postcards from …’ posts for this website.  Sit back and enjoy.  

Chenin is a remarkably versatile variety. The producer can make sparkling wine, various dry styles and sweet wines from it, due to its range of aromatics and high acidity. And you can do it at a range of prices, from everyday affordable to great value icon wines. 

Having done research with Stellenbosch University, the Chenin Blanc Association is encouraging the promoting of just two main dry styles. Trying to get consumers to get of hold of more than that is counter-productive.  ‘Fresh and fruity’ accounts for more than 70% of all volume. Today’s example was Spier, Signature Chenin Blanc 2017, 13.8%. The fruit for this one million litre production comes from across the Coastal Region. Most of it is dry-land farmed; 80% is machine harvested (sorted within the machine, kept cold) at 12-16 tons/hectare. Winemaking is straightforward – six hours of skin contact, reductive handling, inoculated with three selected yeasts, fermented at 12-14ºC, aged on its lees for 3-6 months, all with the aim of freshness and that remarkable aromatic array that warm climate Chenin can manage.  This has a wonderful range of pineapple, peach, honey, green apple, the list could go.  Delightful everyday drinking at £8 UK retail.  

After this start, a number of style two –  “rich, ripe, complex wines with oak’ –  followed. These are among the new stars of the South African wine firmament.  Today’s tasting was limited (by my request) to five examples. They came from  Ken Forrester, Distell’s Fleur de Cap, Rudera, Kleine Zalze and Raats. All of these are splendid examples of what can be achieved. To pick one extreme example, Raats, Eden High Density Chenin Blanc 2015, 14% showed some of the common factors – and some particularities. This was by far the most expensive of these wines (£45) – but for a reason. Unusually, this top cru comes from new vineyards, planted in 2009 but with the virtually extinct Montpellier clone. The clone was under threat because of its tiny yields – but that, in turn, is what is being exploited here.  Eight tons/hectare is typical for it but with hard pruning, very close planting (8,000 vines/hectare) and competition between the rows this wine was actually produced at a miserly two tons/hectare.  Vinification is very high quality and meticulous: whole bunch pressed, no settling, juice racked straight to barrel, natural fermentation. The wine was then kept on its lees for 11 months in 300L tight-grained French oak.  The 2015 wine is not showy – yet. But it has fabulous concentration, a linear body and a simply huge potential to develop in the bottle. 

Two Chenins, two styles, two approaches to yield and vinification, two worlds of aromas and textures, two prices. Welcome to the new South Africa. 

PS can oaked Chenin age in the bottle? – first-hand proof from the original vintage of Rudera, Robusta, 2000 – a real treat.  

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