Getting to know Chenin Blanc

Words: Julie Velosa

For a long time Chenin Blanc has had a reputation for being ‘that other white wine’. It has never quite reached the wide spread recognition of Sauvignon Blanc, nor had the cool factor of Chardonnay. But all of that is changing and this is largely thanks to the growth of this unique white grape right here in South Africa.

You may be surprised to learn that South Africa is the largest producer of Chenin Blanc globally. This may, in part, be attributed to its popularity as a base for brandy, but the varietal has truly come into its own as a wine of sophistication and elegance.

The fact is that in a lineup of white wines, most wine drinkers favour what they know, often being the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or perhaps a blend. Chenin is lesser known and often this lack of understanding leads to consumers simply sticking with what they know. But for South Africans, that really shouldn’t be the case. We’re not only the largest producer of Chenin globally, but we’re producing some of the best in the world. It’s right on our doorstep and we need to own that.

Recently, leading US wine critic Matt Kramer, named Stellenbosch-based wine estate DeMorgenzon’s The Divas Chenin Blanc, as “one of the three most exciting wines of the 21st century”. High praise indeed, and just one example of the level of Chenin being produced locally.

So, let’s learn a little bit more about this wine. It is recorded to have been grown in the Loire Valley in France as early as 845, and is thought to have arrived in South Africa as one of the cuttings brought over during the time of Jan van Riebeeck (around 1655). It’s known by many names… Pineau, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau d’Anjou, Gros Pineau, Stein and Steen to name just a few. Steen, being a local moniker, is thought to be a derivative of a Dutch word. The fact that it forms part of the word ‘baksteen’, or ‘brick’ in Afrikaans seems to coincidentally go hand-in-hand with its heritage of being a foundation grape of our local wine industry.

Chenin is an extremely versatile grape, it is easy to grow, naturally high yielding and can be coaxed into an easy drinking, crisp white wine, right through to a sweet wine with great ageing ability.

It is difficult to put any wine varietal into one box saying that this is the style and this is what it suits. The fact is that winemaking is experimental and influences such as terroir, environmental conditions and style of the winemaker all affect the end product. Introducing different processes can entirely change a wine and split a varietal into completely unique wines that appeal to totally different audiences (think oaked and unoaked Chardonnays for example).

South African Chenins are typically fresh, fruit forward and zesty wines that have tropical and stone fruits notes (think pineapple, mango, passion fruit and tangerine). Depending on terroir they also display hints of minerality and flint.

There is a movement towards producing more intense wines that are thoughtfully oaked, producing a creamier mouthfeel and a nuttier, biscuity palate.

Because of its propensity towards sweetness, it has always been a favourite for creating stellar botrytised wines. Botrytised wines are affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, which causes noble rot. While noble rot may sound like an oxymoron, it is in fact, a positive effect. The fungus reduces the water content of the grapes and increases the sugar content, producing grapes that are perfect for creating award-winning and ageable sweet wines.

Chenin is a great wine to pair with food; the acidity of a light Chenin can marry well with fresh fare such as sushi and salads. A heavier style Chenin works well with spicy, sweet and sour flavours of Asian cuisine.

What you need to know about Chenin Blanc

  • It is the most widely grown grape in South Africa
  • It’s an incredibly versatile grape.
  • Wines generally err on the side of fresh and fruity.
  • Used as a base for brandy.

A selection of great South African Chenin Blancs

Asara Vineyard Collection Chenin Blanc 2015

The name Asara is in honour of Astar, Asis and Asase, the North African gods of earth, sun and sky. This symbol of balance and harmony of nature is reflected in the estate’s wines. To create the Asara Vineyard Collection Chenin Blanc, carefully selected Chenin Blanc grapes are pressed and go into 22 barrels. The yields are relatively low, berry sizes small and the bunches fairly loose, making for concentration and intensity.

Winemaker: Danielle Le Roux

WO: Stellenbosch

On the nose: rich with abundant ripe pear and pineapple with nuances of honeysuckle.

On the palate: rich and slightly oily, with complex layered fruit, apricot and peach, on mouth-filling acidity, and the oak imparts a delicate mouth filling structure.

We love it with: something spicy such as this Soft Shell Crab Curry.

Price: R112

Bellingham Wines – The Bernard Series Chenin Blanc 2016

The Bernard series is a tribute to Bellingham Wine’s celebrated founder, Bernard Podlashuk, whose visionary approach and bold risks helped shape the course of South African wine. This wine is thoroughly contemporary, elaborately intricate, with a compelling individualistic character that reflects the tremendous history of some of the oldest bush vines in the Cape. A wine that stands out in a crowd accounting for the extraordinary track record of awards and deserved reputation as a quintessential South African Chenin Blanc.

Winemaker: Niël Groenewald

WO: Coastal Region (Agter-Paarl, Durbanville and Bottelary Hills)

On the nose: a luminescent gold wine with rambunctious fleshy peach, passion fruit, honey melon, papaya and pineapple fruit aromas layered with whiffs of oatmeal and crushed wheat.

On the palate: lavish concentrated fruit flavours from the nose – powerful yet accommodating on the palate with discernible, yet seamless and subtle spicy oak complexity. The riveting finish is fresh and intense with tremendous length, making it a great wine for enjoyment with food.

We love it with: creamy Alfredo Pasta or roast pork belly with applesauce. Try this Roast Pork Belly with Sage.

Price: R220

Alvi’s Drift – Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc

Made in small quantities at the wine estate located in the Breede River, this is a special wine that only a few people will ever taste. Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc is the best of the best made at Alvi’s Drift. Hand selected in the vineyard and whole bunch pressed, the wine is fermented in barrel with a selection of wild and cultured yeasts. The wine has a light and brilliant straw colour which catches and reflects light like cut crystal.

Winemaker: Linley Schultz

WO: Breede River

On the nose: nectarine and peach fruit characters and integrated toasty oak characters.

On the palate: rich and creamy with a viscous mouth feel. Aromas of roasted cashew nuts and vanilla pods tease the senses. Soft, full and round but elegant, the palate lingers for an eternity.

We love it with: fish, salads and white meat dishes. Try this Nut and Seed Crusted Hake with Gnocchi.

Price: R175

DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve 2015

DeMorgenzon’s Chenin Blanc comes from low-yielding vines planted in 1972, which were originally planted as bush vines but recently lifted onto trellises. The vines are planted in decomposed granite soils, at altitudes of 250 to 300 meters above sea level. Close proximity to False Bay ensures cooling breezes in the warm summer months. A consistent wine that has been recognised with many accolades across vintages.

Winemaker: Carl van der Merwe

WO: Stellenbosch

On the nose: aromas of white flower, stone fruit, honey and toast.

On the palate: pear, orange blossom, caramel and spice – a world-class wine offering that strikes a brilliant balance between lush fruit and crisp, mouth-watering acidity.

We love it with: Asian dishes, like fragrant curries and spicy seafood, as well as rich a succulent dishes like pork belly. Try this gourmet Spicy Fish Burger with Kimchi.

Price: R350

Raats Family Wines – Eden High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2014 

Raats Family Wines are passionate about creating exceptional Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc and a great deal of effort and consideration goes into producing amazing wines within these two varietals.

Winemaker: Bruwer Raats and Gavin Bruwer Slabbert

On the nose: peach blossom, greengage, lime, green apple, white peach, pineapple, ginger, angelica and peppery spiciness.

On the palate: notes of quince, granadilla, kumquat, mandarin orange, melon, pear and lemon meringue against a backdrop of steely minerality. Hints of roasted hazelnuts and almonds add to the complexity of the palate. The wine is exceptionally linear and fresh with a fine texture and finishes with notes of fennel and the ginger spiciness promised by the nose.

We love it with: oysters, bouillabaisse, scallops or other seafood, slow roasted pork belly, spicy Thai cuisine, Indonesian satay with peanut sauce, North African dishes, baked apple (for dessert), even the difficult Epoisses cheese. Try this Asian Spiced Pork Belly.

Solms Delta Chenin Blanc 2014

Nicknamed ‘Vastrap’ (meaning trample) after the style of music which unites Khoesan trance-dance with Dutch folk music. Played on any instrument such as concertinas, homemade violins, banjos and ‘blik-kitaars’. The traditional excuse for a Vastrap party was the trampling of a newly laid cow-dung floor, but the ancestors are said to have preferred the open air.

Winemaker: Hilko Hegewisch

On the palate:  ripe summer fruits of guava, apple and banana. The wine has a juicy mid palate with hints of stone fruit followed by a fresh clean finish on the palate.

We love it with: pairs well with fish, chicken, salad or this Pizza Bianco.

Price: R50

Rudera Noble Late Harvest (100% Chenin Blanc)

Rudera’s philosophy for winemaking is to let the vineyards show through in the wine. The wine is made in the ancient tradition of winemaking, as naturally as possible without additives or employing synthetic interventions of any kind. This is how they ensure that their wines stay unique and truly represent their origins, their vintages and above all, their individual character.This is a wine made for aficionados and collectors and will age beautifully for decades to come

Winemaker: Chris Keet

On the nose: citrus honey, ripe guava, dried apricots and canned pineapple, delicately layered with hints of orange blossom.

On the palate: oily, creamy mouthfeel reflects ripe, tropical fruit and buttered toast flavours, with a lovely balance between sweetness and crisp citrus acidity, following through to a rich, lingering finish.

We love it with: these fruit macarons.

Ken Forrester Sparklehorse Brut MCC 2016 (100% Chenin Blanc)

A list of South African Chenins would not be complete without a wine from The Ken Forrester stable. While the bulk of South African MCCs are Chardonnay or Pinot Noir based, this Chenin Blanc MCC stands out. Made by the Cap Classique or traditional method, this wine aged for 14 months on lees to develop a creaminess and delicate mousse.

Winemaker: Ken Forrester

WO: Stellenbosch

On the nose: bright, fresh apple, pear and quince aromas.

We love it with: celebrate with or enjoy with light creamy chicken dishes such as this Chicken au Poivre and fish dishes.

Price: R150

Want to know more about other varietals? Click here to learn more about Chardonnay

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