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 widespread 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.

Everything you need to know about chenin blanc

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

Rietvallei Chenin Blanc 2017

Rietvallei Wine Estate counts among South Africa’s oldest family-owned wine estates, and was one of the first wine farms established in the picturesque Robertson Wine Valley. Rietvallei lies in the Klaas Voogds ward, a region with unique soil structures and climatic influences ideal for wine grape cultivation.

With more than 150 years of ownership under one family, the Burger family has contributed to Rietvallei’s reputation of excellence in viticulture and winemaking. Intimate knowledge of the soils and an understanding of the interaction between nature and vine, along with visionary winemaking practices, lie at the heart of Rietvallei’s status for premier winemaking over generations.

WINEMAKER Kobus Burger
WO Robertson Valley
TASTING NOTES This is a dry but fruity Chenin Blanc with intense aromas of dried apple, fresh citrus and a touch of oak spice. The palate is rich and creamy with a firm but balanced acidity, complemented with a lingering aftertaste that seems to last forever.
WE LOVE IT WITH The Best Fish & Chips With Mushy Peas
Getting to know chenin blanc
Getting to know chenin blanc

Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2016

Spier 21 Gables is a range of single varietal wines that represent both the conditions of each vintage and the nuance of terroir. The name pays tribute to Spier’s 300-year winemaking heritage and our unique architectural legacy: an unrivalled 21 Cape Dutch Gables. Forming the cornerstone of this range is a barrel-fermented and matured Chenin Blanc.

This wine is rich and complex, with fruit from vineyards that are well over 40 years old which produce grapes with thicker skins. The result is a Chenin Blanc with superb flavour intensity and excellent ageing potential.

WINEMAKER Jacques Erasmus
WO Tygerberg
TASTING NOTES Soft aromas of dried apricots and ripe tropical fruit, with an oak and vanilla undertow on the nose. On the palate, there’s good acidity and rounded rich flavours of white flesh peaches, almond paste and creaminess.
WE LOVE IT WITH West Coast Mussels with Apples & Cider


getting to know chenin blanc

Laborie Chenin Blanc 2016

A visit to Laborie affords you the opportunity to reminisce about the Cape as it once was. Laborie has been producing fine wines since 1698 and more than 300 years on, is one of the oldest wine farms in South Africa.

WINEMAKER Kobus Van Der Merwe
WO Western Cape
TASTING NOTES Full, rich with remarkable finesse. Palate showing vanilla and honey flavours and a forever finish. The pinnacle of what we consider to be the finest of the expression of old bushvine vineyards – an iconic Chenin.
WE LOVE IT WITH  Spinach, Baby Gem and Herb Salad
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Ken Forrester FMC Premiere Selection Moelleux 2016

Ken Forrester is located on the picturesque hills of the Helderberg Mountain in Stellenbosch. The estate is an important centre for Chenin Blanc; its creations from this grape variety – particularly the Forrester Meinert Chenin – are truly feasts for the senses and have quickly made a name for itself in the international wine world. The view of the unique landscape literally invites visitors to taste one or two glasses of the top-quality wine.

WINEMAKER  Ken Forrester
TASTING NOTES Full, rich with remarkable finesse. Palate showing vanilla and honey flavours and a forever finish. The pinnacle of what we consider to be the finest of the expression of old bushvine vineyards – an iconic Chenin.
WE LOVE IT WITH Soft Shell Crab Curry
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Cederberg Chenin Blanc 2015

The farm itself lies in the Cederberg Wilderness Area and only 66 ha are under vine. Today, this award-winning winery is owned by David Nieuwoudt – proudly fifth generation.

WINEMAKER Alex Nel & David Nieuwoudt
WO Cederberg
TASTING NOTES Delicate aromas of honey, lime zest, roasted nuts and peaches laced with sweet vanilla undertones. Well-integrated wood and ageing on the lees developed a full rich palate with a smooth lingering finish.
WE LOVE IT WITH Creamy Penne Pasta with Mushrooms and Gammon
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc

Mullineux Family Wines was established in 2007 and was owned and managed by Chris and Andrea Mullineux, with business partners, Keith Prothero and Peter Dart. Within a very short time period, the winery established itself as one of South Africa’s most celebrated wine brands, both locally and on the international front. Mullineux aims to produce wine that is a true expression of the Swartland.

WINEMAKER Andrea Mullineux
WO Swartland
TASTING NOTES Pale straw in colour, this wine has a nose of sun-ripened pears and wet granite. The palate has a vibrant acidity balanced by a soft, round texture and some pithy character. The wine has a fresh, mineral finish.
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Carl Everson Single Vineyard Opstal Chenin Blanc 2016

The beauty of this wine is even though it stays the same each year (as it’s harvested from the same Single Vineyard classified block on the farm), each year is different. These precious 35-year-old vines, old French barrels, spontaneous fermentation and minimalistic cellar intervention, in the end, proclaim Slanghoek’s terroir through this wine.

WO Slanghoek
TASTING NOTES The 2016 vintage shows some restraint at first, even a bit shy, but then opens up to show quince and pineapple notes with a freshness and finesse ever present on the palate as yellow peach flavours run through your mouth.
WE LOVE IT WITH Pear & Blue Cheese Tart
PRICE  R1080 per case of 6
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Kyburg Premium Chenin Blanc 2017

Kyburg Boutique Wines is situated in the picturesque Devon Valley, 8km from Stellenbosch town. Kyburg follows the Classic French tradition of winemaking, low production per hectare, controlled open fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. All of these giving the wines great structure, complexity and finesse, with a good aging potential.

WINEMAKER Jacques Fourie
WO Stellenbosch
TASTING NOTES There is a distinctive yellow apple, pineapple, alongside with notes of green melon and lime. Beautifully structured on the palate, bursting with fresh yellow and white fruit flavours. The wine finishes subtly, yet distinct with great minerality and citrus flavours.
WE LOVE IT WITH Broccoli, Apple and Walnut Salad with Candied Bacon Bits
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Mooiplaas Houmoed

Mooiplaas Wine Estate and Private Nature Reserve boast a pristine natural beauty. Owned and managed by Tielman and Louis Roos, the Mooiplaas vineyards lie on steep slopes of ancient mineral rich soils in the Bottelary Hills of Stellenbosch, overlooking Cape Town.

WO Stellenbosch
TASTING NOTES The Houmoed Chenin Blanc shows bee’s wax/dried peach on the nose, along with almonds & marzipan from the barrels, good weight on the palate with some minerality and a long finish. Fruit and oak well balanced, a big wine with the typical mouthfeel of ripe Chenin.
WE LOVE IT WITH Prawn Bisque with Linguini
Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc

Now that you know more about Chenin Blanc, why not increase your wine knowledge and get to know Chardonnay | Red and White Blends | Shiraz | Cabernet Sauvignon | Merlot Pinotage | Rosé | Unusual Wine Varietals

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