5 Reasons Not to Shy Away from Swartland Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a grape that is repeatedly met with great acclaim, creativity and ingenuity in South Africa.

Chenin Blanc and Colombar are the two most frequently used grapes that are used in the production of base wine for South Africa’s world-renowned brandy.

In Robertson, Arendsig single-vineyard Chenin Blanc has been lauded for being a true reflection of terroir. In Stellenbosch, outgoing cellarmaster, Carl van der Merwe, alongside businessman Hylton Appelbaum have played music in the vineyards, cellar and winery at De Morgenzon since 2009. Stellenrust's 54 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2018 is a single vineyard wine from a venerable 54-year-old block of Chenin Blanc on the Bottelary Hills. In Wellington, Bosman Optenhorst Chenin Blanc is made from vines that were planted in 1952.

Chenin Blanc is a grape from the Loire Valley, in France. According to the Chenin Blanc Association, in 2019, 17,103 hectares of Chenin were under vine in South Africa. Roughly 15% of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc or 2,488ha of those plantings were in the Swartland.

When Charles Back founded Spice Route in 1998 with Eben Sadie at the helm of the cellar, the Swartland was fertile for the steady spurt of successive wine businesses, many of whom succeeded at growing and vinifying Chenin Blanc.

  1. Climate and Control

The Swartland climate is regarded as Mediterranean-like, it is largely hot, while the cooling influence of the Atlantic blows in from the west.

Mullineux Family Wines is a member of the Swartland Independent Producers (with the jovial acronym SIP). Part of SIP’s dynamic intention is to reflect the terroir of the Swartland, to express ‘Swartlandness’. This ‘sense of place’ is achieved by planting varietals that have the ability to thrive in the Swartland’s trying conditions.

In January 2020, Mullineux Family Wines bottled Mullineux Olerasay 2°, a straw wine made from 100% Chenin Blanc grapes in the Swartland. This sweet, sticky wine from bushvine Chenin Blanc.

According to Chris and Andrea Mullineux, the influence of climate change is visible in the vineyard, while old vines offer a buffer against extreme conditions.

The Olerasay 2° is an unfortified wine with concentrated flavour. Although they waited until the grapes were almost raisin-like before the grapes were pressed, the nectar dripped out like honey. After nine months of maturation, the current vintage's barrels were fractionally blended with wine from the 2008-2019 vintages. The resultant, second iteration of the Olerasay is delectable. With a clever balance of sugar and acid, the treasured Chenin is concentrated, with stone fruit and honey flavours.

  1. A Chameleon for Terroir

Samantha Suddons had worked at Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch for three years when she moved to the Swartland in 2014 to begin with the Mullineux's.

At Reyneke, Samantha had witnessed biodymamic practices all year round, which fascinated her. She had experience working in tasting rooms and as a Sommelier, but realised that her interest lay in the production side – from farming to bottling.

Samantha says, “Swartland Chenin has what I like to see as two important purposes that have evolved over the last ten years. The first is as a work-horse grape, providing the co-ops with exceptional quality, even at an entry level. This has enabled Swartland Chenin to become known around the world because of the huge volumes produced and exported.”

“Secondly, Swartland Chenin is a chameleon for terroir – the old vines show such intense personality that makes it possible to differentiate not just the different soil types of the Swartland within the wines, but even the different exposures and valleys of a small area, such as the Paardeberg,” she says.

“When I moved to the Swartland in 2014 it was still so undiscovered and a new frontier – that excited me and allowed for so much exploration. Even now, areas in the north are being explored and propagated for vineyards in the future. The Swartland was and is still seen as a bit of a maverick and free-spirited region.”

Samantha is the founder of and winemaker at Vine Venom.

  1. The Revolution With a Few Rules

Samantha says, “The Swartland is never static, never boring and always wild.”

The SIP Producers have recommended varieties for their association for white wine that excludes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but must be made from a minimum of 90% of Chenin Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Groendruif, Marsanne, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Muscat de Frontignan, Roussanne and Viognier.

For red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are excluded, but the wine must consist of a minimum of 90% of Carignan, Grenache, Tinta Barocca, Syrah, Pinotage, Mourvedre and Cinsault.

Samantha says, “Portuguese varieties have been part of the heritage of the Swartland, such as Tinta Barocca for fortified production, but these varieties have shown great promise for dry-red-style wines.”

“I’m very excited about Touriga Nacional – the vineyards in their youth are perfect for Rosé-making. Also, the saying goes ‘make no mistake with Hermitkyk!’ Hermitkyk is the colloquial word for Cinsault. Cinsault, I think is actually quite difficult to get right – it can go one way or another, too fruity or too bold. But, when people do get it right, it shows such a transparent and honest representation of its terroir, that I think, across South Africa, we will really see this variety evolve.”

  1. Hands Off Approach

When Eben Sadie ventured independently in 2000, he made Columella a blend of 95% Syrah and 5% Mourvedre from Swartland grapes. Alongside the history of the Columella and Palladius, Sadie Family Wines have received acclaim for their Old Vine Project.

Old vines and low-intervention winemaking practices are widely appreciated in the region.

Samantha says, “when it comes to Old Vines, I find it’s best to stay as hands-off as possible.  Let the vineyard show its personality so that it means using old oak or concrete and simply guiding the wine in its transition from grape to bottle with little intervention, but thorough attention to detail.”

“With the younger vineyards which are yet to show their personality, this is where I find it fun and enjoyable to play around more in the winery, especially with skin contact or oxidative under Flor yeast aging. I would love to get a solera-system of Flor yeast going and eventually bottle a sherry-style Chenin Blanc that covers a decade-worth of vintages.”

  1. Cheers to Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is often called ‘the work-horse’ grape due to its dexterity.

Samantha says, “being a sparkling wine lover, I would highly suggest the Huis van Chevallerie ‘Filia’ Old Vine Chenin Blanc Cap Classique. It’s non-dosage, so you’re really getting a sense of what Chenin Blanc as a sparkling wine is capable of.”

“My favourite Chenin Blanc from the Swartland is Adi Badenhorst’s Dassiekop Steen, if you want to taste a quintessential mineral Paardeberg Chenin – this hits it on the head for me.”

Image Credit: Mullineux Old Vines for Olerasay Chenin Blanc

Blog by - Tshepang Molisana