Since its inception in 2014, the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge rewards each winner with R25 000. But there is a caveat. That prize money must be spent on projects designed to uplift or upskill the farm workers, their families and their communities.

Twenty years ago, Chenin Blanc was considered a work horse varietal in the South African wine industry. While making up a huge percentage of production, Chenin grapes were used mostly for distillation and bulk wine, while the more fashionable noble varietals took centre stage.

But along came a few visionary and determined wine producers who saw the value of this “Cinderella” grape synonymous with the Cape Winelands, and decided to challenge themselves to produce excellent quality bottled Chenin Blanc wines that could sit comfortably on the shelf next to their noble compatriots. And so they did…

“Many of the finest and (now) most admired South African wines are based on Chenin Blanc,” says influential UK critic Jancis Robinson MW. She also highlights the grape’s sound ageing potential, asserting in last month’s Financial Times article on Chenin that “with time it can hold its own with the finest white wines”. 

Her affirmation coincides with a recent feature on old-vine Chenins in another UK publication, Decanter, in which Christian Eedes calls these “arguably South Africa’s greatest vinous asset”.

This validation comes just ahead of this year’s Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge with results due in August.

“It’s a great time for making Chenin. The grape continues to play a key role in building South Africa’s ever-rising reputation as a source of excellent, exciting and age-worthy wines,” says Ken Forrester, Chairman and co-founder of the Chenin Blanc Association.

But Forrester maintains that Chenin’s success has also ensured the sustainability of the local wine industry as a whole. With the rise in quality and popularity of Chenin, farmers are getting more money per ton. And when considering that Chenin makes up 18% of total plantings, it can be argued that Chenin grape sales helped significantly in keeping the industry afloat and people employed through both drought and pandemic.

So investing in the upliftment of these employees through the Chenin Blanc Challenge, brings the vision full circle.

We took a look at just how some of the previous winners spent their prize money:

Winner 2020: Badsberg Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2019

Henri Swiegers: Production Manager: “We were thrilled to get a place in last year’s Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Challenge, and donated our R25 000 to Wyzneusies Créche.

This crèche is a located a few kilometres from the cellar and is attended by many children from Badsberg producers’ farms. The R25 000 donation was used for learning materials, food for students and day-to-day expenses. We were so pleased to be able to make a difference in these children’s’ lives.”

Winner 2020: Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc Block S2 2018

CEO Chrianto Oosthuizen: “As a team, we agreed to give our prize money to Stellenbosch Unite. As its name suggests, it is a collaborative Stellenbosch initiative. Established to provide Covid-19 relief, it extends social support to vulnerable members in the community. The project’s primary priority is to feed families, who are currently without income as a result of the pandemic and otherwise might face starvation.”

The Mulderbosch money is being used directly to support a soup kitchen in Kayamandi, a neighbouring township: “Under different circumstances, our prize money might have been used for a project on the farm. However, it was clear to us that we could help to alleviate the immediate hardships being experienced by the people of Kayamandi. Many of our workers live in this community themselves. They know personally some of those who are struggling to survive.”

Winner 2018: Wellington Wines La Cave Chenin Blanc 2016

Melanie Burke, Chairman of Street Smart SA: “We are proud to be associated with Wellington Wines and were delighted to receive this donation to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable and street children in the Wellington area.

StreetSmart South Africa is a community initiative that raises funds for initiatives and programmes that support the greater process of social normalisation of street children’s lives, in partnership with restaurants and now also accommodation establishments and wine tasting venues. We are unique in that every cent that is raised by our partners goes to our beneficiary organisations in the local area where the funds are raised, and we have done so for more than 13 years.

 From l.t.r. Marion Thomas (Vice-chairman StreetSmart SA), Surette Moggee and Lizette Ferreira (Ma's vir Wellington) and Xania vd Merwe (Co-ordinator StreetSmart Wellington)

“Collectively, this good news should inspire local producers to enter the Challenge,” says Forrester. “There is so much to gain from being included in the top 10 line-up – the endorsement, the exposure and knowing that each winning wine attracts a cash prize of R25 000 to spend on a project to uplift or upskill a community of farm workers, in recognition of their contribution to the winery’s success.”

- Blog by Julia Moore