Cape heritage and Chenin Blanc

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

“Chenin’s time has come,” says Ken Forrester, head of the Chenin Blanc Association. Understanding the history of Chenin Blanc is understanding the history of Cape wine. For prominent international critics it is nigh on South Africa’s signature variety and symbolic of South Africa’s rising above its burden of history.

Chenin has also overcome one of its greatest attributes – versatility – to stand as one of the most internationally lauded South African varieties. Leading wine critics are comparing Chenin-based blends with white Burgundy which surely ranks as the best value for money – anywhere?

Although there is an accurate recording of when the first wine was made in the Cape – 2 February 1659 – there is less certainty surrounding the early varieties. However, we know that during that first century there were important contributions by Chenin, Semillon, Palamino, a few muscats and Pontac, which saw the beginnings of the Cape tradition of producing more whites than reds.

While they all waxed and waned, Chenin – while never as widely planted as Semillon (Groendruif) under British rule – remained a feature and was one of the grapes grown at Constantia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As recently as 1990, Chenin Blanc comprised more than 35% of plantings and currently comprises around 18% of plantings and over 30% of white-wine varieties.

The rise in brandy production saw yet another increase in plantings. However Chenin’s real emergence – though anonymously in keeping with its Cinderella image – was Lieberstein, the first brand marketed nationally by creators Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery (SFW), triggering a revolution in the drinking habits of South Africans and yet another spate of plantings. In 1964, Lieberstein was the largest-selling bottled wine in the world.

It was only a year earlier, in 1963, that Professor Orffer at the University of Stellenbosch matched the Loire variety with what had been known here as Steen or Stein, both of which have since fallen out of common usage.

Another of Chenin’s earlier successes was under a nom de plume, this time as Nederburg’s Edelkeur, the Cape’s first unfortified botrytised dessert wine. In 1972, Nederburg entered the 1969 Edelkeur in an international wine competition in Budapest – and it was judged the best wine at the show. Edelkeur became one of the calling cards of the Nederburg Auction (now in its 40th year) and went on to win many international awards.

As recently as 1993 whites grapes occupied 81% of the total vineyard area, much of which was destined for distillation and brandy. With the lifting of sanctions, international demand required more international red varieties and Chenin was once again to bear the brunt, particularly (and tragically) the now treasured older vines. The Cape, however, still has more Chenin than any other winegrowing country.

As the Cape reinvents itself, Chenin each year tends to be the most frequently uprooted as well as newly planted variety, particularly from the 1990s with the shift to red varieties. However, in 2013, 36% of plantings were over 20 years old compared to 28.1% for white varieties (just 8.4% for reds), with the unirrigated old bush or untrellised vines producing among the best examples.

Tim James writes in Wines of the New South Africa: ‘A new role for Chenin came early this century with Eben Sadie’s Palladius, a blend based on sixty-year-old Swartland vines. While Palladius and similar wines have links with styles emerging also in the south of France and in parts of California, effectively Sadie and the Paardeberg terroir invented the local version – or rather, they are inventing it, as a valid and original expression of the Cape.’

Last month, Boland Cellars won the General Smuts Trophy at the Young Wine Show with Chenin Blanc, the first time the variety has garnered the top trophy.

Last week, the Chenin Blanc Association, with new sponsor Standard Bank, announced the Chenin’s Top 10 as follows: Bellingham Old Orchard 2013; Kleine Zalze Family Reserve 2013; KWV The Mentors 2012; Perdeberg The Dry Land Collection Barrel Fermented 2013; Remhoogte Honeybunch Reserve 2013; Rijk’s Private Cellar 2009; Simonsig Chenin Avec Chêne 2010; Spier Woolworths Private Collection 2013; Stellenrust 2014; and Villiera Traditional Barrel Fermented 2014.

The average price for these world-class wines is a mere R110 or around €8, while the Stellenrust is just R44. Standard Bank is donating R20 000 to each of the Top 10 winners for the benefit of their employees.

– Jonathan Snashall