South African Chenin Blanc just can’t be beat!

Making that statement 20 years ago would have evoked guffaws of laughter and hearty thigh slapping; at the very least a light tittering of sympathy and a disbelieving head shake. Chenin Blanc was just not sexy enough. Nowadays it’s so hot and titillating it should come with an adult XXX-rating!

Vineyards comprising one-third of the country’s plantings... blah-blah, overcropped and used for bland, large volume wines... yadda yadda. Everyone’s heard it all before. The remarkable thing is just how rapidly the transformation of a massively overlooked and unloved category has occurred.

Kudos should be paid to those like Ken Forrester and Irina von Holdt CWM, WINE magazine and Michael Fridjhon who championed its cause. As well as to winemakers like Jean Daneel, Jeff Grier, Martin Meinert, David Trafford and Teddy Hall who also took up the challenge.

They laid the foundations for the global reputation for this humble grape which South Africa now enjoys. Heck, even the French acknowledge that the country is leading the world. Just in the past week there was much excitement surrounding the release of Master of Wine Tim Atkin’s annual report. The most heralded category? Chenin Blanc – with 32 wines rated at 95 points or more. And Sadie Family Wines’ Skurfberg Chenin Blanc 2019 was singled out as his choice of White Wine of the Year.

Then there was the announcement on 17 September of the annual Standard Bank sponsored Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge. Four debutants in the 2020 lineup: Alvi’s Drift with its 221 Chenin 2019 and Albertus Vijoen 2019, Badsberg’s barrel fermented 2019 and Kaapzicht Kliprug 2019. Rounding out the Top 10 were Spier 21 Gables 2019, De Morgenzon Reserve 2019, Durbanville Hills Collector’s Reserve The Cape Garden 2019, Mulderbosch Vineyards Single Vineyard Block S2 2018 and Stellenrust’s Manor House barrel fermented Chenin and standard bottling, both 2019 vintage.

The latter producer should be singled out for special mention since it’s had a wine in the Top 10 every year since the Challenge’s inception in 2014. The unwooded standard offering punches way above its price point of R68 a bottle! Many of the Top 10 wines received serious oaking and boast price tags in multiples of that price, with the most expensive being R430 a bottle.

Not giving any numbers away since the Platter Guide Five Star tasting has yet to take place and even once it’s done, it’ll be a month or two before the results are made public, but Chenin Blanc is the single largest category among the nominations.

In the first decade of the new millennium the wines traded on “sunshine in a bottle” in the form of a highish residual sugar. Kanu and Forrester’s FMC being the two most obvious examples of utilising a small portion of botrytised fruit to add appeal. Oaking was also initially enthusiastic.

The standout examples of the current evolution of Chenin, the Alheit, Sadies (Eben as well as David & Nadia), Botanica, Raats, Mullineux, along with those in the Top 10 leverage old vines, respect for terroir and the unique soils they grow in along with less interventionist winemaking, older oak and vibrantly fresh natural acidity.

There is a real precision, focus and resolution to the execution and philosophy of modern South African Chenin Blanc. And that’s dead sexy!


- Blog by Fiona McDonald