Why It's Time To Rediscover South African Chenin Blanc

Semi-sweet steen no more; Meet the two new faces of South Africa’s signature white varietal.

 photo by Kelly Magyarics

photo by Kelly Magyarics

If the last time you tasted South African Chenin Blanc was when bottles labeled “steen” were off-dry or semi-sweet forgettable quaffers, it’s time to forget what you think you know and give the grape another go.

For years, South African chenin blanc was plagued by a Forrest Gump-like conundrum that made many wine drinkers skittish. Just like that proverbial box of chocolates, you never knew quite what you were going to get. Was the bottle you uncork (or unscrew) going to be sweet? Dry? Fermented in stainless steel? Aged in oak? Blessedly, the head scratching and label scrutinizing are all but a thing of the past.

In its wake, two distinct styles of chenin are emerging, making it easier than ever for wine drinkers to find that perfect bottle. (Even more convenient is that both are often produced by the same winery.) The first is fresh, with bright acidity, purity of fruit, a line of minerality and a clean finish. (Think New Zealand sauvignon blanc dialed back. Way back.) The second is defined by a richer, rounder, more textural mouthfeel, moderate oak, sometimes oxidation and a lush yet still completely balanced finish. These wines could totally appeal to fans of lightly oaked New World chardonnay or white Burgundy including Macon. Both, however, are very drinkable--and work with all kinds of cuisine. 

Recently I had the good fortune to sample a lot of chenin blanc in its natural habitat at an event at the Grand Africa Café & Beach in Cape Town sponsored by the Chenin Blanc Association and the Sommelier Association of South Africa. I was still recovering from jetlag and the nearly twenty-four hours of travel it took to get there, and it was one of those glorious weather days suffering from an identity crisis. Did the intense sunlight and a piercing blue sky joined by a waft of a cool breeze coming off the Atlantic and a crispness in the air translate to late winter or early spring on this mid-September day? The dichotomy of the weather matched that of the two wine styles I kept encountering, table after table, ice bucket after ice bucket. And my findings were only solidified during the three days of tasting that followed at CapeWine, the huge South African trade wine show held every three years.

 photo by Kelly Magyarics

photo by Kelly Magyarics

As I discovered later, it wasn’t a coincidence. Since 2010, the Chenin Blanc Association has embarked on a joint research project with the Institute for Wine Biotechnology and the Sensory Research Unit of The University of Stellenbosch to focus on wines having these two characters. Interesting. But make no mistake: chenin blanc isn’t a chard or sauvignon blanc clone. It’s distinct enough to be interesting, and familiar enough to be appealing. Perfect.

Chenin’s origins in South Africa date back to the seventeenth century, when the grape was thought to either have been imported by Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Country or brought by Huguenots fleeing France after the Edict of Nante was revoked in 1685. Today it remains the country’s most widely planted grape, with 19% of all plantings (followed by colombard at 12% and cabernet sauvignon at 11%, according to 2017 date from the SA Wine Industry Information & Systems NPC - SAWIS).  

No matter which style winemakers are going for, chenin blanc thrives on cool sunshine, Justin Corrans, CEO of Mountain Ridge Wines, told me. This allows grapes to ripen (but not too much) while retaining the vibrant acidity that’s responsible for a fresh finish in lighter offerings, and balance when oak, oxidation or malolactic fermentation is involved in richer examples. Boland Cellar, Raats Family and Fleur du Cap are three widely available producers making both. Another trend? Spontaneous fermentation, which producers told me is easy to accomplish in South Africa and lends itself to unique, cellar-driven terroir.

The grape is vinified in several regions in the country; Corrans cited producers in the Swartland as making particular good bottlings, and noting that Stellenbosch winemakers veer towards the fuller-bodied, oaked examples. Those from the Western Cape tend to be lighter and a bit more neutral on the palate. The takeaway? Find a few producers crafting ones you like. But in general, there is way less of a variation in character than there used to be. Decide which way you want to go. Or, start the evening with a fresh aperitif and move onto the more complex stuff with dinner. “Smaaklike ete!”

Bottles to try: 

2018 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc.jpg

2018 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc ($10), a young, juicy wine with mouthwatering flavors of pear, green apple, grapefruit and quince and a crisp finish.

2017 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($16), Aromas of melon and spicy baked apple are followed by honeycomb and caramel on the palate from lees contact. Rich, layered and textured, it shows a balance between fruit and oak.

2018 Raats Family Original Chenin Blanc ($15), a sauvignon blanc stand-in with zesty notes of yellow apple, kiwi, pineapple, green melon and line and a mineral- and citrus-driven finish.

2017 Raats Family Old Vine Chenin Blanc ($25), a multi-layered and dimensional wine with white peach, yellow apple, minerals, and a finish of ripe nectarine, apricot and wet chalk.

2017 Lubanzi Wines Chenin Blanc ($18), an easy-drinking chenin with hints of nectarines, orange and green melon, a whiff of herbaceousness and a long, creamy finish.