How South Africa gave chenin blanc a good name!

South Africa has long been the heartland of good chenin blanc. As with many grape varieties, you don’t get an idea of what chenin blanc is capable of if you buy the cheapest examples on the market. South Africa is the place to explore if you want to find out the grape’s true potential.

I recently spent a week there, and must have tasted more than 50 at least, ranging from the crispest, most chablis-like young whites to luxuriant wines you could compare to a meursault. (Burgundy, I think, is the better reference point than Loire chenins, which often have a touch of sweetness.)

South Africa has always produced more white wine than red, and chenin has been the Cape Winelands’ calling card since the days when it was known as steen. The secret to its renaissance has been the old vines championed by The Old Vine Project set up by viticulturist Rosa Kruger, which aims to identify and conserve vines that are more than 35 years old, and give growers a financial incentive not to uproot them. Yields are low on old-vine chenin, but the flavours are more complex and expressive, with an impressive capacity to age.

The region that spearheaded its renaissance was the Swartland, under producers such as Chris and Andrea MullineuxEben SadieDavid and Nadia Sadie (no relation), and Adi Badenhorst, some of whose wines now fetch eye-watering prices. The 100-year-old Stellenbosch vineyard from which Eben Sadie makes his single-vineyard Mev Kirsten looks unpromising – a messy field of sprawling, low-lying bushes – but the wine itself is utterly thrilling, as indeed it should be for more than £100 a bottle.

You also find chenin in up-and-coming Breedekloof, which operates a chenin initiative to put the spotlight on how well they do with the variety. Producers in the group make a special bottling each year, of which one of my favourites was Elizma Visser’s Olifantsberg Lark Chenin Blanc.

Chenin is also at the heart of the so-called Cape White blends, which are arguably the country’s most exciting wines. Typically, chenin will make up the majority of the blend, but other grapes such as chardonnay, semillon, viognier and verdelho may be included, too.

(Source: The Guardian)

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