Chenin Blanc in South Africa is a wine uniquely straddling the Old World and the New World.
Steen is the most planted grape in South Africa. It has traditionally been grown as a blending agent for everyday wines, and even “port”. Bottled unblended but under-tended it has produced un-balanced and flabby wines.
In France Steen is more usually known as Chenin Blanc, where it is one of the great grapes of the Loire Valley, most particularly in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine. In the latter district the grape is also known locally as Pineau Blanc de la Loire. Probably the best-known Chenin region is Vouvray, which makes wines that will last decades.
It is only in the past five to 10 years that Chenin Blanc has been taken seriously in South Africa, and the subsequent high standard of wines made from this grape lead to a question: Might Chenin Blanc be the next Riesling, the latter a varietal beloved by the trade but a hard sell to the consumer? After years of hard marketing work, Riesling is now on a roll. And Chenin? Hopefully the high-quality Sheens of South Africa will introduce a far wider audience to this under-exposed grape.
Chenin Blanc and Riesling have much in common, due to their versatility. They can make a wide variety of wines, from bone dry to lusciously sweet, though always with a backbone of balance achieved through cradled, high acids. This means they always taste fresh. Such high acidity also allows them to age, though the wines can also make an extraordinary statement when young.
But Chenin Blanc stands a little apart from Riesling, and that is because of its extraordinary textural quality. Adam Mason, winemaker at Mulderbosch in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s premium wine-growing region, says this component is achieved by picking at slightly lower sugar levels. This practice “enhances the texture of the wine in a mineral, steely way,” he says. However, besides texture, he also values freshness very highly.
Mason used to make a Chenin Blanc blended from three vineyards, but such is his enthusiasm for allowing the grape to express itself that he is now bottling three single vineyard wines. They are excellent: concentrated, precise and clean. They are not wines for drinking, but rather to ponder over. Mason explains: “The three vineyards are each of similar age, yet are grown on three very different soil types, the Faure fruit (Block W) on decomposed granite; Bottelary (Block S2) on Malmesbury shales, and the Polkadraai (Block A) on a sandy fraction overlaying ferrous gravel with a clay sub layer.”
These three wines are distinctly different. Mulderbosch Block S2 2014 has a rich and creamy texture; a sensation of waves breaking on the tongue. It is highly mineral. Vineyard Block W is just a few hundred metres away, yet produces wines with a searing minerality and the texture of the 2014 is defined by angles rather than flow. Proximity to the ocean brings salty qualities. Finally, Mulderbosch Block A 2014 is an extraordinary expression of concentrated fruit dripping with honey, yet is still beautifully balanced and startlingly long.
Mason says that beyond terroir, mature Chenin Blanc vines contribute to concentration and texture because of lower yields. Older vines are also more resilient to the vagaries of the growing season “as a result of their greater wood and root mass which acts as a kind of storage organ for when times are tough,” he explains.
Now we move to the Loire: Domaine Vincent Careme Vouvray 2014 has a huge ripe apple-pear nose, a palate of linear clarity, and then finishes rich but ultimately fresh. Just taking this example, there is a sense that the traditional Old World-New World binary doesn’t quite work with Chenin Blanc. In any event, South Africa could be seen to be border-line Old World.
What does Mason think? “I often think that the Cape represents something of the true spirit of the Old World in a way many non-European countries cannot, and simply do not try to do.” He maintains, at least for the main part, that this is a unique trait of South African wines: “This seemingly comfortable identity somewhere between the Old and New Worlds.”
It should be noted that the wines mentioned in this column were tasted from glasses designed for Pinot Noir. No glass seems more appropriate for wines of such immense perfume, from floral to citrus and even tropical; and a rich, mouth-filling texture; and a finish of such complexity that the wines present as simultaneously dry and fresh and long.
Note also that South Africa still produces a fair amount of poor quality Chenin Blanc – what Mason calls “dross” – similar to entry-level wines from Bordeaux. “I’d like to think that the overwhelming majority of Chenin Blanc labelled as such today represents a much higher benchmark of quality and varietal character than ever before,” concludes Mason. So, at the higher end, South African Chenin Blanc is a great wine to buy and then, preferably, forget about for a decade, as we would a Huet single vineyard Vouvray.