Article By: Sandy Block, MW
As a dyed-in-the-wool Chenin Blanc fanatic who has been preaching its gospel faithfully over the past five years, it’s wonderful to follow the emergence of the grape from its previous incarnation as an over cropped workhorse, to today’s star performer, in the vineyards of South Africa. Chenin’s versatility, and its transparency in reflecting terroir, are legendary attributes. Depending on local conditions and winemakers’ preferences, this means that there are styles to fit almost every palate: from sparkling, to bone dry, to semi-sweet, to luscious dessert nectar. While an abundance of each are to be found in the Central Loire Valley, the grape’s home turf, South Africa today specializes in the driest expressions. But “dry” in the case of Chenin Blanc, rarely means austere or biting. There is almost always an open-handed gentleness and pedigreed charm that invites another sip of a fine dry Chenin Blanc, with or without the presence of food.
Chenin’s chameleon-like quality results largely from the vine’s potential for vigor, and its naturally high malic acid levels. If untamed, and left to its own devices, a Chenin Blanc vine needs little encouragement to set a substantial crop load. It’s very clear, however, that at more than 3 tons per acre, aromatic and flavor concentration begin to disappear. Like Riesling, the variety buds early in the spring, so its susceptibility to spring frosts (and the resulting reduced yields) are omnipresent. The best Chenin vineyards are therefore located on sites where sun exposure is maximized, such as slopes soaking up as many of the morning rays as possible. With Chenin’s characteristic tight grape bunches, it should be evident that damp climates promote rot susceptibility, so wind ventilation is an additional advantage of planting on higher elevation sites; vineyard settings that enjoy humid mornings and dry, sunny afternoons in the autumn, however, always present the possibility for noble rot to develop. Because Chenin, again like Riesling, tends to be a late ripener, it can hang long enough on the vine to accumulate very high levels of sugar, weather permitting. The grape’s strong acidity insures that even in quite warm conditions it can retain character and liveliness; when grown in moderate to cooler climates it almost always benefits from retaining some degree of sugar after fermentation to balance the omnipresent tartness. Strong acids are also a preservative, enabling the life span of a fine Chenin to be measured in decades rather than years.
Today there is actually more Chenin Blanc growing in the Western Cape than the rest of the world combined. To better understand how the grape responds to soil and climate, however, it’s instructive to look at its adaptation to the Loire, where Chenin has been cultivated since at least the 9th Century. One critical element that the Loire wines often feature is a healthy dose of that elusive “minerality” which can make them so intriguing on the palate. While quite diverse and weathered, Loire soils tend to be very rocky. Close to the Atlantic, in Anjou, volcanic schists predominate; further inland, Chenin Blanc thrive in the more sandy, clay and chalky limestone outcroppings of Saumur and Touraine. The dry Chenin Blanc produced at Savennieres, in Anjou, always reflects this AOC’s mineral rich, heavily alkaline soils, which are composed of sandstone, schist, quartz and slate. These weathered soils produce wines higher in phenolic concentration, showing strong acid structure and sometimes slightly bitter, peppery minerality. Savennieres’ relatively steep southeast facing slopes experience substantial wind, helping insure that the grapes suffer less from rot. Some of the best producers, however, such as Nicolas Joly, encourage a degree of botrytis in even their driest wines, as an element that encourages the vineyard to express its best potential. Saumur soils tend to be a blend of tuffeau chalk and sand (both a bit lower in minerals than the soils in Anjou) and yield some of the best Chenin in a lighter, more delicate style. On the soft, porous, crumbly tuffeau limestone a bit further east in Touraine, Vouvray produces a gentler Chenin Blanc that is broader in texture than Savennieres, while nonetheless mineral in expression. The climate is a bit milder here than further west, but the primary difference in the wines relates to the soil composition and its degree of weathering; Vouvray’s lighter colored, more crumbly calcareous soils producer Chenins with complex perfume but generally less depth and intensity than those originating on the harder, more weathered rock slopes of Savennieres.
In very different conditions, the Western Cape of South Africa produces dry Chenin Blancs with milder personalities, but no less individuality, than these Loire Valley originals. One of the overriding climatic considerations is that relatively warm, wet winters in South Africa make pest control more challenging, as vines have greater susceptibility to disease and to the depredations of insect pests. Leaf roll virus is omnipresent. South African vines also experience less rest, as dormancy is not always as complete as it is in the colder Loire; vines therefore do not age as long, on average, with replanting common after just 15 to 2O years. Strong winds, however, militate against rot, and the cool Atlantic influence tends to extend the growing season, despite much higher average growing season temperatures than the Loire experiences.
The old vine issue is most complicated in South Africa though, as the plant material to which growers had access prior to the 199O’s was not always suited to quality production. Therefore old vines are not always an automatic plus. One grower in Stellenbosch who has had extensive Chenin Blanc experience worldwide, including in the Loire, is Bruwer Raats. Raats does own a substantial quantity of older vines, including some planted in the 194Os. Started as a commercial production facility in 2OOO, the goal of his Raats Family Winery is to express the potential of each of the sites at the property while specializing primarily in Chenin Blanc. Located about 6 miles from False Bay and 12 miles from Table Bay, on Stellenbosch’s warmer Indian Ocean side, Raats’ new plantings are largely on a de-vigorating rootstock designed to curb Chenin’s tendency to be prolific. Vines are planted quite close together, as further insurance against excessive yields, but the training is vertical to encourage air flow and guard against rot or mildew, as the vines are packed in so densely. This mandates that vines be treated and harvested manually. Raats’ vineyard soils are of two main types: potassium rich clay-like mountain sandstone (which was seabed that got thrust to the top of Table Mountain millions of years ago) imparting viscosity, soft acids, fuller body and white peach and pear aromas; and decomposed highly weathered dolomite granite that is rich in quartz and imparts more mineral, lime and crisp fresh acids. This highly eroded granite soil is sited on soft rolling hills in places where ancient magna pushed up from the depths of the earth’s crust to just under ground level and has remained for eons. These two contrasting soil types at the Raats property are roughly comparable to a combination of those found separately at Savennieres and further east in Touraine.
The Raats “Original” Chenin Blanc is a blend of grapes originating on both the sandstone and the decomposed granite soils, vinified separately and then blended. The oldest vines used in this wine are not quite 4O years old.
RAATS “ORIGINAL” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2O11
From an uncharacteristically cool vintage, the 2O11 is pale and pear-like in aroma, with a supple freshness and fleshy peach fruit flavor. A hint of gentle stony minerality marks the finish.
RAATS “FAMILY” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2O11
Also blended from the same two soil types as the Original, this wine expresses much more intense mineral character on the nose. Having undergone 2O% natural yeast fermentation in wood, with nine months on the lees prior bottling (but no batonage; the barrels were rolled instead), this is a more substantial but tighter wine, with cooked pear, white pepper and stone fruit nuances. It finishes with a cleansing minty spice flavor.
RAATS “ORIGINAL” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2O1O
One of the charms of Chenin Blanc is the degree to which it faithfully reflects vintage conditions. The structural intensity and vigor of the two previously discussed wines’ is an expression of 2O11’s cooler than average weather in Stellenbosch. 2O1O gave completely different conditions. Strong wind damage and unusually heavy rainfall in the spring reduced that vintage’s crop by 3O%, meaning that Raats totally declassified their Family wine into the Original. The resulting wine has a juicy freshness, but also more phenolic, herbal, cooked pear and vegetal notes than in other vintages; it tastes, in other words, a bit more substantial.
RAATS “FAMILY” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2OO9
In this, another cool vintage, the Family Chenin Blanc shows considerably more citrus, quince, earthy spice and richness, with a smoky, gingery flavor expression, and an accent of fennel on the finish.
RAATS “FAMILY” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2OO8
This was a much warmer growing season in Stellenbosch and it produced a fleshier, more weighty Family Chenin Blanc with aromas of cooked fruit and yams, but a clean, peppery and beautifully balanced burst of minerals on the finish.
RAATS “FAMILY” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2OO7
As if to emphasize the degree to which Chenin Blanc can age, given the right growing conditions, the style of the cooler vintage 2OO7 was back to the lime-like freshness of the 2OO9, with a touch of mushrooms and a bit more brightness than the 2OO8.
RAATS “FAMILY” CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2OO3
This wine shows a dimension that has yet to emerge in any of the younger wines: fragrantly floral, lush, rich and savory, with a velvety round texture. Its blend of white and yellow fruit aromas are quite complex, with tropical essences, earthy pear notes, and a strong mineral expression. This is in keeping with some of the best Savennieres I’ve tasted: only beginning to show its potential, with no signs of deterioration, as it approaches ten years.
DeMorgenzon, also in Stellenbosch, offers a completely unique, weightier expression of Chenin Blanc that is beautifully crafted and reflective of both its mountain terroir and old vine (35 year plus) origins. Winemaker Carl van der Merwe uses a three to four hour gentle press cycle on the whole bunches he harvests, achieving rich extracts and even some phenolics from the concentrated mountainside grapes. Fermented unclarified in oak, so as to further accent the natural lushness of the grapes, the wine remains in barrel for up to eight months, without sulphur additions (which might protect it from oxygen, but would also tend to repress full aroma expression). It undergoes malo-lactic fermentation “if it wants to,” as van der Merwe says. Bone dry, the DeMorgenzon is an example of Chenin Blanc that ages incredibly well.
DEMORGENZON CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2OO8
Laced with minerals and ripe Anjou pear fruit, this wine is velvety rich and balanced while still quite tart and vibrantly citric.
DEMORGENZON CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2O1O
The current release shows more toasty herb essences on the nose, with vanilla bean and orange notes. Creamy, but also vibrantly acidic on the palate, the flavors are a melange of fresh apricot, ripe apple, honey, pear and lemon.
DEMORGENZON CHENIN BLANC STELLENBOSCH 2O11
The current release is more floral and delicate, with nectarine, mellow pear, and subtle mineral notes. It also shows a lush lees character and hints of toasty caramel and oak. Could be the finest of all.
From nearby Swartland, Adi Badenhorst produces an expression of South African Chenin Blanc reflecting origins from mostly granite soils on Paardeberg Mountain. The grapes are harvested from bush vines growing in these harsh mountainside conditions; they never see any wood contact, but are strongly lees influenced.
ADI BADENHORST “SECATEURS” CHENIN BLANC SWARTLAND 2O11
Fresher and more delicate, with light herbal spiciness and an easy drinking but slightly peppery finish, this wine is a gentle and open expression of Chenin Blanc, still a bit closed on the palate.
ADI BADENHORST “SECATEURS” CHENIN BLANC SWARTLAND 2O1O
As if to emph asize the benefit of letting Chenin develop in the bottle, this first commercial release of the Secateurs in the US is considerably more concentrated, with pear, floral scents and a stronger earthy minerality, more ample on the palate, but no less delicious.
Structure, terroir-reflection, ability to age – when treated appropriately in the vineyard, sited in premium locations and restricted in yield, Chenin Blanc has all the attributes of greatness. It’s a worthy, if still somewhat underground, rival to Riesling and Chardonnay, and deserves to be discussed in the same pantheon. It’s exciting to witness the beginning stages of South Africa’s interpretation of this grape, to offer an alternative to the magnificent wines of the Loire. The best news: fine South African Chenin Blanc remains quite undervalued. Still somewhat of a secret, it offers abundant opportunity for restaurateurs and wine merchants to market something to their customers that will be memorable for many different reasons.