Waltzing its way from Cinderella status to South Africa’s most exciting and highly rated white wine – now that’s a story to celebrate.
After nearly 360 years of cultivation in the Cape, Chenin Blanc has surely come of age. Many hectares are still cloaked in chenin vines, grown to make base wine for our prized South African brandies, for bulk export and for local boxed consumption. But that’s only part of the story.
Elsewhere, the scenario changed as Chenin’s status rocketed. Along with the new millenium, a breed of winemaker blossomed in South Africa. Young, adventurous and well-travelled, these creators experimented with grapes from old and often neglected chenin vineyards, with notable success.
A minor revolution was the result, as Chenins of distinction flowed from tiny rural cellars, many in the Swartland. Others followed and, today, wine lovers are spoilt for choice, with dozens of enjoyable and mostly affordable alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Think you know everything about wine? Then try our #WineWednesday quiz.
Back to the beginning
Regarded in France as an aristocrat, Chenin Blanc boasts a venerable history, dating back to the 9th century. It reached our shores as early as 1655 when Jan van Riebeeck introduced vines to the Dutch East India Company garden, and today there are more chenin vineyards in the Cape than in France’s Loire Valley, where great wines – dry, sweet and sparkling – are produced.
Not only local but international fundis are placing our top Chenins alongside other great white wines of the world, partly because this amazing vine, when grown in suitable soil and given TLC, gives back juice of enormous potential. Old vineyards, instead of becoming feeble, reduce their yields and concentrate flavour in little berries that, when treated with respect, produce extraordinary results.
Perhaps, too, because fickle wine lovers are becoming bored with Sauvignon Blanc and are ready for a fruity, fresh alternative. And when wines have a story to tell, enjoyment is increased, and only Chenin Blanc can offer South Africans heritage tales that date back three centuries. But don’t take my word for it. Join me on a trip to a few Wineland venues, where we will find diverse and delicious Chenin Blancs.
Their talented winemakers will share ideas as to why it’s Chenin’s time to shine. Many of the farms also boast restaurants, and some offer accommodation so we will dine well and overnight in style.
Our first destination is a wine farm that can be glimpsed by travellers heading toward Paarl from the Mother City on the N1. Joostenberg farmstead, with its simple Cape Dutch gable dated 1756, oozes history from its thick walls and has been in the Myburgh family since 1877.
Previous generations made wine from steen, as chenin used to be called, some for distilling purposes. The original copper brandy still is guarded by tall gum trees outside the venerable cellar where Tyrrel Myburgh revived winemaking as the last century drew to a close.
With his plant pathologist wife Anette, they produced their maiden Chenin Blanc in 2000. Today their range nicely illustrates the grape’s versatility, with a sophisticated, dry Chenin beautifully demonstrating the grape’s response to unhurried, traditional winemaking. Tyrrel has named it Die Agteros, from the Afrikaans saying ‘Agteros kom ook in die kraal’ (The hind ox also gets there).
“Chenin,” he maintains, “includes everything you want in a white wine – refreshment, good acidity, texture. It’s part of our heritage and our everyday lives. Although many treated it like an ugly duckling in the past, it turned out to be a beautiful swan.”
Notes of Ken Forrester
We head towards Stellenbosch, where our next stop is Ken Forrester Vineyards, home of one of South Africa’s most passionate promoters and producers of Chenin Blanc. His tasting room and cellar are on Scholtzenhof farm, where wine grapes have been grown since 1694. Exactly 300 years later Ken released his first wines, and today his prize-winning Chenins can be found across the country and the globe.
As founder-chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa, Ken proves the grape’s versatility by making a range of styles, from a vibrant bubbly dubbed Sparklehorse to both straightforward and luscious five-star wines, the latter from aged vines.
“Chenin,” he enthuses, “offers wine lovers the body and texture they enjoy, as well as freshness…” And he never tires of repeating his mantra, “Chenin has come into its own.”
No Chenin story could claim to be complete without input from South Africa’s most renowned young winemaker, whose dedication and vision see the world’s top critics and gurus heading to his Swartland farm, Sadie Family Wines. Eben Sadie’s small portfolio of exceptional wines includes Mev Kirsten, a Chenin produced from the oldest vineyard in Stellenbosch (at well over a century), alongside several acclaimed Chenin-led white blends. They can only be accessed through allocation prior to release, and are sold out within a few days of being launched.
Yet a chat to this quiet but persuasive man is to marvel at his humility, as I did when I asked him to comment on the rise of Cape Chenin. He shared enough thoughts to fill an article, but in essence pointed out that there are three reasons for current success, which all seem quite obvious when Eben looks back at our vinous history.
Because nearly half of the Cape vineyard area was covered in chenin way back, it’s not surprising that some fine vines survived, especially those planted on suitable soils.
Then, during the three decades when the industry struggled because of political isolation, our vineyard area declined substantially as most of the inferior chenin vines were pulled up.
“And,” Eben continues, warming to the task, “no one knows why, but chenin has a great affinity for some South African soils. It’s particularly well adapted. It’s the complete chameleon grape, making it very exciting, whether you are making a dry wine or an ultra sweet…”
Or a Chenin-led blend, another Cape trend that is impressing connoisseurs and collecting headlines. When we talked, Eben had just bottled his 2015 vintage Palladius which, along with Chenin Blanc, comprises no less than ten other varietals. The large Swartland wine region borders that of Paarl, where hectares of chenin fill farmland between the lone Paardeberg and the Paarl mountain range. Many of these grapes find their way to Perdeberg Winery, a giant producer in the area, former co-operative, now a limited company that recently celebrated 75 years in business.
Given its mind-boggling statistics – some 18 000 tons of grapes reach the cellar annually – its reputation for consistent quality is impressive. But its fame lies more in Chenin Blanc, described by CEO Gerhard van der Watt as their flagship. Four dry, one natural sweet, two bubblies and a delicious Chenin-led blend add up to a choice to please every palate and purse. The lawn outside their new function centre – appropriately named Chenin Hall – is a good spot to sit under umbrellas and contemplate the tasting choices.
Perdeberg was among the first cellars to champion Chenin to the online or millennial generation. Gerhard recalls, “Ah, yes, we started a marketing programme called Clink to Win which was very successful.” Many young fans went on to savour the more sophisticated products like the Perdeberg Dry Land Collection, which, as its name suggests, is produced from unirrigated vines that yield more intense flavour.
From here, our route leads us along the R45 to Franschhoek, a district becoming increasingly international as overseas investors snap up historic farms. Our destination is L’Ormarins, owned by Johann Rupert, so safely in South African hands.
Renowned for its collection of vintage vehicles in the Franschhoek Motor Museum as it is for fine wines, L’Ormarins’ Cape of Good Hope range is one that also focuses on vintage in vinous form. Seven years ago, self-taught viticulturist Rosa Kruger criss-crossed the Western Cape in search of vineyards older than 40 years. Rosa and Eben Sadie succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, with several chenin vineyards on their venerable vineyard list.
Among these were straggling chenin vines planted in 1964, surviving among rooibos and grazing sheep, high on Citrusdal mountain. Now well nurtured, they are harvested annually and trucked to L’Ormarins to produce the admirable Van Lill and Visser Chenin Blanc. This is history in a tasting glass, with flavours of stone fruit and citrus that linger in mouth and memory. Winemaker Mark van Buuren will be releasing the 2017 vintage around September.
Breedekloof’s bouquet of winemakers
It’s the turn now of cellars in the Overberg to show off what irresistible (and well-priced) Chenins they produce. With the Du Toitskloof Pass behind us, we’re in the Breedekloof wine district, where a dozen farmers clubbed together to prove the potential of their region. Attie Louw of Opstal estate is a leading light, the first to produce a five-star wooded Chenin, rich, complex and delicious. The Breedekloof Chenin Blanc Initiative has succeeded in converting many consumers – let’s head to the Breedekloof Wine Route Information office outside Rawsonville to meet CEO Melody Botha.
“Welcome to the route less travelled,” she says with a smile. “What would you like to taste?” There are unwooded Chenins, fruity charmers, along with more intense oaked wines produced for the Chenin Initiative. Melody expands on the valley’s attractions of hiking, biking and angling and then, reverting to Chenin Blanc, adds, “Did you know that Breedekloof supplies more than 20% of all Chenin produced in South Africa?”
The R43 takes us from the Breedekloof to Villiersdorp, from where it’s a short hop to Grabouw in the highland bowl of Elgin Valley. Vineyards now bisect swathes of apple country, as reputations for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and other cool-climate wines continue to soar.
The last drop
So why are we looking for chenin, which flourishes in hot sun and dry conditions? The answer lies at a boutique winery called Spioenkop, home to a maverick winemaker with loads of talent and determination to achieve untypical goals. We’re meeting Koen Roose, a Belgian-born artist who, with wife Hannelore, achieved five-star status for his 1900 Chenin Blanc produced with bought-in grapes.
Not resting on his laurels, Koen released in May a pair of Chenins made from grapes grown on his farm, a first in the Elgin Valley. He wanted, he announced, “to taste Elgin in the wine… give this cultivar its own expression of our cool-climate terroir.” Having named his winery after the mountain in KwaZulu-Natal, where the Boers inflicted a crushing defeat on the British during the Anglo-Boer War, Koen takes this history lesson further by naming his admirable Chenins after women who played significant roles during the war. Johanna Brandt of Die Kappie Kommando fame organised women to spy on the British, while Sarah Raal, who endured incarceration at a concentration camp in Springfontein, escaped and took an active part in guerrilla warfare. Koen has the last word, “Chenin is the rainbow-nation grape of South Africa, it can produce wine of various colours and in many styles.”
A fitting finale from a winemaker originally old world, who embraces both our vineyards and our history with equal enthusiasm.
Words and Photography Myrna Robins