“Chenin’s time has come,” says Ken Forrester, head of the Chenin Blanc Association. Understanding the history of Chenin Blanc is understanding the history of Cape wine. For prominent international critics it is nigh on South Africa’s signature variety and symbolic of South Africa’s rising above its burden of history.
Chenin has also overcome one of its greatest attributes – versatility – to stand as one of the most internationally lauded South African varieties. Leading wine critics are comparing Chenin-based blends with white Burgundy which surely ranks as the best value for money – anywhere?
Although there is an accurate recording of when the first wine was made in the Cape – 2 February 1659 – there is less certainty surrounding the early varieties. However, we know that during that first century there were important contributions by Chenin, Semillon, Palamino, a few muscats and Pontac, which saw the beginnings of the Cape tradition of producing more whites than reds.
While they all waxed and waned, Chenin – while never as widely planted as Semillon (Groendruif) under British rule – remained a feature and was one of the grapes grown at Constantia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As recently as 1990, Chenin Blanc comprised more than 35% of plantings and currently comprises around 18% of plantings and over 30% of white-wine varieties.