Monday, April 15, 2013

Chenin Blanc - our only great white hope

My lighthearted take on Chenin for Playboy March 2013 edition 

Once upon a time Chenin Blanc lived in the beautiful Cape winelands with her step-sisters Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The sisters received lots of attention – parties, trellises, favoured sites - never wanting for anything other than a true Romeo to woo them. But they were spoilt and petulant and failed to find a suitor.  What the sisters didn’t have was Chenin’s beauty and versatility.

Chenin had to work hard all day with little rest or comfort other than to sit near the fire cinders late in the evening, earning the nickname Cinderella.  One day some new oak arrived to take the sisters to the palace ball.

Chenin was left all alone to do the housework. Suddenly – in a burst of light - an old oak by the name of Madiba appeared and offered to take Chenin to the ball. ‘But the wine snobs won’t let me in’ cried Chenin. Not to worry assured Madiba, Michael Fridjhon has been doing your PR for many years and soon you will appear in the finest regalia.  

With a swish of his virge, Madiba turned grapes into a pimpmobile and nine winemakers – Jeff Grier, Teddy Hall, Jean Daneel, Irina von Holt, Mike Dobrovic, Eben Sadie, Bruwer Raats, David Trafford, into eight white steeds and coachman Ken Forrester. 

At the ball, globally renowned critics loved Chenin so much that Madiba decided that if the shoe fits wear it and rescinded the spell to turn the pimpmobile and winemakers into pumpkin and mice at midnight.

And now the scary part – this story is (mostly) true. By 1985 more than 30% of Cape vineyards were planted to Chenin, mostly due to its versatility during the heavily regulated then sanction era. Now down to around 18% but still the largest planting in the world, Chenin’s burden of history includes being regarded as a workhorse grape – and used to make all manner if still wines, sparkling wines and brandy. 

However, just like in France’s Loire Valley, it can make fine wine. The jewel in the Cape crown is the old vines. Chenin is one of the original settlers in the Cape but it was only in the 1990s that Chenin was taken seriously by a handful of winemakers including Hilko Hegewisch who decided to oak some Chenin – and went on to win the inaugural Chenin Blanc Challenge in 1993.

Old vines produce naturally lower yields and can produce wines of great concentration and intensity. Sadly some old vineyards have been removed after becoming uneconomical due to low yield – and consumer price resistance as a result of its blue collar past.

If the top end of Chenin Blanc production offers beauty, the lower end offers real value. For around R30 you can find decently made, fresh and fruity Chenin Blanc from the co-ops and former co-ops (Perdeberg, Boland, Swartland and Riebeek, for example) that are ­generally better and more interesting than anything else at the price.

Shorts (for their layout)

The 2013 edition of Platter’s contains no less than eight 5 star Chenin Blanc wines and 12 for white blends some of which contain the variety. Meanwhile Chardonnay garnered only five and Sauvignon Blanc only three. Two sweet wines made with Chenin also garnered 5 stars.

Chenin’s Young Guns
Chris & Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux), Sebastian Beaumont (Beaumont), Carl van der Merwe (De Morgenzon), Tertius Boshoff, (Stellenrust) Chris Boustred (Remhoogte), Adi Badenhorst, Myles Mossop Wines (and Tokara) and Chris and Suzaan Alheit (Cartology)

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Lieberstein – Chenin was used in this - once the biggest selling bottled wine in the world.
Critical acclaim
Cape Chenin has garnered all manner of acclaim in recent years particularly in the USA, UK and Holland from the likes of Neal Martin (for Robert Parker, most influential critic in the world) Jancis Robinson, Tim Atkin and in publications like Decanter, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

Age and beauty
More than 40% of the Chenin vineyards are now over 20 years old, and there remain many small plots of far older Chenin vines across different regions being identified and saved, often to be farmed by young winemakers who rent rather than buy the land.

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