A wrap on the first Chenin Blanc International Congress

Monday, 15 July, 2019
Carla van der Merwe
The first week of July (1 to 3) saw delegates from all corners of the winemaking world, including 45 wine professionals from South Africa, descend on Angers in the Loire region of France to participate in the first international Chenin Blanc Congress. With expert speakers from all facets of chenin production the delegates were in for an educational treat.

The theme of this first congress was Chenin in a Changing Environment with a focus on the future of chenin blanc and the viticultural, environmental, climatic, economic, societal and cultural challenges facing it. Each day was divided into sessions covering a specific challenge and attempting to find a solution.

Session 1: Biology and behaviour of Chenin Blanc in a changing environment

The first session saw five presentations covering topics related to chenin blanc's historic origins and ampelographic characteristics; its genetic phenotypic diversity; the depth of and complexity of chenin blanc, especially related to older vineyards; clonal selection for site specific results and terroir expression related to current climatic challenges. The most exciting fact that came from this session was that more than 500 different accessions selected from virus free plants in the Loire Valley and South Africa have now been planted in a repository in Montreuil-Bellay to ensure the genetic diversity of chenin blanc continues.

Session 2: Chenin Blanc world history

The second session saw three presentations covering topics related to the history of chenin blanc in the Loire Valley; the versatility of chenin and the history of its implantation in the Loire Valley and the history of chenin blanc in South Africa. Interesting observations in this session included that the first mention of chenin was in 1534 and varietal classification only came about in 1901 to avoid confusion with other similar grapes. It was a 100 year process fro 1896 to create a singular name for each variety.

Session 3: Heritage realities of Chenin Blanc landscapes

The third session included four presentations covering topics related to the vineyard garden of the Loire Valley, from vineyard to agricultural landscaped grounds; Anjou's vine and wine heritage; viticultural closeries of the Loire Valley and old vine chenin blanc, preserving heritage and creating future value. The French presentations included visual depictions of historical building schematics where a mixture of architecture was used to protect vineyards. Small chateaus were built interspersed with vineyards, orchards and gardens to include landscape development in architectural planning. Walls and gates were built to protect vineyards from animals in the middle ages. The South African presentation made by Andre Morgenthal focused on the old vine project and initiatives to protect South Africa's older vineyards.

Session 4: Chenin Blanc: an asset for climate change?

The fourth session included six presentations covering the most exciting topics of the day related to the impacts of climate change on the wine sector and the future of chenin blanc in the Loire Valley; the adjustment of viticulture to climate change in the Loire Valley region; adjustment of viticulture to climate change in the Mediterranean region; chenin blanc's adaptability and versatility in various terroirs - a South African perspective; viticulture facing climate change and the development of climate change adjustment strategies. Observations from both France and South Africa included that the fundamental problem of climate change is the lack of water. Suggestions to combat future dry and hot conditions were supplementary irrigation and looking to drought resistance grape cultivars.

Session 5: Viticulture and winemaking itineraries of Chenin Blanc in a changing environment

The fifth session included six presentations covering topics related to a system to predict grape berries maturity and anticipate wine potentialities; chenin blanc ripening dynamics in Anjou; a review of winemaking practices that ensure best in class results in a changing environment; mastering and evolution of oenologic practices of chenin blanc in Loire wines in a changing environment; vine architecture and viticultural territories moving towards biodiversity. The most interesting observation in this session was from Distell's head winemaker,  Niel Groenewald's analysis of the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 winning wines, where he noted that vineyard age was related to quality. Statistics show that in 2016, 50% of the winning wines were from old vines and in 2017 the number rose to 60% with 2018 seeing the number rise further to 90%.

Session 6: Taste, tastes of Chenin Blanc wines

The sixth session included nine presentations covering topics related to interdisciplinary perspectives on the taste of chenin blanc; chenin blanc's versatility; characterisation of the aromatic components of chenin blanc in the Loire Valley; demonstrating the concept of 'old vine character' for South African chenin blanc wines; the role of thiols in South African chenin blanc wines; testing the effects of ballot term randomisation using chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc; exploring the sensory space and versatility of the Top 10 South African chenin blanc wines of 2017 and 2018; the pros and cons of benchmarking chenin blanc and chemical, sensory and consumer perception of South African sweet chenin blanc wine styles. Observations in this session noted that variation in vinification methods and soil types and terroir in growing areas contribute to the varying taste profiles found in chenin blanc.

Session 7: Economic challenges for Chenin Blanc wines

The seventh session included four presentations covering topics related to the chenin blanc market; exploring the demand-side status of South African old vine chenin blanc; chenin blanc, an important element of the Loire Valley's wine markets and fan clubization of chenin amateurs - the Loire Valley's case. Interesting observations from this session were that the success of Loire chenin is due to the sparkling wines produced in this region which account for 2/3 of the total production of chenin blanc. Another interesting observation came from Ken Forrester's presentation where he explained that chenin is no different to any other alcoholic beverage and that we'll need to extend terroir to an experience in order to appeal to the growing millennial market that are looking for new experiences in consumer buying.

Session 8: Wine civilization, Chenin Blanc's imaginary world and wine tourism as the creator of the storytelling.

The final session included two presentations covering topics related to wine tourism and the magical world of chenin blanc and chenin blanc in its oenotouristic role play. Observations from this session included that South African wine tourism is focused on pure and authentic experiences that vary in cost and involvement but offer consumers an array of options to indulge in.

The variety and caliber of the three day Chenin Blanc International Congress was phenomenal. Listening to professional speakers at the top of their game in their respective fields was eye opening and very enlightening and I look forward to attending the next edition in South Africa in 2021.

Carla van der Merwe

Carla has a deep love for the South African winelands and has worked in several sectors of the wine industry including cellar door and marketing before taking up the position as Wine.co.za News Editor in 2011. Having since moved on from a full-time career in the wine industry, Carla now works as a freelance wine writer.

Carla has a number of qualifications to her name which include a degree in English, a post graduate diploma in Marketing and her WSET Level 3 Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits.

She represented wine.co.za at the first International Congress of Chenin Blanc - held in Angers, Loire, France in June 2019.

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