South Africa's Chenin Blancs: cheap and refreshing

Friday, 28 June, 2013
Stephen Tanzer's Winophilia
If your warm-weather wine-drinking habits are anything like mine, you’re always looking for something new and invigorating.
After all, how much Riesling, Chablis and Beaujolais can you drink (actually, a lot!)? Chenin Blanc from South Africa offers a distinctive range of aromas and flavors, and generally sound acidity gives these wines serious refreshment value and the spine to work well at the table. Best of all, these wines can be dirt-cheap.

Chenin Blanc, commonly called steen in the Cape region, has a history in South Africa dating back to the 17th century. It’s still the most widely planted variety there, though to be honest a lot of it is pretty dull. It continues to be a relative handful of producers, such as Ken Forrester, Bruwer Raats and Teddy Hall, who are carrying Chenin’s banner.

In France’s Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc produces everything from bone-dry sparkling and still wines to outrageously sweet and unctuous dessert versions from late-picked grapes rich in noble rot. In South Africa, although Chenin is made in all styles, the classic version is dry to off-dry, with plenty of acidity to give shape and lift to the flavors of stone and citrus fruits, flowers, honey, fresh herbs and minerals. Compared to the best examples from France, South Africa’s Chenins are a bit more fruity and forthcoming-less rigorous and austere. In other words, so much the better for enjoying some top new releases this summer, with or without food.

In my extensive coverage of new wines from South Africa in the current issue of the International Wine Cellar, I highlighted a number of Chenins that offer superb value. Here are some of the best of them, presented in ascending order of price.

The Teddy Hall 2011 Chenin Blanc Summer Moments Stellenbosch ($10; Michael Skurnik Wines) delivers plenty of refreshment value for its gentle tariff. Its cool aromas of lime, apple and mint are lifted by high notes of lavender and powdered stone. On the palate, strong lemony acidity frames the crisp apple, lemon and floral flavors of this intense, penetrating Chenin. There’s no shortage of body for a wine with a modest 12% alcohol.

For a mere twelve bucks, the Indaba 2012 Chenin Blanc Western Cape (Cape Classics) is a real crowd-pleaser. Its citrus and mint aromas are accented by flowers and pepper. In the mouth it’s round and slightly sweet, but sound acidity gives shape to the flavors of melon, honey and green pepper, with a touch of oak adding complexity.

Chenin master Ken Forrester make a supple, creamy, easygoing Petit Chenin Blanc ($12) that is always a terrific value, but for just a few dollars more try his more serious Ken Forrester Wines 2011 Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($15; Cape Classics), half of which was aged in oak for ten months, the rest in stainless steel. The nose offers aromas of ripe peach, tropical fruits, honey and marzipan, while the rich, ripe palate boasts exotic fruit flavors accented by spices and minerals. Saline and smoky nuances add another dimension to this distinctly chewy Chenin.

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