The great Chenin mystery: Why is South African Chenin Blanc underappreciated?

Wednesday, 16 January, 2019
Imbibe, Chris Losh
It has been in South Africa for centuries, and has versatility and value for money to burn. So why isn’t Chenin Blanc the Cape’s answer to Marlborough Sauvignon or Mendozan Malbec? Chris Losh dons his deerstalker to find out

Corner a New World winemaker after a few beers and they will often admit that vast swathes of their country are planted with the wrong grape varieties. That what’s there doesn’t suit the terrain or climate, and if they had the chance to tear it all up and start again, they’d do it very differently.

This isn’t the case for Chenin Blanc in South Africa. In fact, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction: the more the Cape’s growers and winemakers come to terms with the grape, the more they realise it’s a variety that’s in the right place.

It might, admittedly, have got there as much by accident as by design. Chenin cuttings arrived on some of the earliest Dutch ships to dock at the foot of Africa 350 years ago, and nobody seems to know why they were carrying varieties from the Loire.

But the grape’s continued presence ever since is testament to its good fit. Indeed, there’s more Chenin in South Africa now than in its French homeland.

It’s just that it’s often called Steen which, frankly, sounds a lot less enticing than its Gallic equivalent.

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