Dr. Hélène Nieuwoudt - Interview with wine.co.za - Chenin Congress

Friday, 28 June, 2019
wine.co.za - Thomas Davidson (Editor)
In a sidewalk cafe in the sunny hollow of Stellenbosch, Judy Brower and I met with Dr. Hélène Nieuwoudt to discuss the first International Chenin Congress which she would be attending. We spoke of all things Chenin, but also looked into what the congress might mean for the variety at home and across the globe.

Dr. Hélène Nieuwoudt holds a PhD in Wine Biotechnology and currently works as a senior researcher at the Institute for Wine Biotechnology in the department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University.

"I have to say all credit to the French for organizing such a classy event, they’ve pulled out all the stops. I’m so excited and I haven’t even set foot on their soil yet."

What do you think of Chenin’s future in SA?

I think there is a great future for Chenin or shall we be more precise and say a great future for South African Chenin both in South Africa and abroad. In the past 10 – 15 years we’ve seen a massive increase in the awareness by the consumer of Chenin. They are intrigued by it, they like the taste. There are so many different styles, something for everyone’s taste and something for everyone’s purse. There are many interesting emotional stories attached to the different styles. We’ve seen in the local sales figures a consistent increase in the last couple of years, but we’ve also seen it expanding in the export market. What is particularly interesting is the market in America where there is a huge scope, largely underutilized. So there’s a lot of scope for Chenin to develop into its full potential.

What are the biggest obstacles facing Chenin in the global market?

I’d say the scale of the risk. South African wine is sold at very inexpensive prices; we are being forced to produce wine at a non profit margin almost. Wine is expensive to produce, the packaging is expensive, the seasonal variation does cause risks, so the fact that our wines are not yet being sold at the prices they should be, both locally and overseas, is a major problem. Then another risk is consumer unawareness. It would seem in our research on consumers that the whole concept of a cultivar as a driver of a style identity for them is a bit of a burden, they are frequently disinterested in being able to say ‘this is a chardonnay, this is a Sauvignon Blanc or this is a Chenin’ they would rather say this is a white wine, that’s good enough for them. Having said that, the confusion the consumer has about what Chenin is or the uncertainty around that is certainly a risk, because consumers that are unsure choose something they have heard of before or something they have been recommended and in South Africa in the white wine category that is Sauvignon Blanc. So in that way I would say Sauvignon Blanc poses a risk for Chenin but I would not say that is the fault of Sauvignon Blanc. It is a challenge for the Chenin producers and us who produce the sensory cue to the consumer to make sure that a concrete identity is conveyed to the consumer. Globally the low levels of profit as well. Few can make wine for a hobby; you have to at least break even.

What makes SA’s geography ideal for Chenin?

Chenin is definitely facing a changing climate. Chenin is extremely adaptable. You can plant it from Namaqualand to Stellenbosch to the Orange River. It’s resillient and adapts to terriors, we also have a large percentage of old vine Chenin and the vines have adapted to South African climates. Sauvignon Blanc is a diva, the slightest discomfort and she doesn’t perform. Also, our winemakers know how to bring out the best in Chenin, either as a simple uncomplicated fresh style or a 700 - 900 rand bottle to compete with other iconic wines.

What do people love about Chenin?

People from Europe, specifically Germany and the colder climates, say they love the freshness, and for them they say its South African sunshine in a glass. Chenin is perceived as having a very good acidity, scientifically that’s due to it not going through a second, malolactic, fermentation. It’s light and fresh and for the discerning overseas visitor there is value for money and certainly quality.

Regarding South Africans. When we look locally, Sauvignon Blanc can become one dimensional, I say that with caution but it’s either the tropical style like we have or the green NZ style. Chenin is all over the place, many dimensions. We did research to find the sensory descriptors used for about 3000 Chenin in the past 10 years in the Platters guide. We wanted to visualize the sensory space of Chenin until we got to 38 000 words to describe Chenin, and we could easily see a one dimensional line in Sauvignon Blanc when Chenin was all over the place.

What are you hoping to achieve from the conference?

Connecting, collaborating and sharing culture. What I appreciate about the French they tend to lift the standard of things. I have little doubt we will form firm partnerships among producers and see that we have a partner rather than an opponent, we’re joining forces to beat an massive challenge which is climate change. South Africa has a longer schooling in this because of our severe drought. We want to establish a Chenin academy in the true sense of the word to develop a repository for past and present Chenin research.

Dr. Nieuwoudt will be attending the First International Chenin Congress which will take place from the 1st of July to the 3rd, in the Loire valley in France. The congress highlights the Chenin blanc grape, its versatility, its singularity and its soils. With an international dimension, it is a place for meetings and debates on the future of Chenin blanc facing the challenges of global viticulture, environmental, climatic, economic, societal and cultural challenges of the 21st century. 

Dr. Helene Nieuwoudt
Dr. Helene Nieuwoudt

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