Sauvignon-esque Chenin

Tuesday, 10 September, 2019
Graham Howe
Sauvignon-esque, a new descriptor has entered the wine lexicon to describe a new style of Chenin Blanc. Graham Howe investigates

The term Sauvignon-esque was used to describe some of the entries in the 2019 Top Ten Chenin Blanc Challenge at the awards event at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in late August. Outgoing chairperson Cathy van Zyl used the S-word to describe a few intriguing trends in the annual competition – while highlighting that all of the top ten Chenin Blancs were wooded in some way (barrel matured or fermented), that five of the ten top wines came from the Stellenbosch region, that eight were made from vines older than thirty years, and the average price was R256.

A quick technical analysis of the winning wines reveals that the percentage of new French oak ranges from 70% (Flagstone Tributary Bush Vine), 58% (Ken Forrester FMC) and 55% (Slanghoek Legends) to 38% (Stellenrust The Mother Ship), 33% (Cederberg Cellars Five Generations) and 30% (Durbanville Hills Cape Garden) and 20% (DeMorgenzon Reserve) down to unspecified (older French oak fills) in the two winning Kleine Zalze wines (Family Reserve and Vineyard Selection) and Rijk’s Touch of Oak. Stellenrust and De Morgenzon have won places in the Top Ten Chenin for five consecutive years. The winning wines were selected from 150 entries submitted by 87 producers in many wine regions.

I asked Richard Kershaw MW, one of the judges what was meant by Sauvignon-esque. Are we making more Savvy Chenin? He commented that some Chenin Blancs are picked earlier to obtain a crisper, more acidic, greener character, showing pyrazine qualities – typical of an herbaceous style of Sauvignon Blanc – while other riper Chenin showed a slightly bitter, orange peel character. Jeff Grier of Villiera, one of the Chenin kings of the Cape, added that he detects a guava-like Sauvignon character which could be a common fermentation ester due to the use of a commercial yeast.

Ina Smith, manager of the Chenin Blanc Association, distributed a fascinating new sensory aroma wheel based on the aromas of South African Chenin Blanc wines – which replaces the older wheel based on sugar and ripeness levels. Among the wheel’s seven styles of Chenin – fresh, floral, fruity, rich, dry, nutty/earthy and wood – I found the Sauvignon-esque zone of crisp (grassy, herbaceous, green pepper, green apple), mineral (steely/flinty) and dry (dried grass, straw/hay and fynbos). The new wheel is a great aid to tasting primary, secondary and tertiary characters of Chenin Blanc wines.

Ken Forrester, a benchmark producer of acclaimed Chenin Blanc in the Cape, says a key takeout from the International Chenin Congress in Angers in mid-2019, is that the excellence attained by many Cape winemakers in recent years has prompted the French to give more serious attention to the variety. He highlighted a recent comment by British critic, Tim Atkin MW, writing for Harpers, that: “The French may be reluctant to admit it, yet I think that South Africa’s achievements with Chenin have influenced winemakers in Anjou and Touraine, the way that Argentinian Malbec has inspired Cahors and promoted links between the two”.

Chenin, a hero white South African wine, has been the star of several recent tastings on the winelands circuit. In late July, I attended the launch of a new flagship range inspired by the growers of Stellenbosch Hills at Volkskombuis in Stellenbosch. Kastanjeberg Chenin Blanc 2017 (R285 per bottle) is named after the wild chestnut trees planted on the Neethling’s old farm, sourced from a single dryland ten year-old block in Stellenboschkloof. Winemaker James Ochse says the new wines showcase the terroir and quality of grower viticulture, “While the wines are made from vineyards that produce quality fruit, they also comprise grape varieties (the red flagship is Suikerboschrand Cape Blend 2015) grounded in South African heritage” – namely, Chenin and Pinotage. The wooded Chenin is rich and complex, bursting with stone fruit, honey, dried apricots, violets, almonds and vanilla oak spice.

While once grown mainly by South Africa and France, Chenin Blanc is now cultivated in 23 countries and has become the world’s 26th most planted variety, covering between 33 000 and 36 000 ha. South Africa accounts for just over 17 000 ha or 50% of global plantings.

Chenin Blanc was also the star of the show at a tasting at Cavalli family cellar in the golden triangle of the Helderberg. An architectural showcase set on a wine and stud farm, the tasting room and restaurant headed by winelands maestro chef Michael Deg offers great views, wine and fabulous food. Winemaker Craig Barnard led one of the smartest tastings of the year, cleverly deconstructing Cavalli’s flagship Cremello white blend into its varietal components of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Verdelho and Viognier. First we tasted the single varietal wines, then the blend. The Filly Chenin Blanc 2017 gives classic expression to the variety, showing the hallmark stone fruit, quince, green melon and ginger character, supported by creamy nuances of vanilla, honey and almond from nine months in French oak (25% new).

The entry-level Cavalli White Knight Chenin is more Sauvignon-esque to use my new descriptor, showing a fresh and zesty character with grassy, green apple notes and a dry, zesty finish. “We want to invest in Chenin as our focus variety” says the winemaker, who is planning to increase the proportion of Chenin as the backbone of the Cremello blend. The 2015 vintage won the Old Mutual Trophy for best white blend. Cavalli Chenin speaks for itself in a region which is a benchmark for fine Chenin – and in close proximity to key producers like Ken Forrester, Longridge, Radford Dale, Paul Roos and Post House.

Talking of benchmark Chenin blends, I’ve enjoyed tasting some superb examples up in the Bot River wine region recently. At Luddite winery, we tasted Niels Verburg’s superb Saboteur White 2018 (a 71% Chenin-led assemblage with Viognier and wooded Sauvignon Blanc) – as well as his iconic Shiraz and daughter Alice’s delightful maiden It’s a Shiraz 2017. And at nearby Gabrielskloof, another family farm with spectacular mountain, canola field and vineyard views, I enjoyed two acclaimed Chenin Blancs: the flagship Elodie 2018 (a blend of Swartland and Durbanville fruit; 2017 vintage rated 4,5 stars by Platter’s), aged ten months in old oak – a wine with hallmark apple and pear flavours - and the estate Chenin Blanc (Swartland and Franschhoek fruit), broadened by 15%Semillon aged in old oak.

I can’t wait for the announcement in early October of the winners of the FNB Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 Competition 2019. In May I attended the Cape launch of Sauvignon Blanc South Africa, an exciting new initiative with a new brand, logo and multi-media platform (formerly the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group), now under the aegis of Agri-Expo. Chairperson RJ Botha, winemaker at Kleine Zalze – and key producer of Chenin Blanc - called Sauvignon Blanc “the gateway variety”. He estimates “SA’s most popular grape variety makes up 40% of all white wine sales in South Africa, and sells three times more than Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon in the premium category”. I wonder if we’ll hear about a Chenin-esque style of Sauvignon Blanc – or the Chardonnayisation? You never know. If so, remember, you read about it first right here.

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

PG Slabbert & James Ochse of Stellenbosch Hills
PG Slabbert & James Ochse of Stellenbosch Hills

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