I howled into Paris determined to find great Chenin Blanc wine. Being a homo sapiens Africanus South, Chenin Blanc is my national white wine, so we are told. It is was one of the grape varieties lovingly crushed by Jan van Riebeeck’s singing slaves at the birth of South Africa’s wine industry in 1659 and since then has been a ubiquitous feature on the local terroir.
Growing up drinking Perdeberg Chenin – then known as Steen – I have never questioned the ability of Chenin Blanc to be a deliciously clean and fresh white wine. However, messing around with it makes the variety characters of white pear, green apple and that intriguing wet river pebble nuance disappear off into all directions. And by messing around I mean complex wooding and that awful recipe where botrytis juice is pumped back into the fresh stuff.
Subsequently there are more styles of Chenin Blanc than positions in the Karma Sutra for Beginners, making it difficult to determine just what the wine actually wants to be. But does Chenin want to be – and can it be – great? Consistently powerful, memorable, distinctive and with enough pheromones to make one want to commit petty crimes and induce public violence if you can’t get your hands on the stuff? Chardonnay does this. Cabernet Sauvignon and good Riesling too.
In an attempt to find an answer during a trip to Paris, I tracked down a wine club operating off Avenue Parmentier near Republique. On three separate occasions I dropped a wad of euros and asked club chairperson Sylvie to give me her best Chenin shot by pouring a few line-ups.
She hauled out bottle-after-bottle of Savennières and Vouvray, those legendary Loire regions known as the international bench-marks for Chenin. I noted and sniffed and drank and scratched my head, took Sylvie out for oysters, and returned the following night to repeat this taxing regimen.
Great news for South Africa: I think that one-on-one the local Chenin Blancs that I have been fortunate enough to experience will kick some seriously tight and curvaceous French butt.
The Savannières wines I tried, vintages going back to the 1980’s and including some numbers from biodynamic God Nicolas Joly, were all over the bloody place. Some were fresh and lean; others stuffy and so reductive I was amazed they were not closed with a screw-cap. Other Savannières showed oxidative characteristics, while the younger wines were rampant with a farty sulphur tartness.
I am not going to go through the whole line-up, but my impression was that a R30 Chenin Blanc from a South African co-op will splice all these wines in a blind tasting.
And what of great Vouvray? There were some wines showing an intriguing complexity, notably a Marc Brédif 2007 which oozed droplets of apricot, almond and nectarine as well as a creamy, silky Remy Pannier 1984 wrapped in a vivid cloak of almond blossom freshness.
But just like the Savannières, the wines were interesting and different rather than strikingly better than what we make in South Africa.
Upon my return to home soil I cracked a Delaire-Graff Chenin 2012 which would run rings around anything I’ve experienced from the Loire with its clean and brisk flavours, balanced acidity and harmonious structure. As well as a Riebeek Cellars 2013, unwooded, uncomplicated and lovely to drink in big sips, just as Chenin should be.
But not great. And no-one is to blame for our Chenin Blancs not being great. Because there aren’t any. Anywhere.