Boldly Going Where Few Chenin Blancs Go

The effect of soil on the structure of a final wine creates as much ill-informed opinion as it does mystery and wonder. In the evolution of wine opinion, the influence of earth’s decomposed structural matter has fallen prey to churlish throw-away lines reflecting a disappointing lack of understanding of the way geological residual features in the sensory make-up of the content of the glass.

Ill-informed wine marketing speak has much to answer for, as do the clever-sounding opinions of wine commentators. In my hard-drive I have loads of stored examples: a certain Sauvignon Blanc “is sharp and crisp, the result of its vines rooted in rocky, pebbly soils which give the wine a discernible minerality”; there is the “velvety, soft Merlot whose plushness results from grapes growing in dark granite soils that add a velvety texture to the wine”; a Pinotage a tannic and powerful “due to the vineyards’ beds of clay”…. and so on.

As the geologist-vinophile Alex Maltman has spent half a lifetime researching and the other half preaching, this is all bullshit-fertilised ground-cover as vines cannot draw any noticeable flavours from God’s earth – as romantic and easily graspable as the theories on this may sound.

In fact, I myself have gone as far as requesting South Africa wine industry body Vinpro to ask one of its qualified viticulturists to give wine marketers and writers a Soil & Wine 101 course to empower them to communicate correctly on matters of the earth, and of the vine. To no avail as of yet, but hope does spring eternal.

The other day I came across a wine that disses the misguided soil-flavouring theories with great effect, with the wine’s deliciousness being an added bonus. I am talking about the Legend Collection Chenin Blanc 2019 from stalwart Paarl producer Windmeul, the top-range white wine from a winery that is one of the first wineries that comes to my mind when Chenin Blanc is mentioned. Established in 1944 as a co-operative, Windmeul’s existence has largely centred on the magnificent Chenin Blanc vineyards of the northern Paarl region and the varietal accuracy of the wines it makes – and continues to make – from Chenin.

Theuns Briers, The Legend.

In northern Paarl, soils are of decomposed granite, with a marked granitic influence – Paarl Mountain, on whose northern slopes the Windmeul region lies, is the second largest granite outcrop on earth after Australia’s Ayers Rock. So, if one were to follow the low-hanging theories on the influence of soil on wine, then a Windmeul Chenin Blanc will be singing the stony, tight and mineral tune expected from vines living in such rocky and granite-dense patches of earth.

The Legend’s Collection Chenin Blanc, however, throws icy distilled water on this theory with a lovely broad, full and delectably ostentatious wine where minerality would be one of the last terms deployed in describing it.

The Legend, by the way, refers to the late Theuns Briers, a wine-farmer in the region who served on Windmeul’s board. Briers was, too, a magnificent rugby-player who ran the right wing for the Springboks in the 1955 series against the British&Irish Lions as well as during the Boks’ controversial 1956 tour to New Zealand.

The Legend Chenin Blanc is one of two wines in the Windmeul series, the other being a Pinotage. But the winery’s provenance and soul comes through best in this extraordinary Chenin Blanc that fits outside the style of vinification used to create most of today’s wines from this variety.

This wine’s broad shoulders can be attributed to the 2019 vintage, the first after the prolonged Cape drought. For in the previous winter, the rains had come, soaking the northern Paarl soils and allowing the vines to drink deep from the wet earth. Berries on the 44-year-old vines used for this wine were full and ripe, heavy and sated.

In the cellar, half the juice is fermented in stainless steel, while the rest undergoes the conversion of sugar to alcohol in wood. Then barrel-maturation takes place over 12 months.

From the opening of the formidable bottle, heavy enough to give Jancis Robinson and the other heavy-bottle police corps heart-palpitations, to the emptying of the first glass, this is a large wine. Bigness of wine has for one or other reason gained negative connotations in the modern world. Undeservedly so when a wine like this, a wine of easy, comfortable and assertive confidence comes around.

The Windmeul Legend Chenin Blanc shows the more decadent, opulent side of this grape variety, and it is thoroughly enjoyable to experience. To the eye, the colour is of fine bushveld dust rising after a wildebeest stampede in the first golden rays of a Kenyan sunrise. The nose is greeted by aromas of ripe apricot, a just-opened jar of quince jelly and the scent of a summer wheatfield drying in the warm breath of a mountain breeze from the east. Fear not because refreshment lies, oasis-like, in the generous cool splash of Chenin Blanc liquid passing through the lips.

None of the jowl-puckering, drive of restless acids or the austere scrape to the mouth that is common in many old vineyards Chenin Blancs. Here is a languid, patient white wine that throws its offering of vivid flavours in grace and style, like a silk rug opened by an Ottoman priestess. White peach, sappy and syrupy, coats the mouth, which soon sees the presence of autumnal red apples rolling in dewy grass-banks next to glassy mill-pond. A note of cumin and grated mace lurks mischievously in the background, spicing up the fruit to provide freshness and guile of the exotic kind.

The finish is long and memorable, imprinting experiences on the mind, ploughing the fields of forgetfulness to open up a world of new memories captured in time and imprinting thoughts of another superb moment in wine.

And forgetting ill-conceived theories and baseless gospels fore, it is only the pureness of the pleasure that counts.

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3 thoughts on “Boldly Going Where Few Chenin Blancs Go

  1. So I am a life long miner that dug through various layers of our planet to get to the minerals we wanted to mine. Never do geologists lick a sample brought up from earths upper reaches and comment about “oo this tastes like gold ( high grams per ton!!) or dry coal as opposed to wet coal with plenty of sulphur (Mr De Ruiter and team does not like that damp sulphuric shit in any way)

    I have watched and experienced many meals and events of wine consumption in many parts of the world and realised from an early wine drinking age that wine enjoyment has absolutely nothing to do with our ability to distinguish between upper or lower slopes of granite, decomposing soils, shells, fynbos, sea facing, mountains, valleys etc.

    It all boils down to biology. What does the average booze drinking plebs taste buds tell him or her.
    My papilla – what do they have to say about this wind swept, sea weed, soft coastal breeze of wine in ph balanced north facing soils, that spent half its life in wood and half its life in steel tank lees?

    My uneducated tastebuds, ( not sure what the combination ratio is, density of buds etc)
    What I do know is that my papilla would not have been able to decide if that 2000 Petrus (€ 10 00) I found in a cellar in St Emilion was any more worthy than the R200-R300 Cabernet, Pinot etc reds I drink here in SA. Not because I have a wine god given ability to detect the terroir in every sip, but because my papilla simply sends a signal to my brain saying “ damn, but this tastes fine 😊”

  2. Well written and already want to try this gem. Thanks for upperclass journalism about wine and its world

  3. I have always wondered about the dissing of the vines ability to take up minerals. Farmers spend a lot of money on Nitrate Phosphate and Potassium. Surely they are not wasting their money?

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