Reflections on Cape Chenin Blanc

It would not be inaccurate or over-dramatic to say that the story of Chenin Blanc is, in fact, the story of the South African wine industry. Or, at least, that it reflects the history of Cape wine that began on the now-famed day of 2 February 1659 when the VOC commander Jan van Riebeeck officially recorded that the first wine had now been pressed from grapes grown in the new Dutch colony.

In that first batch of Cape wine there was, as legend has it, a portion made from the Chenin Blanc grape originating from the vines Van Riebeeck had brought to the Cape for planting in 1655. Although it would only be three centuries later that this variety would be officially identified as Chenin Blanc. For most of its history at the southern point of Africa, where it grew – and still grows – with exuberant abundance, the grape was known as Steen.

From the onset, this white grape of Steen just seemed to love conditions down in the Cape. And the Cape farmers, wine drinkers and brandy consumers loved it back. As viticulture and winemaking progressed through the centuries, no-one had any real reason to question who or what the grape called Steen was. Farmers planted it from Constantia to Stellenbosch; Paarl to Robertson; Worcester to Franschhoek, and in later years along the fertile banks of the Olifants River around Vredendal and then next to the mighty Orange River flowing through Upington.

Jan van Riebeeck, Chenin Blanc pioneer and inspiration for winemaker hairstyles in the Swartland region.

In 1979, of the 113 000 ha of the land under vine in South Africa – 20 000ha more than today’s figure – 27% was planted to Steen. And for as long as industry records have been kept, the grape has dominated the industry in terms of its presence in the national vineyard, as well as wine production.

It has just always seemed to love local conditions, showing an attachment to the Cape’s geography whether this be the mountain slopes of Franschhoek, the valleys of Stellenbosch or the searing oases of the Olifants and Orange River regions. Steen appears to be as much interwoven into the DNA of the country’s winelands as it is into the local history of wine. Always here.

But as the cliché says it all too well: bigger ain’t always better.

And for most its formidable presence in the Cape, the last thing Steen was recognised for, was for delivering fine wine. Clean, fresh and fairly neutral. For a variety of uses. And with the vineyards growing in abundance, adapting to the vagaries of the local wine landscape, the grape produced vast yields. This made the variety tempting to plant for a wine farmer who, back in the previous millennium, was guaranteed a minimum price for his or her wine, thanks to the controlling arm of industry authority and wine production overseer, the KWV.

Huge volumes of grapes and wine. This is what the Steen grape could deliver, and back in the older days, this is what counted. Quality was an afterthought. This saw Steen entering the last few decades of the 20th century with an image of being a work-horse, a dependable variety growing in abundance and crushed to make cheap and cheerful whites, as well as producing base-wine for brandy distillation.

Some producers bottled with the name Steen on the label, but most of the wines from this grape ended in the branded mega-bottlings from Stellenbosch Famers Winery and Distillers, usually blended with equally innocuous varieties such as Clairette Blanche and Palomino. Lieberstein, that hit glugging white wine from the 1960s and 1970s, was Steen-based and in its heyday some 30m litres of this now long-gone undemanding plonk was sold per year.

The most seminal chapter in the Cape wine industry since Van Riebeeck’s legendary first pressing, began in 1990 with a new political dispensation which saw economic sanctions against South Africa scrapped, paving the way for the country to enter the great wide open international world of modern wine.

Thing is, more and more local wine farmers and producers were realising that to play in this global arena, the industry would have to focus on grape varieties that were known in the world markets. Of which Steen was not one.

Yes, in 1963 Steen – for long thought to be a unique Cape variety originating from those unidentified vine-cuttings the Dutch planted in the 17th century – was officially identified as being Chenin Blanc. This is a variety originating from the Loire Valley in France which, despite its centuries’ old French pedigree, was not really shooting the lights out on the international fine wine scene either.

As far as South Africa’s white wine offering went, the opening of the international markets and the doors to the global wine community appeared to lie in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, two familiar wines understood and desired by the greater wine world. By the 1990s local wine lovers were also demanding more noble wine varieties, of which the trusty ox-cart of Steen a.k.a. Chenin Blanc was most definitely not seen to be one.

The problem with the offering of said noble varieties, was that Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were late-comers to South Africa wine, with their commercial plantings only commencing here in the 1970s. This meant the industry had hit the wall as far as providing quality Cape wine to a global wine market: too much unwanted Chenin Blanc, not enough prized Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

And in any event, what was to become of the vast plantings of Chenin Blanc on which a large part of the wine industry and the Western Cape’s socio-economic base had been built?

The fond saying is that “’n boer maak ’n plan”, but in this case the future trajectory for Chenin Blanc was largely determined by two un-boer-like, yet impassioned and visionary, South African wine-lovers.

Irina von Holdt, journalist, wine commentator and Cape Wine Master, gutsily set-up her Old Vines winery, committed to taking the ubiquitous and voluminous old-fashioned step-sister into the realm of fine wine.

Fiona McDonald, wine critic and former editor of Wine magazine, remembers being present during a conversation between Von Holdt and a number of wine writers on her plans with Chenin Blanc. “It was in 1995, during a media launch, and Irina said she thought Chenin Blanc could make a great South African wine,” recalls McDonald. “This resulted in a lot of smirks and guffaws – at that time everyone was thinking Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to fly the flag for noble Cape white wines. But Irina was determined, and when she released her own wines shortly after, I reckon it was a major shift in the perception towards Chenin Blanc. Eyebrows rose as Irina’s commitment to unlocking the potential of Chenin – complex wines form old vineyards, aging in wood……it was startling to see the Cape workhorse begin to transform into a pedigreed stallion.”

Irina von Holdt

Joining Von Holdt in her crusade for Chenin Blanc was Ken Forrester, Johannesburg based restaurateur and wine-lover who moved to Stellenbosch in 1993 in a quest he describes as one aiming “to make the best wine in the world”. For this he worked with what he had on the Scholtzenhof farm out Helderberg way, and that was Chenin Blanc.

Ken’s personality, power of conviction and unrelenting strive toward getting the wine industry and consumers to recognise this gem of a variety took Von Holdt’s vision to a new level. Suddenly restaurants were looking for Chenin Blanc to put on their wine-lists. Aforementioned magazine Wine was writing about Chenin Blanc and its advocates, giving the variety valuable editorial space.

And by the beginning of the current millennium, Chenin Blanc had been dusted off, given a regal jacket and is now a leading and unique part of the South African wine offering.

Variety is the Spice

Of all the Cape’s white varieties, Chenin Blanc undoubtedly shows the most diversity. Not only in tastes and styles, but also in its point of origin. Still the country’s most planted white grape representing 17 000ha from the 92 000ha under vine, Chenin Blanc has shown an uncanny ability to produce good wine from diverse landscapes situated in distinctly different parts of South Africa. Stellenbosch, Worcester, the Swartland, Breedekloof, Paarl, Franschhoek…name a wine region and chances are you’ll find Chenin Blanc planted somewhere in that terroir.

To add to this geographical diversity, there is the winemaking approach to Chenin Blanc that differs like not even chalk does to cheese. In the Breedekloof region one finds those delightfully zippy, fresh unwooded Chenin Blancs that are deliciously drinkable within months of harvest. At pocket-pleasing prices of between R50 and R70 a bottle.

On the other-end of the spectrum, cult winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris Alheit – to name two out of a veritable posse of Chenin gurus – are making incredibly complex wines of character from old, low-yielding vineyards in the Swartland and Citrusdal, wines produced in tiny volumes. Their adoring critics and followers snap-up these cult offerings, while international wine scribes send breathless missives into the world proclaiming Chenin Blanc as the South African wonder. And willing to pay ultra-premium prices for these collectables.

Furthermore, one finds barrel-aged Chenin Blancs that I have seen even experts mistaking for a Chardonnay when tasted unsighted. And by aging the wine on Sauvignon Blanc lees, a tropical, thiol style of Chenin is added to the fray. There appears to truly be a Chenin Blanc for everyone.

And of course, being the largest Chenin Blanc producer in the world due to the country’s long association with the variety, the grape has the potential to be the USP, that elusive unique selling point to which most wine nations strive, especially those in the New World.

Andrew Harris, marketing director for the wine division of DGB, South Africa’s leading premium wine company, says Chenin Blanc definitely has what it takes to fly the flag for Wine SA. “If handled correctly in the vineyard and the cellar, Chenin Blanc could be a unique international selling point for the Cape’s wine offering,” he says.  “I am extremely encouraged and excited by the quality of Chenin Blancs we are producing as a country, and if as an industry we continue to produce this quality in meaningful quantities, then we have a reasonable chance of success with it.”

As a company that is home to famous premium wine brands including Boschendal, Bellingham, Douglas Green and The Old Road Wine Company, DGB is investing heavily in its Chenin Blanc category.

“Chenin Blanc has always been a strength for DGB over many years both locally and internationally,” he says. “In 2002 Bellingham was one of the first wineries to identify ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ as a real quality differentiator and have been working with Old Vine Chenin ever since. I think it’s a combination of our consistent effort over time as well as the outright quality of the wine which has contributed to what can now be considered a strong performance, of a premium wine from Chenin Blanc, in international markets. Most specifically Canada, USA and some European countries.”

The challenge is for Chenin Blanc producers not to allow this amazing diversity offered by a South African vinous jewel to be stretched too far, namely by still including weak, cheap and substandard wines under the Chenin banner. Because there are a lot of Chenin Blanc vineyards and grapes around, and because there is – as there will always be – a local and international demand for low-priced, neutral and soulless wines, too many producers are still happy to service this lower end of the market. This drags down the image South Africa’s wine industry is trying to build on Chenin Blanc, an image based on premium priced wines of character, diversity and identity. The other end of the spectrum can stall the amazing efforts of the new Chenin Blanc pioneers who have turned this great wine into a veritable Lazarus that pitched-up from the dead with vigour and charm. And has the whole wide world before it.



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