Le Chant: Chenin Blanc to Crow on You

The western Stellenbosch appellation of Polkadraai has leapt to the fore as one of the region’s wine hot-spots, and the origin of its name is as rustically quaint as are the souls farming the koffieklip and dolomite soils. See, in them days of yonder – 17th century – the adventurous colonists, would-be farmers and vagabond Dutch VOC settlers would enter Stellenbosch from the west. Initially a kind of rugged road developed, but one of the ultra-winding kinds, full of turns and switch-backs between the gullies and the bush; the streams and the trees.

Ox-wagons and those on horseback following this road seldom found a straight line along the bends and curves. Subsequently, these travellers said that travelling to Stellenbosch along this way was like doing the twirling “polka” dance. And hey presto – before you could say “pass me a powdered musket”, this access route to Stellenbosch was named Polka-draai (“turn” in Dutch and, also, Afrikaans). And so it stuck, although these days the road runs straight and true along the Stellenbosch Arterial, a gentle sloped koppie to the left and expansive lower vineyard land looking south-east over the False Bay Atlantic.

It is a more open, wide part of Stellenbosch wine country with bright sunlight radiance and tough soils, and a history of grape-farming going back to the early-early days. Of late, formidable wine exponents such as Bruwer Raats and Johan Reyneke have lifted the Polkadraai brand into the sphere of respectability through real wine excellence, offering various wines of accurate geographical expression and true Cape brilliance.

There has been some fervent investment in the region, and more can be expected. One of the major players has been the French Oddo Family of Taaibosch and Pink Valley fame who acquired the Eikenhof Farm where over 100ha of vineyards are planted on what is now known as Le Chant. Reds dominate with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Shiraz, as well as a spread of Chenin Blanc. From these, two wines originate, namely a Le Chant Rouge blend, and a Blanc which is made from the Chenin.

Petri Venter, one of the ebullient young guns of Stellenbosch winemaking, is responsible for the farming and vinification, and I have always liked the man as he is one of the few New Kids on the Block who does not call me “oom”. Actually, I’ve known the dude since his primary school days where he was a champion swimmer with impeccable manners and a smile like a Dachshund who is always glad to see you. He’s also become a pretty solid winemaker having worked at Rupert&Rothschild, as well at stints in France learning the classic ways of wine at the estates owned there by his French bosses.

While lunching at the Pink Valley Restaurant a few days back – 35°C in the shade – Petri must have noticed my uncomfortable relationship with the heat. Over he ambled, plonking down an ice-bucket with a bottle of the Le Chant Blanc 2022, waxing lyrical about what was happening on the Le Chant farm, all organic vineyards and great conditions and stony earth with a comforting presence from the ocean. Yes, he loves the ocean, does Petri, currently preparing for his next swim-crossing from Robben Island to Blouberg.

Petri Venter

The Chenin Blanc used for Le Chant Blanc contains a substantial portion of fruit from vines planted in 1983, harking back to the early days of Eikenhof which was then selling grapes and wine to local co-ops. Now, says Petri, “we get to put the Le Chant finger-print on what goes into the final bottled wine, and in this case it is Chenin Blanc in its purity”.

A portion is fermented and aged in older French oak to lift the grapes’ soul and presence, the rest kept zingy and clear in stainless steel.

But looking at the Le Chant bottle, it is the cock that first attracts attention. “The French rooster – a nod to our owners,” says Petri. “And ‘Le Chant’ is the call, the singing of the cockerel.”

Petri and I don’t do tastes and sips, so he pours the glass half-full of a wine pale-straw in colour through which I can see the green leaves of the Sangiovese vines planted next to the Pink Valley Restaurant.

“Chenin Blanc expresses vintage to the max,” says Petri. “When I began working with Chenin I had more experience with Chardonnay, but the better I got to know this variety, the more respect I have for Chenin Blanc’s ability to show its geographical origin as well as the vagaries of each vintage. And 2022 was a relatively mild year – cool breezes in spring and summer, but plenty of sunshine to get the grapes to ripen. One of the reasons I think Chenin Blanc loves South African turf is because of our sun.”

Despite this reference to sun, the Le Chant Blanc 2022 has an extreme graceful delicacy to it. The first impression on the nose is that of dry rock that has just been splashed with a jet of cool spring water. This is followed by a very Cape wineland scent of dry veld flowers with just a tad of sage.

On the palate, the cool wine hits the spot from the word go. Unlike the common opinion, I feel a good dry white wine can never be too cold – not on a hot day like this, or ever.

This is distinguished Chenin Blanc, the delicate aroma carrying through to its presence in the mouth. No glycerol mouthfeel. No lumpy hint of back-blended over-ripe botrytis fruit in an attempt to add oemf and palate-weight. No, just an extended purity. Long and lean, the muscular cords off-set by some fruity suppleness. Grated yellow apple with a rind of thick-skinned Cape lemon. Some herbed salt on the mid-palate with a softening jasmine-scented, floral layer.

Texturally the wine is both fleeting and assertive, pretty much like a brief seductive smile from Cate Blanchett before she goes all dramatically feminist rogue. It is all remarkably iridescent in the showing of variety and of place, and if the Le Chant cock has any reason to crow, this is it.

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