This month, I’m writing about Chenin Blanc again, and I’m making no apologies for this. It’s such an important and interesting variety for South Africa, it’s only natural that it’s going to get plenty of coverage. But this time I’m getting more specific, and speaking with four key figures who each make very distinctive, and delicious, expressions of the variety.
Carl van de Merwe is the winemaker for De Morgenzon, whose Reserve Chenin Blanc is one of the country’s most awarded. It’s made from a 44 year old vineyard that produces amazing fruit. ‘De Morgenzon is all about weathered granite,’ he says. ‘I haven’t tasted Chenin from other properties where it has the same precision and and focus. It has a pithiness on the palate and amazing ageing potential. If there’s one variety that really speaks of our site and our terroir it is Chenin Blanc.’ I asked Carl about the challenges facing South African Chenin in terms of establishing itself in the fine wine sphere. ‘The Chenin category is not an easy one,’ he replied. ‘We have to shake the reputation of cheap, inexpensive, quaffable wines. It is not the easiest wine to sell because there is no immediate benchmark for people.’ But he adds, ‘Chenin is a category unique to South Africa. Therein lies an opportunity. Yes, we have Savennières; yes, we have Vouvray, but there’s not necessarily an association with Chenin.’
Adi Badenhorst, from the Swartland, has recently released a new Chenin called the Dassiekop Steen. It’s one of the best Chenins I’ve tasted. I asked him about it. Adi says that he rates vineyards using a system based on golden tears. ‘A vineyard with one golden tear gives you gives you a slightly emotional kind of feeling,’ he explained. ‘If it’s got three golden tears you are f*&%ing crying when you walk through it, and this is that kind of vineyard. It’s up in the hills, an old terraced vineyard planted in 1956. It’s one of my neighbour’s vineyards and forms the backbone of our family blend every year. We just decided to bottle a little bit of it on its own.’ Adi is very excited about Chenin Blanc. ‘It’s the greatest grape in the world. It’s the greatest for our climate and where we grow grapes.’
Corlea Fourie of Bosman also makes an amazing Chenin Blanc from a special vineyard. Optenhorst, in Wellington. ‘Optenhorst is one of those special places where you take your lunch and you go and sit there and figure out the world’s problems,’ she says. ‘It’s a special place overlooking the mountains, and is bush vines planted in 1952, which makes it the fourth oldest Chenin Blanc vineyard in South Africa. In terms of making the wine, every single thing is about making sure that the wine tells a story.’ Since 2014 they have toned down the oak and a portion of the wine is fermented in concrete instead. Corlea is excited about where Chenin is right now. ‘It’s just got to the point where people are so enthusiastic.’
Sebastien Beaumont works in the Bot River region, and he’s received accolades for both his unoaked and oaked expressions of Chenin. I asked him what he’s trying to do with the variety, given its versatility. ‘I’m trying primarily to express our farm and our region,’ he replied. ‘It’s a slightly cooler version of Chenin in terms of climate. I’m looking for freshness and crunchiness in the unwooded version, and I’m looking for texture and a silky feeling on the palate in the Hope Marguerite [the Beaumont barrel-fermented Chenin]. My wines are about elegance over power.’ He continues, ‘In South Africa we can easily make big wines. It’s so easy to ripen Chenin in this country, to express the ripe and rich characters. I’m looking for a little bit more restraint and tension.’
In addition to these two wines, he made a special wine for the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction this year, called Moerse Moer. This is made from the juice recovered from pre-ferment lees filtering (this is the sludge left at the bottom of the tank after the juice has settled post-pressing), and it’s an edgy, reductive and utterly compelling wine. Just one barrel was made. ‘I’ve always had this juice I loved but I’ve struggled to find a place to put it,’ he says. The CWG auction was the ideal outlet.
Beaumont is a huge believer in Chenin. ‘I think it’s an awesome category for South Africa to work with,’ he says. ‘We still need to define styles: we could be a lot more precise about the styles that we make. We are now at a fine-tuning stage. There is the hype around Chenin as the grape for SA to go out and showcase the world, but with that you still have to be really on it in terms of how you are going to make it.’
So we have four winemakers, four regions, and different, compelling expressions of Chenin. That’s what makes this variety just so exciting in South Africa.