Full Steen ahead
- Wednesday 1 May 2002
Chenin Blanc has always been South Africa's workhorse grape, but now producers are focusing on its quality. JIM BUDD investigates
It was my last visit before heading back home. I had been in South Africa for 10 days with a principal focus on Chenin Blanc, locally known as Steen.
Mentioning my interest in Chenin to James Farquharson of Reyneke Wines, he kindly dug out two dusty bottles from a small stash of wine. Both were from 1998, the first one opened was a blend of Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc while the second and more interesting was pure Chenin.
Already golden in colour and initially quite oxidative in style, the wine opened up remarkably over 20 minutes or so with flavours of honey, lime as well as some nutty characteristics. It was clearly a revelation tinged with regrets to Johann Reyneke and James Farquharson who hadn't tasted this wine for some time.
Regrets, as they had initially been sufficiently disappointed with the results they obtained from Chenin to rip out all the vines and replace them with Syrah. Yet this wine was one of the most complex and intriguing whites I had tasted in South Africa and there is no immediate prospect of more being made unless Reyneke finds a new source of Chenin.
This illustrates so well the difficult relationship South African producers have had with Chenin. With around 21,500ha (hectares) planted, South Africa has just under 50% of the world's Chenin Blanc. In contrast, the Loire, Chenin's birthplace, has only 9,500ha closely followed by California with 8,500.
Until recently Chenin was used to fuel the 'sherry', brandy and bulk wine business in South Africa. Only now are a few producers treating Chenin seriously. Already there are some very interesting results. In 1990 there were 29,360ha of Chenin planted in South Africa – an astonishing 32% of the total vineyards. By 2000 that had dropped to 21,500ha as producers switched mainly to red varieties.
Chenin owed its historical dominance to its ability to produce huge crops. With plentiful irrigation and sunshine growers can achieve yields of hundreds of hectolitres per hectare. Wonderful for the grower but dreadful for wine quality.
Alas, the volume mentality still remains for many Chenin producers. During my visit last autumn I was a judge in the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award. Each year the award concentrates on a grape variety. In 2001 it was the turn of Chenin.
We tasted 59 wines. There were seven or eight that were good to very good and it was difficult to choose the best. Many of the rest were dilute and uninteresting, probably because of excessive yields. Gratifyingly the leaders of the Chenin Blanc renaissance dominated the top 10 with four wines from Teddy Hall of Kanu, two from Ken Forrester and one from the very consistent Jeff Grier of Villiera.
The re-evaluation of Chenin is being focused by the Chenin Blanc Producers' Association, which was founded in May 2000. At a seminar on Chenin in South Africa and the Loire organised by the Association in late October, Michael Fridjhon, one of South Africa's leading wine writers, delivered a paper promoting Chenin as the country's unique selling point for white wines.
A few people at the seminar were keen to establish what was the most successful style of Chenin that South Africa's best producers were making and concentrate on that. Although this may make marketing sense, it is far too early to decide what is South Africa's best Chenin style and this approach misses one of the strengths of Chenin – its diversity. A week spent visiting South African vineyards gives a glimpse of the potential for high quality Chenin in a number of different styles – completely dry, demi-sec and sweet.
As in parts of the Loire there is some controversy over whether or not you should barrel ferment. As usual there probably isn't a right or wrong answer. Currently many of the most successful Chenins are partially or wholly barrel fermented but this may well only reflect that producers wisely reserve their best, most concentrated juice for barrel. Barrels of 225 litres are mainly used for Chenin but South Africa may follow the Loire's trend to go for barrels between 400 litres and 600 litres, which give the wines the oxygenation required with less danger of an over-extraction of wood flavours.
The dynamic Ken Forrester is one of the founders of the Chenin Blanc Association. With no winemaking background, he bought the rundown Scholtzenhof Farm in Stellenbosch in 1993 and made his first harvest in 1994. Forrester refused to grub up his old Chenin vines and has taken the wines from 15 rand (90p) to around 75 rand (£4.70) a bottle. The range starts with the light, lemony Petit Chenin that is made in stainless steel with some oak chipping.
The more complex Ken Forrester Chenin is made half in stainless steel and half in 300-litre barrels, while Grand Chenin has a small percentage of noble late-harvest grapes and again 50% is fermented in barrel. The rich late-harvest Noble T completes the range.
For 2002 Forrester has persuaded Bernard Germain of Château de Fesles in Bonnezeaux to make the vintage with him. It will be fascinating to see what that blend of France and South Africa produces. It is also possible that Forrester will buy somewhere in the Loire that will allow him to make two Chenin harvests a year.
Probably the most unusual Chenin that I tasted was the vin de paille from De Trafford, a small boutique winery of only 3ha that was set up in 1992. The Chenin is brought in from blocks aged 16 and 28 years old. 'We pick by hand,' says owner David Trafford, 'and we stop by 9am. For the vin de paille we pick at the same time as the main harvest and lay the grapes, of varying ripeness, out to dry for three weeks. The juice then ferments slowly in barrels, mainly new, for a year or more.'
Another of the Chenin Blanc specialists is Beaumont in Bot River, one of the coolest parts of South Africa. The winery has 8ha of Chenin and has toyed with planting more. All is picked by hand and yields are kept low. Around 15% of the classic Chenin Blanc goes into oak. This has an attractive floral style.
More concentrated is the Hope Marguerite Barrel Reserve. This comes from an old block of more than 40-year-old vines and has an intriguing nuttiness on the nose with a long mineral finish. Beaumont also makes a sweet wine called Goutte d'Or, which in some years is pure Chenin, in others includes Semillon and in others has no Chenin.
Jeff Grier of Villiera Wines is one of the most consistent Chenin producers. In 2001 he has added a rich, concentrated, barrel-fermented Cellar Door Limited Release to the Villiera range. 'I was inspired by a visit to the Loire to make late-harvest wines,' says Grier.
Teddy Hall at Kanu is another leader of the Chenin revival. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit him but did taste a number of his wines and liked the 2000 Kanu wooded, while the demi-sec Rudera Robusto 2000 had very good texture and complexity. Other Chenin Blanc producers include Mont Destin, L'Avenir and an experimental late harvest from Longridge.
About 9% of the seven million cases of South African wine now imported into the UK is Chenin Blanc. With the progress being made and the fact that the European Union has lifted its restriction on importing sweet South African wines, sales of South African Chenin are likely to show signs of healthy increase.