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The sommelier suggests… Chenin Blanc by Charlie Stein

We invite a leading sommelier to pick a go-to, personal favourite grape variety or wine style.

The youngest of chef Rick Stein’s three boys, Charlie was born in Padstow and now splits his time between London and Cornwall. Charlie has personally chosen every bottle on the Rick Stein restaurant wine lists and in the online shop, with the help of connections made during his travels. He is also a director for the Rick Stein business, and has appeared on TV, including the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, and co-hosting, with brother Jack, the TV series Wine, Dine & Stein, which aired in South Africa.

Chenin Blanc hates to be pigeonholed. It’s arguably the world’s most versatile grape variety, appearing in an impressive range of styles – bone-dry, off-dry, oaked, slightly sweet, sweet and sparkling. As such it’s a grape that I urge readers to experiment with. My early experience with this grape was limited to wines from the Loire valley. I was brought up eating classic French seafood, paired with intense and zingy Chenin Blancs from Savennières and Vouvray, and for many years I thought the Loire had a monopoly on the best examples of the grape.

Moment of truth

Fast-forward to a few years ago, and everything changed for me. I was sitting overlooking the Polkadraai hills with two of South Africa’s best winemakers – Lukas Van Loggerenberg and Reenen Borman – tasting Lukas’ latest release of old-vine Chenin Blanc. It was here that I had my epiphany, realising that South African Chenin Blanc can easily hold its own with those from the French Loire. Now, in 2023, I am convinced that the standard of Chenin Blanc being made at the top level in South Africa is as good, if not better, than that of the dry Chenin of the Loire. This sentiment was echoed by Decanter contributing editor Tim Atkin MW in his own South Africa 2023 Special Report. Every year I taste new releases from South Africa and the quality is outstanding. These wines certainly deserve more recognition.

The best Chenins for me are the oaked style made from old vines in South Africa, as well as the off-dry styles from the Loire. In the former, I love the waxy, pithy stone fruit as well as the energy, drive and often-found saline finishes. With the off-dry, it’s all about the flint-like minerality, balanced with luscious honeyed fruit.

Multiple styles

It’s this adaptability and notably high acidity that makes Chenin Blanc such an interesting variety. This is a bonus in the warmer climates of South Africa where it keeps the wine nice and fresh, but in the cooler regions of the Loire, ripeness can be hard to achieve, leaving searing acidity and not much else in less successful examples.

Like most wines, Chenin Blanc reflects its soil types and terroirs, expressing the schist soils of Savennières, the clays of Vouvray, or the decomposed granites of the Western Cape, with different textures, flavours and structure.

I mention Chenin Blanc from South Africa and the Loire often in the same breath since they are, in my opinion, the great white wines of the world. Its versatility especially shines when it comes to food pairings. Unsurprisingly for me, seafood is a natural fit. At home, I love pairing native oysters with a young, bone-dry Loire Chenin, or would
turn to an old-vine South African Chenin with a rich tronçon of turbot and hollandaise.

Discover Chenin Blanc: Charlie’s three to try

Bottle of Lourens Family Wines, Skuinskap Steen

Two South Africans here, and one from the Loire. Lourens Family Wines, Skuinskap Steen (2020, £42.49 Museum Wines) is single-vineyard Chenin planted in 1977 on sandstone at around 750m in the far north of the Citrusdal mountains, an hour’s drive from Cape Town. It’s delicious, and a great way into the world of old-vine Chenin.

Bottle of Van Loggerenberg, Kameraderie

My ‘road to Damascus’ Chenin Blanc was Van Loggerenberg, Kameraderie (2021, £33-£39.95 Lockett Bros, SugarBird Wines) from 1960s-planted vines on the Klein Drakenstein mountains in Paarl. It’s textural, pure and round, with more than a pinch of salinity on the finish. Then back to the Loire, and a classic, Domaine Huet’s Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray Sec (2013, £50 Shrine to the Vine). This is the original domaine vineyard, and it gives the wines an incredible texture and density.

Domaine Huet’s Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray Sec

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