Chenin Blanc: A noble purpose for a noble grape

For the Chenin Blanc Association, developing and promoting the cultivation of this Cape classic is just one half of its purpose; the other half, as Malu Lambert discovers, is to develop and promote the cultivators.

The winning wines, out of 138 entries, at the 2021 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge. Picture by Bruce Tuck

There is no other wine body in the country that is as active and as engaged as the Chenin Blanc Association. Managed by the indefatigable Ina Smith, the association has a jampacked annual calendar in support of the Cape cultivar. Crowning the year’s activities is the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge, which has been running since 2014 and been sponsored by Standard Bank from the get-go.

The competition’s driving statement is “to identify and reward top Chenin winemaking in the country”, but its spirit runs deeper than that. Every year a cash prize goes to each winning producer with the caveat that the funds are spent on projects to uplift or upskill farm workers, their families and their communities.

“The prize money awarded in the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge is to be used to acknowledge the vital role that the farm workers play in the production process,” says Stephan van der Merwe of Standard Bank. “Many of the previous winners have used the money for educational initiatives on the farms, including much-needed crèches and libraries.”

“All the winning producers have over the years, in consultation with their workers, found concrete ways to make a difference,” adds Ina. “We are so proud that priority has been given to education,” she enthuses. “There are now also after-school facilities for children on some farms. Other winners have created computer rooms and other educational resources for learners, workers and communities.”

Another major beneficiary of prize money is the Pebbles Project, an NGO that runs a host of education, health, nutrition, community and protection programmes for hundreds of children in the Cape Winelands. Pebbles also offers social services to combat foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and alcohol abuse. Other projects undertaken have included sustainable farming, accommodation, sporting and other recreational initiatives. To date this annual competition has raised a total of R1,850,000 for these various special upliftment projects.

Also an important undercurrent of giving back is fostering the next generation of winemaking and agricultural talent. A regular in the Top Ten line-up, Stellenbosch wine farm Spier has used its winning funds in various ways, such as ploughing it into initiatives like the AgroEcology Academy. The skills development programme mentors workers in eco-sensitive farming practices with the aim of promoting job creation and food security. It also encourages those in the programme to become more financially independent and ultimately attain a position where they themselves can create jobs for others. AgroEcology alum Bukewla Mdala worked her way through the programme and while doing so discovered a love for the vine. This led to a viticultural internship at Longridge Estate.

“The work in the vineyards made me want to know the ‘end product’,” affirms Bukewla on her winemaking aspirations. “We were sorting grapes during harvest as they came into the cellar and I didn’t want it to just end there… I shared my dream with my manager at the AgroEcology institute and that’s how I came to intern at Spier too.”

Bukewla is determined to pave her way in the industry. “I’m ready both for the challenge of winemaking and for continued change and transformation within our industry,” she says.

Donkiesbaai Steen 2020 was one of six Stellenbosch wines among the 2021 Top Ten.
Modern-day South African Chenin Blanc wines display a remarkable array of sensory attributes, as illustrated in the aroma wheel.
Ina Smith, manager of the Chenin Blanc Association, with the second version of the Chenin Blanc wine aroma wheel, which was generated through the actual tasting and sensory evaluation of some 3,000 wines produced in South Africa from 2007 to date.

Alchemy of fire and water

Chenin Blanc presents nowhere on Earth quite like it does at the tip of Africa. The secret is in our latitude, which slants 35 degrees towards our star. This low angle creates an open canvas for the sun’s light to paint, dispersing across the Cape’s sprawling ascents of mountain-trimmed regions. In a space as diverse as its people, Chenin can be found in every wine-growing region of the Western Cape. And the alchemy of what makes it great lies in that liminal place between fire and water; the Atlantic Ocean moderating the temperature of the ripening fruit in the summer heat, cooling and condensing liquid sunlight into the growing grapes.

This is what sets South Africa’s Chenin apart – the wines have a ripeness of fruit and complexity of flavour, balanced with refreshing, cleansing acidities. Serendipitously, this climatic utopia partners with the wealth of old vine Chenin rooted in our soils, making South African Chenin impossible to replicate. It can only come from here. It’s this distinctiveness that has seen Chenin shine the spotlight on the South African wine industry on a global stage, its success ensuring that Chenin and South Africa are synonymous in the international wine world.

The cache of old vine treasure is largely the result of a happy accident. Chenin was once planted prolifically as its fruity flavour profile was perfect for making base wines for brandy production. It was also largely blended away in bulk wines. And because of the widespread planting of what was then colloquially known as Steen, many old vineyards were forgotten about and allowed the grace of growing into old age. Chenin is also a highly productive plant and continues to produce good yields as the vines mature, making it generally unnecessary to grub up old blocks. These days it’s still South Africa’s most widely planted cultivar and in fact we have the most Chenin of any wine region in the world. Historically – and now today too – Chenin has always been a crop for growers to rely on in our sunny clime, and the past two decades have seen this incomparable grape serve its country by keeping many farmers afloat and in business.

Latterly, winemakers have seen the light and are producing increasingly fine, stylistically diverse wines, ranging from fresh and fruity to wooded, sparkling and sweet. Chenin also lends itself to being a blending partner with a number of varietals, adding ‘that certain something’ to a host of cult wines, which have spearheaded South Africa’s modern-day fine wine revolution.