Chenin Blanc: A star carved in stone

From workhorse Steen to thoroughbred Chenin Blanc, Emile Joubert traces the well-rooted role of this grape through more than 350 years of South Africa’s wine-producing history and sees it emerge as a dazzling star.

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It would not be inaccurate, or even over-dramatic, to say the story of Chenin Blanc is the story of the South African wine industry. Or, at least, that it reflects the history of Cape wine, a history, which began on the now-famed day of 2 February 1659, when the VOC commander Jan van Riebeeck officially recorded that the first wine had been pressed from grapes grown in the new Dutch colony.

In that first batch of Cape wine there was, legend has it, a portion made from Chenin Blanc grapes originating from the vines Van Riebeeck had brought to the Cape for planting in 1655. It would take another three centuries, though, for this variety, initially known as Steen, to be officially identified as Chenin Blanc.

Of all the Cape’s white varieties, Chenin Blanc undoubtedly shows the most diversity. Not only in tastes and styles, but also in its point of origin. Still the country’s most planted white grape, representing 17,000ha of the 92,000ha under vine, Chenin Blanc has shown an uncanny ability to produce good wine from diverse landscapes situated in distinctly different parts of South Africa. Stellenbosch, Worcester, the Swartland, Breedekloof, Paarl, Franschhoek… Name a wine region and chances are you’ll find Chenin Blanc planted somewhere in the terroir.

To add to this geographical diversity, there are the winemaking approaches to Chenin Blanc, which differ like chalk does to cheese. In the Breedekloof region one finds those delightfully zippy, fresh unwooded Chenin Blancs that are deliciously drinkable within months of harvest – and at pocket-pleasing prices of between R50 and R70 a bottle.

At the other end of the spectrum, cult winemakers Eben Sadie and Chris Alheit – to name two out of a veritable posse of Chenin gurus – are making incredibly complex wines of character from old, low-yielding vineyards in the Swartland and Citrusdal, wines produced in tiny volumes. Their adoring critics and followers snap up these wines, while international wine scribes send breathless missives into the world proclaiming Chenin Blanc as the South African wonder. And they’re willing to pay ultra-premium prices for these collectables.

Furthermore, one finds barrel-aged Chenin Blancs that I have seen even experts mistaking for a Chardonnay when tasted unsighted. By ageing the wine on Sauvignon Blanc lees, a tropical style of Chenin is added to the fray. There appears to be truly a Chenin Blanc for everyone.

Ken Forrester, chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association, has been one of this grape variety’s staunchest supporters since the early 1990s.

And of course, since South Africa is the largest Chenin Blanc producer in the world due to its long association with the variety, the grape has the potential to be that elusive unique selling point to which most wine nations strive, especially in the New World. Andrew Harris, marketing director for the wine division of DGB, South Africa’s leading premium wine company, says Chenin Blanc definitely has what it takes to fly the flag for Wine SA. “If handled correctly in the vineyard and the cellar, Chenin Blanc could be a unique international selling point for the Cape’s wine offering,” he says. “I am extremely encouraged and excited by the quality of the Chenin Blancs being made in South Africa. If, as an industry, we continue to produce this quality in meaningful quantities, then we have a reasonable chance of success.”

As a company that is home to famous premium wine brands, which include Boschendal, Bellingham, Douglas Green and The Old Road Wine Company, DGB is investing heavily in its Chenin Blanc category. “Chenin Blanc has always been a strength for DGB over many years, both locally and internationally,” continues Andrew. “In 2002 Bellingham was one of the first wineries to identify ‘Old Vine Chenin Blanc’ as a real quality differentiator and we have been working with Old Vine Chenin ever since. I think it’s a combination of our consistent effort over time and the outright quality of the wine that has contributed to what can now be considered a strong performance of a premium Chenin Blanc wine in international markets, specifically Canada, USA and some European countries.”

From ugly duckling to swan

How did it happen that Steen, this dependable variety growing in abundance and crushed to make easy-drinking and easy-on-the-pocket white wines, as well as producing the basis for brandy distillation, became – under its new name of Chenin Blanc – this leading and unique part of the South African wine offering?

In 1979, of the 113,000ha of the land under vines in South Africa – 20,000ha more than today’s figure – 27% was planted to Steen. And for as long as records have been kept, the grape has dominated the winemaking industry in terms of its presence in the national vineyard as well as in wine production. It always seems to have loved local conditions, showing an attachment to the Cape’s geography from the mountain slopes of Franschhoek and the valleys of Stellenbosch to the searing oases of the Olifants and Orange River regions. Steen appears to be as much interwoven into the DNA of the country’s winelands as it is into the local history of wine.

But as the cliché says, bigger isn’t always better. For most of its formidable presence in the Cape, Steen was not recognised for delivering fine wine.

The wine it did produce was clean, fresh and fairly neutral, and suitable for a variety of uses. And with the vineyards growing in abundance, having adapted to the vagaries of the local wine landscape, the yields were vast. This made the variety tempting to plant for a wine farmer who, back in the previous millennium, was guaranteed a minimum price for their wine, thanks to the controlling arm of industry authority and wine production overseer, the KWV.

Huge volumes of grapes and wine. This is what Steen vines could deliver and back in the olden days, this is what counted. Quality was an afterthought. So Steen entered the last few decades of the 20th century with an image of being a workhorse.

Some producers bottled with the name Steen on the label, but most of the wines from this grape ended in the branded mega-bottlings from Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Distillers, usually blended with equally innocuous varieties such as Clairette Blanche and Palomino. Lieberstein, that immensely popular white wine from the 1960s and ’70s, was Steen-based and in its heyday some 30 million litres of this now long-gone ‘anywhere, anytime’ wine were sold per year.

The most seminal chapter in the Cape wine industry since Van Riebeeck’s legendary first pressing began in 1990 with a new political dispensation that saw economic sanctions against South Africa scrapped, paving the way for the country to enter the international world of modern wine. But while all the doors were now open, more and more local wine farmers and producers were realising that to play in this global arena, the industry would have to focus on grape varieties known in the world markets. And Steen wasn’t one of them.

Yes, in 1963 Steen – for long thought to be a unique Cape variety originating from those unidentified vine cuttings the Dutch planted in the 17th century – was officially identified as being Chenin Blanc. This is a variety that originated in the Loire Valley in France but, despite its centuries-old French pedigree, it was not really shooting the lights out on the fine wine scene either.

As far as South Africa’s white wine offering went, the opening of the doors to the global wine community appeared to rely on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, two familiar wines that were understood and desired by the greater wine world. By the 1990s, local wine lovers were also demanding more noble wine varieties.

The problem with the offering of said noble varieties was that Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were latecomers to South Africa’s wine industry, having been planted commercially only since the 1970s. This meant the industry had hit the wall as far as providing quality Cape wine to a global wine market; it had too much undervalued Chenin Blanc and not enough prized Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

In any event, what was to become of the vast plantings of Chenin Blanc on which a large part of the wine industry and the Western Cape’s socio-economic base had been built?

Visionary winemakers

The future trajectory of Chenin Blanc was determined largely by two impassioned and visionary South African wine lovers.

Irina von Holdt, journalist, wine commentator and Cape Wine Master, pluckily set up her Old Vines winery, committed to taking the ubiquitous and voluminous Chenin Blanc into the realm of fine wine. Fiona McDonald, wine critic and former editor of Wine magazine, remembers being present during a conversation between Irina and a number of wine writers about her plans with Chenin Blanc. “It was in 1995, during a media launch, and Irina said she thought Chenin Blanc could make a great South African wine,” recalls McDonald.

“This resulted in a lot of smirks and guffaws – at that time everyone was thinking Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling would fly the flag for noble Cape white wines. But Irina was determined and when she released her own wines shortly afterwards, I reckon it led to a major shift in perceptions of Chenin Blanc. Eyebrows rose at Irina’s commitment to unlocking the potential of Chenin – complex wines from old vineyards, ageing in wood… It was startling to see the Cape workhorse begin to transform into a pedigreed stallion.”

Joining Irina in her crusade for Chenin Blanc was Ken Forrester, a Johannesburg-based restaurateur and wine lover who moved to Stellenbosch in 1993 in a quest he describes as one “to make the best wine in the world”. For this he worked with what he had on the Scholtzenhof farm out Helderberg way. And what he had was Chenin Blanc.

Ken’s personality, power of conviction and relentless striving to persuade the wine industry and consumers to recognise this gem of a variety took Irina’s vision to a new level. Suddenly, restaurants were looking for Chenin Blanc to put on their wine lists. Wine magazine was writing about Chenin Blanc and its advocates and giving the variety valuable editorial space.

By the beginning of the current millennium, Chenin Blanc had been given a regal jacket and is a leading and unique part of the South African wine offering.

The challenge

The challenge now is for Chenin Blanc producers not to allow this amazing diversity offered by a South African vinous jewel to be stretched too far, namely by still including substandard wines under the Chenin banner. Because there are a lot of Chenin Blanc vineyards and grapes around and because there is – and always will be – a local and international demand for low-priced, neutral and soulless wines, too many producers are still happy to service this lower end of the market. This drags down the image South Africa’s wine industry is trying to build of Chenin Blanc, an image based on premium-priced wines of character, diversity and identity. Let’s not stall the amazing efforts of the new Chenin Blanc pioneers who have turned this into a great wine with vigour and charm… and has the whole wide world before it.

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