Kleine Zalze: The past and the future of Chenin Blanc

Taking a fresh look at an old favourite, Kleine Zalze produces avant-garde Chenin Blancs from ancient stock – and, reports Emile Joubert, has made a name for itself as the go-to label for a cultivar with a long history and a bright future.

They may not be hugging spectacular mountain faces or posing for a postcard picture, but the vineyards in Stellenbosch’s Firgrove and Faure regions, facing the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay, have a rugged charm of their own. This is Chenin Blanc country, the old, gnarled vine stumps preferring to keep their shoots close to the soils of decomposed granite and Table Mountain sandstone, minimising their exposure to the wind blowing from the south-east.

RJ Botha, cellar master, joined Kleine Zalze in 2012 and played a fundamental role in growing Kleine Zalze to the premium Stellenbosch brand it is today. Pictures supplied

RJ Botha, the cellar master of Kleine Zalze, one of Stellenbosch’s leading Chenin Blanc producers, crouches next to a lonely vine, its shoots reaching upward like scrabbling witches’ fingers. “Here you can actually see the hardiness of the Chenin Blanc vine,” he says, plucking at some dry bark on the vine’s stump.

“These vines have been here for more than four decades, since long before the renaissance of Chenin Blanc in the Cape. With access to vineyards like these, plus others in various other parts of Stellenbosch, Kleine Zalze has the foundation and building blocks for a winery that focuses on Chenin Blanc. This has enabled us to be a major part of the resurgence of this cultivar over the past two decades, in terms of both promoting respect for and protection of these vineyards and ensuring that we do justice to South Africa’s viticultural heritage in the diverse range of quality wines we craft from this grape.”

Asked why Chenin Blanc vineyards can reach such a ripe old age, RJ says it’s about vineyard health and because the terroir is particularly well suited to the cultivar. “Chenin Blanc was widely planted in South Africa and thrived, especially in Stellenbosch, long before other popular white cultivars. Also, Chenin Blanc is significantly more resistant to disease than most other widely planted cultivars,” he says.

“Who knows what the reason is for this tolerance. Perhaps it has something to do with Chenin Blanc having been engrained into South Africa’s wine landscape for more than 300 years, bonding with the soils, the climate, the local wine-farming culture. Whatever the reason, for us as a Chenin Blanc-focused winery, having access to this incredible base material is a blessing. But it is one that Kleine Zalze works hard at, in managing, protecting and preserving the vines to ensure they thrive and that the resultant fruit displays those special characters we want in our wines.”

The Chenin Blanc vines in Firgrove, Faure and the other Stellenbosch wards from which Kleine Zalze sources its grapes may have been stable and rooted in the same place for decades, but that does not mean winemaking at Kleine Zalze stays stagnant. RJ and his cellar team are continuously thinking, exploring, contemplating and experimenting – in general, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with the possibilities that each new harvest brings.

“The restless excitement within the Chenin Blanc category has led to a change in the stylistic approach to the variety,” says RJ. “I think this is a great sign, as it shows that older and younger Chenin Blanc winemakers are discovering new aspects of this variety, which in the 1990s was seen as a workhorse grape that had gone through all the tried-and-tested phases.

The new Chenin dawn

Around the year 2000 the new Chenin dawn broke, leading to very interesting changes in the winemaking process that have helped to give the variety its current appeal in local and international markets.”

Looking back a decade, top-end Chenin Blancs were made to impress. Big, blousy, and ripe in style, noticeably wooded and often with a touch of the botrytis (noble rot) character that results from longer hang time and riper fruit.

“Right here on Kleine Zalze we made those wines a few years ago,” recalls RJ. “They were great wines for their time. But the more we worked on the viticulture of the source material and discovered evocative, subtle and diverse nuances in the juice, the more we began to look at making wines expressing freshness and life. This includes earlier picking, as well as harvesting the vineyard at different stages of ripeness. And then, of course, there is the influence of the fermentation and maturation vessels used in the cellar. They play a major role in the outcome.”

It is here that Kleine Zalze affirms its position as a House of Chenin Blanc, offering distinctly different wines, all strung together by the regal qualities of the Cape’s great white grape.

Heritage Chenin Blanc bush vines planted in decomposed granite soil in 1977, overlooking the Helderberg.

Both the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve and the Vineyard Selection Chenin Blancs are sourced from Heritage Certified vineyards of unirrigated old bush vines 35 years and older, the Family Reserve exclusively from Faure vineyards and the Vineyard Selection from a wider range of Stellenbosch areas. These two wines are fermented and aged in a combination of older French oak barrels for eight months, with a component fermented and matured in clay amphorae.

RJ can’t contain his enthusiasm for the clay vessels. “Just having a 10% Chenin Blanc portion ageing in the cool, porous clay amphorae – a practice that is thousands of years old – makes a startling difference to the end result,” he says. “The mature vineyards and the older barrels are great for giving dimension and complexity of flavour, bringing out the gorgeous Chenin flavours of pear, green apple and citrus. But add a portion aged in amphorae and the wine draws a brightness and freshness that raises the final bottling to another level.”

Kleine Zalze’s creativity in the Chenin Blanc department culminates with two wines in the winery’s much talked-about Project Z range, a collection of wines resulting from winemaking experiments and vignerons generally cutting loose.

Here one finds a Project Z Chenin Blanc fermented and matured exclusively in amphorae for nine months; the wine hits the palate like a burst of ocean spray that has just blown through a fruit orchard. And the Project Z Chenin Blanc Skin Contact, which has the wine fermenting and maturing for a week on the green skins, offers a glimpse into another world. Also spending nine months in amphorae, this wine is layered with grapefruit, green almond and lime and has a gripping – literally and figuratively – texture.

Carina Gous, the sales and marketing executive for Kleine Zalze, says this combination of provenance and innovation with Chenin Blanc is capturing the attention of the wine world. “Chenin Blanc per se is playing a major role in driving interest in and recognition for South African wine,” she says. “And with the kind of innovative approach to the variety Kleine Zalze is showing, as presented in our diverse range, the category is growing from strength to strength. This was evident earlier this year during our visits to Europe and the UK, where our banner of ‘Kleine Zalze’ and ‘South Africa’ had visitors requesting just one wine and that was Chenin Blanc. They were so eager to learn about and experience Chenin in its varied forms and expressions.”

So when you think about the history and the future potential of this enigmatic South African wine grape, the words of novelist William Faulkner may well come to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”