“Is it true that there’s a move towards using the term Steen again?” This recent enquiry from a British journalist prompted me to do a bit of research to support my feeling that, yes, although in a pretty small way, more producers are now labelling their chenin blancs as steen. Those producers, was my impression, are mostly new-wave ones, intent on giving fuller expression to Cape history and tradition (though, somewhat, strangely, the same producers bypass the traditional local spelling of cinsaut by throwing in a wholly unnecessary L).
Chenin has been around for ages here, after all, and been known as steen for the overwhelmingly larger part of that time. Or as stein (from which German word steen might have been derived). Stein is, surprisingly, the primary name given it by AI Perold in his famous Treatise on Viticulture of 1926; vaalblaar is another synonym he offers, in addition to steen. In fact, in one of his less brilliant ventures, Perold suggested that the grape was very close to sauvignon blanc (huh?), and for long it was widely assumed that steen was a local mutation of some or other grape. Only in 1963 did another fine academic viticulturist, Chris Orffer, make the identification with the Loire’s chenin blanc.
Whether or not there really had been a significant mutation of chenin in Cape conditions – surely eminently possible over 300 years in climate, topography and soils remarkably different from those of the Loire – is another long and fascinating story and, so far as I know, an unconcluded one. I’d have thought it a truly urgent task to search through the oldest chenin vineyards to find the best adapted vines, and I hope it’s being done.
Anyway, to return to labels: in the 2010 Platter Guide, I can find very few wines called Steen – a couple from co-ops serving their very traditional customers (there are still a few Steens like that today – Soet Steen and the like). I do find Mulderbosch’s Steen op Hout, making it something of a pioneer, although that name is prefixed by “Chenin Blanc”, as it is to this day. But then came the 2011 maiden vintage of Donkiesbaai Steen, which seems to have been the first of the proudly Afrikaans, proudly traditional chenin labels. Adi Badenhorst’s Dassiekop Steen 2015 is perhaps the latest in the line.
Not specifically Afrikaans, but equally determined to invoke tradition, Bryan MacRobert’s Tobias Steen 2012 followed suit. Now the Tobias part has been dropped, but Bryan still has a Steen – while, interestingly, in his cheaper Abbotsdale range, he also has a Chenin Blanc.
Afrikaans continues to assert itself in conjunction with steen, as in Longridge’s Ou Steen Enkel Wingerd (Old Steen Single Vineyard), which does, however, get a bit nervous and tacks on Chenin Blanc to the name just to make sure we see what they’re getting at. In similarly uncommitted fashion is the Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc from MAN Family Wines. David and Nadia Sadie more subtly continue to try for the best of both linguistic worlds with their Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc, the name alluding to the unusually tall shoots of their old bushvines.
More bravely, Fledge & Co, that splendidly adventurous label of Leon Coetzee and Boplaas’s Margaux Nel, has two relevant names: HoekSteen puns on the Afrikaans word for cornerstone (of course reflecting chenin’s place in the Cape vineyard) for their Stellenbosch chenin, while the Swartland version is called Klipspringer Swartland Steen. And Patatsfontein Steen is, well, just a wholly delightful name. While the prize for the most unexpected eruption of the good old name must surely go to Bosman’s Méthode Cape Classique Steen.
You want a winemaker’s thoughts perhaps. For a typical bit of Badenhorst wryness, take a look at the back label of the Dassiekop Steen if you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of this remarkably convincing, frank and fresh chenin. You can note in passing that Adi decided to leave intact the cynical boilerplate text from his label designer (“Hier kom jou teks oor elke wyn hoe droog en hoog die wingerd is (en) hoe dit met trane nategemaak is”);* then comes Adi’s note on the variety: “This grape is occasionally referred to as Chenin Blanc in the Swartland.” Less and less often, perhaps.
- “Here comes your text for each wine about how high and dry the vineyard is and how it’s been watered with tears.”