The two chenin revolutions

I’ve been writing a blog for the World of Fine website, about chenin blanc in South Africa, the Loire and California. I suddenly resolved a theory about the place of chenin in the revolution in Cape wines. Basically, it occurs to me that the chenin renaissance here has not been a single, smooth process, but has two crucial elements.

bluewhite

The pioneeering Blue White bottle, and the Alheit Magnetic North (thankfully still full)

It’s nearly 20 years since Irina van Holdt and her daughter Francoise Botha introduced the Blue White Chenin Blanc 1995, in a famous (or notorious) blue bottle, which has since been abandoned. (I still have one of the bottles – empty, and label-less, as shown in the pic – and remember how the bottles were a significant decorative feature in the Wild Fig restaurant in Cape Town’s Observatory, near the Valkenberg manor house.)

The Platter guide of 1996 quotes Irina as saying that she wanted to “mark a new start and status for chenin blanc, and save excellent older vines from being uprooted” – a very prescient attitude. Significantly, her wine was off-dry and was from 12-year-old Stellenbosch vineyards – not what we’d nowadays think of as old-vine chenin, with Rosa Kruger’s old-wine adventure thoroughly absorbed.

The other riotously, absurdly ambitious chenin I can think of from those ancient days (two decades back!) was Glen Carlou’s Devereux, from older (35-year-old) vines than Blue White’s, and a bit sweeter. It did include 15% chardonnay too. The 1995 topped Wine magazine’s chenin tasting, and would have qualified for the prize, if it had been under 9 g/l residual sugar (it was 17).

fmcWine mag was very important in what I’ll call the first chenin blanc revolution, in that it introduced an annual Chenin Blanc Challenge (alongside one for pinotage, I think) with the specific aim of raising the standard of what was then a much under-appreciated variety. (I also remember that the magazine’s inaugural competition for young, or at least new, wine writers – was it in 1994? – included the task of writing about chenin blanc in South Africa. I remember I won the competition, but can’t remember what I wrote….)

What happened as a result of this means of increasing a focus on chenin is, in retrospect, pretty inevitable. Blockbusterish wines showed best in the big blind-tasting lineups. This was the time of oaky, ripe, powerful chardonnays, and that was the model that ambitious chenin producers followed for many years. I suppose the apotheosis of such a style, with ultra-ripe flavours, off-dry levels of residual sugar, and a lot of new oak, is the Ken Forrester FMC, which even now attract some admiration (though always less from me, and none at all from the New York Times’s Eric Asimov a few years back).

So much for the first chenin revolution – which is still with us to the extent that the FMC and the like are still admired.

Skurfberg-basie

Chenin blanc vineyard on the Skurfberg

The second chenin revolution, it seems to me, came about not so much with chenin as the focus, but old vines and the terroir expression that old vines are often thought to better offer. Enter Rosa Kruger, Eben Sadie and old vineyards from Stellenbosch, the Swartland and Olifants River. To an extent, the whole Swartland thing was predicated on the region’s treasurehouse of old bushvine chenin (ironically, planted mostly for semi-sweet rubbish wine from the 1960s onwards).

Fruit purity (unobscured by showy oaking) and terroir (unobscured by over-ripeness, commercial yeasts, oaking, etc) became the point in the second chenin revolution. There are now dozens of marvellous, fresh wines testifying to this new revolution, by no means all of them from the Swartland, though many are. An apotheosis here? That’s difficult, especially as this is the revolution that is going to prevail for at least a while (forever, I hope). Sadie Skurfberg? Alheit Magnetic North? And there are more. Who needs an apotheosis when there’s so much to revel in….

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