Putting Chenin in its “right” place

It seems to me a not uncommon gesture of British writers commenting about South African wine to accompany praise with something of a negative reference tucked away. Not long ago, for example, Richard Hemming, writing on jancisrobinson.com in the wake of Cape Wine 2012, had lots of positive comments (occasionally a touch patronising), but found it necessary to discuss that he hadn’t in fact, found much burnt rubber.

It’s not a big deal, really, but I was prompted to my generalisation by the current issue of Decanter, which has an enthusiastic article about white blends in the Cape. (The world is at last catching on to this great feature of local winemaking: nine years back, in 2004, in the print edition of Grape, Angela Lloyd reported on what was surely the world’s first tasting of Cape white blends, and spoke of it as “an emerging category that promises an exciting future”; in 2007 I wrote a long article on the subject of the two main styles of Cape white blends in the British magazine, the World of Fine Wine. So it’s great that the message is getting through, as the category grows ever larger and ever more exciting.)

Anyway, a minor quibble with the Decanter article, by Tina Gellie, is the following statement:“South Africa has a history of planting grapes in the wrong places – mainly Chenin Blanc – purely to satisfy commercial demands for cheap, gluggable whites.”

I’m not even sure that the basic generalisation is valid, but the element of truth is that substantial plantings of chenin were indeed made in the 1960s to feed the vast phenomenon of semi-sweet Lieberstein. (A lot before and after was planted for brandy, too.) But these plantings are now the source of a great part of the old-vine chenin wines and chenin-based blends that are proving so compelling, especially those plantings in the Swartland, Stellenbosch and the remoter parts of the Olifants River regions.

Chenin-LoireIn fact, Ms Gellie does acknowledge the value of old vines, but finds it “ironical” that some of them are chenin. Surely it would have been easier to acknowledge that at least some of the wrong places were right places!

It raises an interesting question, actually. What if chenin hadn’t been here for ages, more or less by accident, and hadn’t proved its versatility and suitability for the local soils and climate (and possibly even adapted into a clone we could call steen). What if some British MW, or some other expert, had decided that it might be a good  idea to plant this grape from the cool Loire in the warmth of the southernmost tip of Africa? (The photo alongside is of the Loire, believe it or not, rather than the Swartland, despite the uncharacteristically blue sky!)

Not an obvious thought to have occurred to an expert, I suspect. But what would have been the most likely places in which chenin would have been expected to do best? I’d guess that our expert might think of Elgin, Elim, Constantia, perhaps the Hemel-en-Aarde. Would the expert think of planting it on the Skurfberg, with little rain, a lot of baking sunshine and no possibility of irrigation? I doubt it, but this is where wines like Botanica, Alheit Cartology, Sadie Skurfberg and others draw grapes from…. Would cool-climate chenin have been planted in the dry Swartland?  I doubt it. Even Stellenbosch? (The photo below is of one of the vineyards that go into Sadie’s Skurfberg.)

Chenin-skurfbergYet these are places where chenin – surely against experts’ opinions of what was the “right” place for it – thrives. Cool Constantia, a much more likely place, must in fact be one of the only established areas in the Western Cape without any Chenin at all! (In the great days of the 18th and 19th century Constantia, there was some chenin made, but it was always less highly rated and priced than the muscat and pontac wines.)

So thank heavens, perhaps, that “South Africa has a history of  planting grapes in the wrong places”. It’s a question of more than what Albert Einstein had in mind when he said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Doing the wrong thing is, occasionally, if by no means always, the only way some exciting new things can emerge.

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