Occasionally referred to as chenin blanc….

“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_blancChenin 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.

donkiesbaai_chenin_steenAnyway, 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.

dassiekopYou 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.”

6 thoughts on “Occasionally referred to as chenin blanc….

  1. Just read the latest post in Jaco Engelbrecht’s visualviticulture.co.za ‘Old Vines – the Essence nd the Purpose’, where there’s an interesting comment about the difference colour of chenin blanc stems in old vines. http://bit.ly/2e2JL0R
    The problem with Steen in the 1970s or thereabouts is that it was confused with Stein, the latter a sweetish white & not necessarily from chenin blanc/steen. I think Steen’s a perfect name for those dry, tense, tight wines, which like their Loire counterparts need time to unfold. It’ll be interesting to see how the nomenclature evolves.

    • That’s how I also had it: that Stein merely denotes a semi-sweet style of white in SA. In the eighties and nineties, many producers specifically changed their labels from “Steen” to “Chenin Blanc”, partly because many consumers confused their wines with Stein, thus often ending up disappointed when their Steen tasted much drier than they expected.

      Often Nederburg’s biggest selling bottled wine back then, their Stein usually contained between 70% and 80% Chenin with Riesling and sometimes Sauvignon and/or Muscat. I find it particularly interesting (and curious, confusing) that prof. Perold reckoned Stein to be the primary name for Chenin Blanc…

  2. “A Treatise on Viticulture” was published in 1927 by Macmillan and Co. of London and printed in Great Britain. The Afrikaans version entitled “Handboek oor Wynbou” was published in 1926 and printed in Stellenbosch so Perold probably wrote the original in Afrikaans and then translated it into English. In the Afrikaans version no mention is made of Steen but it is rather referred to as Steindruif. Perold states “Hy kom die meeste ooreen met Sauvignon blanc, alhoewel verskillend daarvan.” In 1952 C. Louis Leipoldt’s “300 Years of Cape Wine” was published and he stated (p. 204): “Stein, another old and favourite variety, is regarded as a modified form of Sauvignon blanc …” so somewhere between 1926 and 1952 the belief started that there may be a genetic link between Steindruif and Sauvignon blanc or maybe this was just a bit of poetic license on Leipoldt’s side? On tasting Hermit on the Hill Coup d’Etat 2014 (a naturally fermented no additives wine made from the oldest existing block of Sauvignon blanc in South Africa – planted 1965 on Spice Route) many people incorrectly identifies it as Chenin blanc so I can understand why Perold felt there may have been a resemblance between the two.

  3. Thanks Pieter Hermit, that’s altogether fascinating, especially your final comment. Personally, I don’t take Leipoldt very seriously (for one thing he never gives sources for anything), but of course I take Perold very seriously. Incidentally, for brevity’s sake, I gave the 1926 date as being the original version of his Treatise, although I only have the (photocopied) English translation.

    So the Afrikaans version doesn’t give a list of synonyms? Strange that it doesn’t mention Steen.

    The actual English version of the bit you quote is a bit more hesitant than the Afrikaans perhaps: “It corresponds more closely with Sauvignon Blanc than with any other European grape, as far as I know, but is not identical with it.”

    BTW, I’ve just noticed that Perold gives “Vaalblaar” as a synonym for White French (Palomino) as well as for Stein/Steen. Which is not useful!

    • The Afrikaans version only gives “Vaalblaar, Vaalblaar-Stein, Stein” as synonymns. Have a look at what the Chenin Blanc Association has to say about the origins of the name Steen: http://www.chenin.co.za/history.html. To add confusion “Listan” – the grape variety that is thought to have eventually given the name “Steen” – was actually the Dutch name for Spanish Palomino and not even Chenin blanc. It would be interesting to know why Perold did not refer to Steen in the Afrikaans version but did so in the English version of his book.

  4. It would be interesting if the cultivar could develop a universal understanding that Steen was referred to as a separate style to Chenin as a cultivar, in the way shiraz and syrah are. With Steen being thought of as the more linear, mineral and appely compared to Chenin being often tropical ripe and intense of flavour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you human? *