Isn’t it time to forgive crouchen?

Poor old crouchen! Or “cruchen blanc” if you prefer. Preferably not “Cape riesling”, and definitely not “riesling”. But poor old crouchen – it’s not the variety’s fault that a misguided local industry gave it the name of the world’s greatest grape variety, which for long here had to suffer the indignity of adding that “Weisser” prefix, while cruchen got away with being called riesling. The long history of this misnaming, despite continued protests in later decades at least, is not one of the more respectable records of the Wine and Spirit Board.

For those who’ve forgotten, it was only with the 2010 vintage that bottlers of crouchen had to abandon this shocking theft of a great name and label their stuff more accurately. The most famous of these wines, Theuniskraal Riesling became Theuniskraal Cape Riesling for the first time since 1948. Of course “Cape Riesling” shouldn’t have been allowed either, but it’s getting to be a matter of irrelevance really. The variety is slipping back seriously. The Theuniskraal is one of only three survivors listed in Platter 2017 (the others being Calais and Hildenbrand – not exactly well-known names). Ten years back there were eight versions, and in 2000 there were 20.

Plantings are also falling fast. In 2007 there were 982 hectares of crouchen, while the latest figures show a precipitous decline to 317 hectares – widespread, but mostly in Breedekloof, followed by Paarl and even Stellenbosch. So a lot of it is going into those vast blended tanks of “white wine”.

Nothing to be sad about, perhaps, this decline. Or is it? There’s a lot of fuss being made about “historical” varieties (I’m glad to say), and there’s no doubt that crouchen is one of those. Some people apparently even think it’s been around from the start of Cape viticulture, in the 1650s, and was known then as groenblaarsteen (I’m trying to chase this up). Perhaps some bright, historically minded winemaker should remember that, before all the crouchen disappears, and wonder if it matters. (Where are you, Chris Alheit?)

Jaco Engelbrecht, who works with Rosa Kruger on the Old Vines Project, tells me that “there are 18 [old] blocks, spread between Paarl, Stellenbosch and Breedekloof. Total hectares are 22.29. The oldest date from 1975.” Should something be done with them? Could, in fact, something useful be done with them?

I’ve been thinking about poor old crouchen following the tasting of older Cape wines that Michael Fridjhon put on as usual this year, especially for the foreign judges, the day before they settled down to tackle the modern stuff entered for the Trophy Wine Show. There were two KWV “Rieslings” on it – one from 1990, the other, believe it or not, from 1979. I can’t say they were stunning revelations, but I thought them both remarkably alive, and even quite pleasant, even the one that was nearly 40 years old! How many other Cape whites do you think that might apply to?

My notes, incidentally were:

  • KWV Riesling 1990. Some cream caramel notes.  Light gold. Quite nicely integrated acid, alive, a little texture, but fairly neutral. Simple flavours.
  • KWV Riesling 1979. Mid gold. Some oxidative character, again a decent acid. Balanced. Some depth of flavour even, but also neutral. Bottle-age gives a little interest.

Interestingly, the great Robinson/Harding/Vouillamoz Wine Grapes tome says of crouchen (which originates in south-western France) that “It produces neutral wines that share only one thing with Riesling – the ability to age”. Both aspects of which my recent experience supports. The book quotes Gary Jordan as saying that “good crouchen” is an oxymoron. But I think, given the unambitious efforts made with the grape thus far, that’s maybe too harsh if it’s meant definitively rather than historically.

If Andrea Mullineux and the Cravens can make welcome, interesting wines from modest clairette blanche, (see here) surely it might be worth someone’s while to look at the old vineyards of this historic Cape variety and try to make something from poor old crouchen – forgiving it for its unwitting role in the industry’s hoax. Doesn’t it deserve the chance to cast off its disreputable past as “riesling” and rehabilitate itself? Under its own name, of course.

5 thoughts on “Isn’t it time to forgive crouchen?

  1. Hands up, I’ve enjoyed Theuniskraal ‘Riesling’ often in the past as a fresh crisp wine with fish at lunch.

    I’ve deliberately ordered it at lunch with a group of wine experts/afficionados and no one remarked that it wasn’t Riesling.

    Anothet time we were lunching at a harbourside restaurant at Simonstown and there were a couple of German tourists at the next table with a bottle of Theuniskraal ‘Riesling’. I asked them how it compared to the Rieslings back home and they didn’t flag any dissatisfaction.

    I am no Riesling expert but there seem to be many versions of wines made from that variety and I wonder how many regular drinkers would query Crouchen when it’s named on the label at Riesling.

    BTW, the innovative Australian winery Brown Brothers bottle a Crouchen Blanc blended with Riesling, sold as Croucen Riesling. Maybe an idea for Theuniskraal in getting the ‘R’ back ona bottle of Crouchen 🙂
    https://www.brownbrothers.com.au/products/3934/

  2. Once we discovered the joys of Riesling in the nineties, as students, we had great difficulty in saying anything good about the Crouchen grape. It really is the perfect grape if you’re interested in making wine that tastes like nothing.

    Being students though, we always hunted bargains (all Crouchens were quite cheap) and sometimes we found old, unwanted and unsold dusty bottles in corners of liquor stores. We also liked to experiment with wine, so we bought old Crouchen and even aged them further.

    To our surprise they matured nicely, even if few were stored correctly. All the experts at the time advocated early drinking when the wine was still perky and fresh and some fermentation esters could add aromatics to the otherwise typical nothingness. But we found the older ones quite a bit more interesting. Still, they weren’t exactly great.

    I don’t think Crouchen is going to set the wine world alight anytime soon or in the next couple of millennia, but who knows? It’s always been made unimaginatively, perhaps if someone with a more authentic approach gets hold of a good old vineyard they could make a half interesting wine – or even something better.

    I think Bertus van Niekerk (Osbloed) might have made a Crouchen lately, but I know little else about it.

  3. Howsit Tim,

    I should probably take this opportunity to reveal that we’ve got some in barrel from a mature bushvine block. You’ll taste it shortly. I’d be very keen to know more about its history here. I couldn’t find much clarity on when it arrived. Apparently the old vine in Heritage Square is Crouchen, which puts it here in the early 1700s.

    Other than that, all I know is that it’s virtually extinct in its native Languedoc, leaving us and the Aussies as the remaining caretakers.

    • Ah, now things are getting interesting! Perhaps Crouchen is one of those grapes that also does better with some time in barrel? Which, historically, didn’t happen of course. Has anyone tasted that Signal Hill 1771 Heritage Vine wine? And can anyone put it beyond doubt whether that vine is Chenin or Crouchen? The 2017 Platter’s again says that it’s Chenin…

  4. Hah! Well done, Chris. Can’t wait to taste it. So I was right to mention your name as the likely winemaker – just some months too late!

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