The Steen Challenge

There are very few wines left these days labelled “Steen”, which is a pity, given the long, long history of that name in Cape wine. The best known of the tattered remnants is no doubt Mulderbosch’s Steen op Hout – although even that name is now prefixed with “Chenin Blanc”. Presumably just about no-one is left who would know that steen and chenin are the same. We’re bracing ourselves this week for the annual lottery known as the Chenin Challenge, and if it were known as the Steen Challenge – well, would it have a more authentically South African air, or simply be even more confusing?

And are chenin and steen the same grape, in fact? Officially they are – steen is listed as a synonym for chenin, and it was as long ago as 1965 that the identification was made. Before then, scarcely any of our innocent locals had ever heard of chenin blanc, and more or less since van Riebeek’s time it had been called steen – with the only doubt, well into the twentieth century, being whether it was called “stein”. And while that particularly spelling caused confusion (and maybe helped give rise to) the style of sweetish wine called stein, it was also probably a reason why steen was sometimes being thought to be related to riesling.

Others wondered if it might be related or connected to sauvignon blanc. Strangely enough one such wonderer was John Platter in his first Book of South African Wines of 1980 (the Guide has gone through quite a variety of name changes itself over the years), despite the true identification being already known, and reported on in Professor Orffer’s little book on Wine Grape Cultivars in South Africa, published the previous year. But in those days John also thought that SA Riesling was “closely related” to weisser Riesling, which of course we later learnt it definitely is not.

Anyway, John remarked that steen “is a true South African variety, its characteristics unknown elsewhere and its origins obscure”. And there’s an element of truth in that too. It’s not at all unreasonable to think that in 300 years of the variety being grown in Cape conditions it might have adapted itself, made adjustments to climate and soil, etc. Though at what point a different clone becomes a different variety, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a bit like deciding at what point a different dialect becomes a different language (someone once remarked that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, but that’s not necessarily a useful reflection in the case of grape vines).

In fact, I recently asked that fine viticulturist, Francois Viljoen of Vinpro, about this matter, saying that I gathered that some people still insisted that there is, in fact, a difference between steen and chenin. His response, accompanied by a smile that I think was pretty wry, was to show me the list of chenin clones available. There are basically ten of them, whittled down from many more some years back, some having been rejected because they were incorrigibly virused. I gathered that these ten clones were essentially of two main kinds: those for high yields and lower quality, and those for lower yields and higher quality. The implication, as I understand it, is that the quality-oriented clones are the ones that some people insist on as being steen, rather than chenin.

There’s a fascinating general point to be made here, and Francois made it to me. What we really still need to do much more of in South Africa, he thinks, is to search out, especially in older vineyards, the individual vines that have adapted best to particular conditions, and give the best quality. And develop clones from them. Too often, we are taking clones from elsewhere in the world, and who’s to say that, for example, a chenin blanc clone that does well on the banks of the Gironde or the Loire will do well on the scrubby hills of the Swartland, or the sunny slopes of the Simonsberg?

In the glorious KWV-ruled past, clonal selection in South Africa was made for the same reasons that just about everything was done – to maximise crops, rather than to help raise wine quality. Certainly that must have been a prime motive with steen/chenin blanc, in the decades in the middle of the last century when it was starting its inexorable rise to being the Cape’s most planted vine. It had already become established as an invaluable grape-of-all-work – suitable for everything from “sherry” to sparkling wine, and sent in vast quantities for distillation too. Then, with the possibilities opened up by cold fermentation and the advent of the “Lieberstein revolution” (vast quantities of cheap, crisply fruity white wine), Steen, as it was still called, was planted over ever-increasing areas.

And so to our modern wine revolution, and the rethinking of chenin as a grape for high-quality wine – a process in which Wine mag’s Chenin Challenge has been very important. Fine old chenin vineyards are still being grubbed up, sadly, but some are being saved (let’s hope it’s the ones with the best clonal material for future development). And some excellent wines are being made – from both old and young vines.

But, as an admittedly lesser point, I do think that if we had a stronger wine culture here, we might well honour our terroir more (by respecting a variety’s positive adaptations to it), and honour our wine history more. And if we did that, we might well choose to revert to “steen” in place of “chenin blanc” – even if we must also, no doubt, honour a debt to world’s greatest wine-producing country.

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