Chenin triumphs at all levels

Even those whose summertime lust for sauvignon blanc is boundless might want something a little less crunchily crisp for white wine drinking in cooler times. A little richer, perhaps with a scarcely detectable touch of ingratiating sweetness. Chenin blanc should serve the purpose, especially if you appreciate the best value in South African wine – although by no means all chenins are cheap and ordinary nowadays, and some are very smart, with prices to match.

It’s a category that has improved as much as any in recent decades – and is increasingly respected around the world, even if it is often associated with the lower shelves of supermarkets in England and Belgium. (Just recently, leading British pundit Jancis Robinson was enthusing about chenin as “the Cape’s great vinous treasure.”) There is a huge volume of cheap-end stuff in South Africa too – much of it immensely drinkable.

I can’t think of another variety that offers so few disappointments, and so much fresh pleasure, at modest prices. The co-ops from the Swartland area are particularly good sources: Swartland, Perdeberg, and Riebeek, as well as good old Boland Kelder in Paarl. Another good source for bargain-priced delicious chenins, I discovered just recently, is Nuy – the big former-cooperative in the Worcester area,

A number of wineries now have more than one wine called Chenin Blanc, which can be confusing, given radically different prices. Some, though, announce the difference by label indications that are so subtle as to be irrelevant to most winelovers. If I recommended L’Avenir Chenin Blanc to you (which I do), and you rushed out to buy it (which would be gratifying), you could find three of them, costing respectively R40, R50 and R170.

The pricey one is quite clearly marked as “Grand Vin” in curvy gold script, which is clear enough. Lower down, for R40 you get “Chenin Blanc by l’Avenir”; for R50 “L’Avenir Chenin Blanc”. Which, with a few label tweaks, might be enough distinction for clever designers, but doesn’t convey much to proper people, especiually if you’re just referring to the wines by name.

Fortunately, both wines are delicious: dry, but rich, with pure fruity aromas and flavours. For the extra R10 you definitely get more intensity and complexity (some dry grass and pineapple added to the guava and peardrop). This is partly inherent in superior grapes, partly it comes about because the wine is put on the shelves a bit later, benefitting from that mysterious thing called “bottle development”.

The Grand Vin is a selection of the best stuff off the home vineyard, made rather differently, and matured for seven months in French oak barrels. The currently available one is 2008’s –  amongst the Cape’s best and just about worth its price: silky, lightly rich and beautifully balanced, with long-lingering flavours. Unlike some other high-priced chenins, it is subtle, not relying on power, oak and sweetness for impact – and the more drinkable for the restraint.

Another Stellenbosch producer with different versions is Simonsig. They sometimes have trouble meeting demand for their excellent standard Chenin Blanc (R36), so well known is it for reliable, easy appeal. I recently had the chance to taste the last few vintages alongside the current 2010, and there’s no doubt that a few years in bottle adds further interest to the wine. Advocating adding a year or two of bottle age is not something that could be done with most warm-country sauvignon blancs, by the way, but many of the cheap chenins have got the inherent stuffing to cope with it, and even benefit.

The Simonsig Chenin avec Chêne (meaning “with oak”) is a obviously even more suited to bottle-ageing than the standard version, and will usually happily improve for five or so years, judging by what has happened in the past, but is very good in its yout too. It is a little more showy than L’Avenir’s Grand Vin, just a touch sweeter and with the wood just edging into the flavour spectrum – but also not a blockbuster. It sells for R127.

The range available makes it clear that chenin is not a variety about which to make sweeping generalisations – except one: ignore it, and you’re the loser.


Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 9-15 July 2010, but this is a slightely extended version.

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