The Cape’s signature on chenin

A Dutchman, interestingly enough, is doing some research into the meaningfulness of chenin blanc as a “signature variety” for South Africa. Cees van Casteren is his name, and he’s an eminent wine writer and educationist in Europe; this bit of research is being conducted for the sake of the dissertation part of his Master of Wine studies (he’s passed all the exams).

Basically what he’s looking at with regard to Cape chenin (as I understand it) is how distinctive it is from the other great place of chenin, the middle stretches of the Loire valley in France, and whether it has the quality to qualify as a “reference (or signature) wine”.

Today Cees conducted the first part of a fascinating experiment to help him reach a conclusion, or at least a greater understanding. He assembled a panel of nine (I think it was nine) local tasters in Paarl: winemakers, wine-writers and a wine-retailer – unfortunately the person intended to give a sommelier perspective didn’t pitch up. We blind-tasted 13 dry or dryish wines, with some chosen to represent good quality and typicality from the Loire, the rest doing the same for the Cape (as nominated by the Chenin Blanc Association). We didn’t know how many of each.

In fact we tasted the wines twice: the first time a quick pass, simply to make our assessments of origin – South Africa or France. The second tasting was to score the wines on a 100-point scale.

Identification didn’t seem an easy task, frankly, at first sniff-swirl-swallow. Most of the wines were pretty good at least, and the origins didn’t in most case leap out of the glasses. There was apparently only one wine that everyone got right (I’m damned if I can remember now which it was – certainly a South African, probably Ken Forrester FMC 2009). I was somewhat surprised to find that in fact I’d correctly identified 12 out of the 13 correctly; the one I got wrong was Rudera Tradisie 2009, which I’d placed as Loire.

While pleased with that, I was not entirely satisfied, after the wines were revealed, with my assessments of quality – I’m seldom pleased when I have to make quick judgements of that kind (which is why my Platter tasting is such a long, drawn-out process).

I went about the identification partly on some sort of instinct, certainly not always for reasons that I could put into words; sometimes because of the quality of acidity – generally higher in the French wines and often finer and better integrated; sometimes because of oaking: the presence of oak (just occasionally too obvious in my opinion) was an indicator of South African winemaking. Sometimes the aromas were simply reminiscent of Loire wines I’d had.

In fact we had a fascinating general discussion afterwards, part of which involved the question of how much of the difference between the two sets of wines was ascribable to natural factors like soil and climate, and how much to winemaking practices – some of each, in fact.

My favourites were fairly evenly divided, with two South Africans and two French in my top four, for example, with a subtle Francois Chidaine Les Bournais 2008, from Montlouis, at the head. My two top locals were the Rudera Tradisie 2009 and – something of a surprise – the Kleine Zalze Bush Vines Chenin 2010, by far the cheapest wine on the tasting and much admired by just about everyone, I think. Next local for me was the Perdeberg Rex Equus 2008, which won the latest Chenin Challenge (and which I’d been quite enthusiastic about when we tasted it for Grape nearly two years ago, though complaining bitterly about the price – R180 it was then).

Cees’s next step is to repeat this tasting exercise, with the same wines, with an international panel at the Prowein wine trade fair in Germany at the end of the month. Comparing that panel’s conclusions with ours is going to be fascinating – to see if they also find some difficulty in separating the two, and find a good deal of quality in both.

Incidentally, there was also a little chat at this tasting about the latest tasting of Cape Chenins by the British magazine Decanter – it’s reported in the forthcoming edition, but the results have got around. People were disappointed because it seems to be a rather un-glowing picture painted. But frankly, it sounds as though the Decanter panel was not up to much – certainly it seems that they achieved some of the same sort of ludicrous results that the Chenin Challenge and other panels usually produce. So that, for example, the only five-star wine was from Fairview’s cheapie-range La Capra, while the Forrester FMC scored only one star. No doubt some plausibilities and some other absurdities in between – but that’s big panel tastings for you.

Ah well, Cape chenin will survive. Today’s tasting revealed yet again how good it can be (and distinctive, even) – with the Kleine Zalze pointing to the extraordinary bargains to be found. We should all wean ourselves from more-or-less monotonous sauvignon and go out and enjoy and explore the great variousness of chenin!

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