Lonely chenin blanc

In the “Agter-Paarl”, the wide space between the Paarl mountain and the Perdeberg, that is really the start of the Swartland sweep up the West Coast, is a farm called Eenzaamheid. “Loneliness” is what I take it to mean – though Fairview initially chose “Solitude” as the name for their Shiraz made from its grapes (they switched to the Dutch version when the copyright was challenged for the US market).

It’s a huge farm, with cattle and sheep as well as just short of 400 hectares of unirrigated vines – cabernet, cinsaut, pinotage, shiraz and chenin. All the grapes fed the huge tanks of the local “co-op”, Perdeberg Winery, until young Janno Briers-Louw (seventh generation of his family on the farm) decided that it was about time he put his Elsenberg training to use. He held back some of the best grapes and in a mix of older oak barrels and plastic fermenters started making some wine in the cold-storage room on the farm.

In 2010 he produced an easy-going, ripe red blend dominated by rather green cabernet but saved by its unpretentiousness (called Cuvee 1693 after the date of the granting of the lease to the farm), a respectable-enough Pinotage, and a rather nice, beautifully smooth-tannined Shiraz-Mourvedre. All are rather too ripe for my tastes, and Janno himself is not completely satisfied with them, I suspect – he assures me that subsequent vintages are definite step-ups.

And then in 2011 Janno made a Chenin Blanc from old, dryland bushvines, and this needs no excuses or promises of better to come. It was because of this Chenin that I learnt of Janno’s determination to build his wine-making “hobby” into something fine (he has an enormous amount of other work to do on the farm, and describes a terrifying 18-hour working day during harvest season).

Janno contacted me with heartfelt agreement after my recent diatribe against the off-dry chenins being promoted by the Chenin Blanc Association, and brought me his wine to taste – as one more proof that there’s more to chenin than such stuff.

It’s a most attractive wine – honest, fresh and subtle, with some delicious fruit made the more interesting by an earthy note, and all harmoniously balanced, with a good acidity as counterweight to the rich ripeness, and a supple silky texture. And dry! Tasting was a pleasure; drinking rather more of it later with a supper based on smoked fish was even more satisfactory. The label is lovely too – featuring the suitably lonely orginal farmhouse, now apparently well restored.

Eeenzaamheid Chenin 2011 will not be easily found as yet – I know it’s on the list at Wine Cellar. Cellar door price is R120, which is not cheap, but low-cropping old bushvines are an expensive luxury.

Quite a number of other chenin blancs appeared in the line-up of recent releases tasted by  me and Angela Lloyd recently. Most were rather cheaper than the Eenzaamheid. One that was about the same price was the Oldenburg Chenin Blanc 2011 (R118) from Stellenbosch’s Banghoek Valley. I liked it very much – a little more than Angela did: she found it too oaky. Oak was indeed there, but I found it balanced, along with an unshowy but quietly forceful aromas and flavour; some real character and incipient complexity, with a good acidity balanced by fruit. Savoury and succulent. Like the Eenzaamheid, a four-star wine for me.

And for less? Well, there’s a new wine from that great chenin producer, Jean Daneel, part of a new range from their own Napier vineyards, called Le Grand Jardin. At around R80, this Chenin seems over-priced. Pleasant enough, with typical melon, straw characters – but a strange touch of bitterness? Pretty ordinary, really, with simple modest concentration and a gentle acid bite.

Neethlingshof Chenin Blanc 2012 at R38 was the bargain in the line-up. The big, tropical aromas that are common in “commercial” chenins, and deriving more from the yeast used in fermentation than from anything else really. Quite bracing, firm, with good ripe, flavourful fruit, a nice tropicality. Could be a bit more steely, but winningly balanced.

Kleine Zalze is pretty renowned for its chenin, and the Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2011 is also a good buy, as usual, at R37. But here we are entering more-or-less-off-dry territory, so if you enjoy this version of what the Chenin Blanc Association likes to call “richness”, you’ll find this particularly pleasant.

Peacock Ridge 2011 is rather more bracing and actually more interesting, though less intense. At R59 you could probably do better, however.

Stellenbosch Hills 2012 (R30) and Swartland Winery 2012 (R26) were the relative cheapies we tried. Both pleasant and satisfactory. The former is quieter, subtler, drier, though a touch dilute; the latter overtly tropical, a little sweet-sour.

There’s lots of chenin out there, much of it at prices that allow a little risk-taking and experimentation, and much of it offering gratifying rewards.

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