The trouble with the Chenin Blanc Association

The Cape makes some great chenin blancs – but is the Chenin Blanc Association adequately advancing their claims? I have long had some doubts about the latter point, despite the Association being one of the few dynamic producer groupings locally. The doubts grew stronger last week as I worked my way around the excellently organised and successful Cape Wine 2012.

I tasted a number of really fine, interesting chenins (amongst other wines) and heard some serious grumbles focused on the ‘Cape Chenin Unveiled’ event held a few days earlier. The grumbles came from producers as well as serious winedrinkers and wine critics who worry about the styles that the Association is pushing. I wasn’t at the event, but wasn’t surprised at the criticism, which was essentially that elegance is thrust into the background, while ultra-ripeness, sweetness and oakiness are advanced, particularly as far as the more ambitious offerings are concerned.

These showy wines have grown increasingly prominent, I think, through the very success of the Chenin Blanc Challenge, formerly run by Wine magazine but still going strong. While the Challenge succeeeded in what it set out to do, significantly raising the profile of chenin blanc, it did what all wine competitions do: it disproportionately rewarded (and thereby encouraged proliferation of) big, showy, alcoholic, heavily oaked wines at the expense of the more subtle, restrained styles. (Australia’s success in the 1990s – now proving less long-lived than they imagined – was built through precisely this model).

The trouble is that the Chenin Blanc Association is furthering this identification of quality with sweetness, oakiness and power. Meanwhile, sophisticated palates are increasingly tiring of such wines. Take Eric Asimov, highly important critic of the New York Times, who recently wrote an article, reporting on a tasting, saying that Cape chenin “is not what it used to be”. Unfortunately he didn’t taste the best on offer, on the whole (like me, he much approved of the Mullinuex and Secateurs wines), but some of his remarks are more than pertinent generally. Too many of the wines, Asimov said, “seemed either flabby or dispiriting”. He criticised the very expensive Ken Forrester FMC 2009 (in words that I echo) as being “sweet, oaky, unbalanced and fatiguing”.

This style of wine is surely not what the world (even beyond Eric Asimov) wants. But it is the style that the Association is pushing. The FMC 2010 was on the local Association show last week (Forrester is chair of the Association and his dynamism is important to it – and so, one must assume, is his wine, and his taste).

As I say, I wasn’t present, but I do know some of the wines, and I also did a bit of research into those that were shown. Across the two categories “Fresh and fruity”  and “Rich and ripe” (neither of which sounds particularly appetising to me, frankly) only three of the twelve wines, as far as I can see, could count as properly dry (below 4 grams per litre of residual sugar, the European measurement for dryness, though not the South African one, where the lickspittle authorites re-defined the threshhold a few years back as being 5 g/l).

Of course, dryness is not an absolute and depends on the balance of the wines. But given the generous alcohol levels of most of these wines and the lower acidities achieved in our warmish climate, the balance is seldom likely to disguise the sweetness.

So the Association is pushing off-dry wines. Why on earth? The likes of Spier 21 Gables, Rudera Robusto, Lutzville Diamond Collection, the FMC, etc. Not only pushing these wines, but hugely ignoring the amazing dry Chenins that there are around, from Stellenbosch and the Swartland particularly. Why are they pushing this admittedly well-done but more-or-less-sickly off-dry stuff – made more intolerable to some of us by their oakiness?

 

Such wines often do well in big line-ups – fine. Some people genuinely like them, I’m sure. But the Association not only pushes them, it emphatically seems to ignore the drier, more refined styles. Why else would that recent line-up have been so disproportionately, so dishearteningly slanted towards sweetness?

It’s not an accident. Have a look on the Chenin Association’s website and see their “six recognised styles” (their words). Apart from dessert wine and bubbly, there are four categories: Fresh and fruity, Rich and ripe unwooded, Rich and ripe wooded, Rich and ripe slightly sweet. The three styles that are not “slightly sweet”, we are told, contain “less than  9 g/ℓ residual sugar”. That is, all of them can be effectively off-dry!

And the way things seem to be interpreted by those who choose the specific wines to advance, the more off-dry the better. In fact, all of those categories, I suggest, should require wines to be under 5 grams per litre residual sugar – all those with more sugar should go into the “slightly sweet” class. Because that’s what they are.

Or else there should be a new category introduced for those who actually enjoy chenin blanc as a refreshing partner to their food, or simply prefer dry wines. How about a category: “dry and elegant”? That would entice a whole lot more winedrinkers – people who are justifiably wary of “rich and ripe” as a description.

These dry and elegant wines – unwooded and wooded, fruitily or more oxidatively styled – are being made in the Cape. Many of them (I plan to write soon about a few of them). The Chenin Blanc Association seems determined to keep them out of their spotlight. It’s a real problem.

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