Elgin chenin – and others

Recently I wrote about how the best Cape chenin seems to be growing in the “wrong” places, judging by European experience – that is, in warmer regions (Swartland, Olifants River) rather than cooler ones (Elgin, Elim, Constantia). Dana Buys, owner of Vrede en Lust in Paarl (with a farm in Elgin too), validly commented that it’s early days in Elgin still, for example, and that “it will be interesting to see real cool climate Chenin Blancs come through”. Agreed.

VredelustbarriqueDana subsequently kindly sent me three Elgin white wines from his portfolio, including a chenin. For me (and probably for Dana too, seeing it’s his flagship white), by far the best of these was the Barrique – a combo of two varieties for which Elgin already has some reputation: sauvignon blanc and semillon. (Semillon does pretty well in hot climates too, interestingly, as witness wines from Sadie, Cape of Good Hope, Alheit; but I’d make no claims for warm country sauvignon!)

Vrede & Lust Barrique 2011 is a lovely wine, with some ripe tropical notes blending well with the honey and wax of semillon. It’s rich and balanced and dry, with a good freshness, and only a useful bit of support from the sensitive oaking. Savoury, delicious and lingering.

Casey’s Ridge Viognier (another Elgin wine) is a fairly restrained version of the grape, its apricotty fruit tempered but not overwhelmed by subtle oak nuances. A tasty wine, though the oak shows more on the palate – not to my taste – and the biggish alcohol shows a touch brutishly on the flavour-lingering finish – where a bit of fruit sweetness is also too apparent.

As to the Kogelbos Chenin Blanc 2011, which was the origin of the whole latter business – well, I’m afraid I didn’t much care for it. Certainly not in cool- versus warm-climate terms. One can conventionally expect more delicacy and restrain from cooler parts, but this very ripe Chenin is very big, powerful and alcoholic (more alcohol than one would get from the best Swartland or Olifants River examples). More problematically, it is so heavily oaked that it could, frankly, have come from anywhere – the character of French oak is much more pronounced than Cape chenin. And it seemed rather sweet to me.

But I note that this wine is offered in the more experimental and limited-release Artisan range, so there is room to hope that there’ll be a shift from this blockbuster styling (which is starting to seem, surely, very old-fashioned and 1990s?).

I did recently get the chance to taste another 2011 Elgin chenin, the Jono’s Wave from Catherine Marshall. Here the oaking was beneficially very much more restrained, the wine was dry with a lovely freshness, and the subtle flavours nicely coddled by a silky texture. Not much in the way of complexity or ultimate interest, but at about R80 an elegant, pretty good advertisement for cooler-climate chenin.

Incidentally, I was pleased to be informed this past week of the coming release (“in early June”) of a chenin I recently trumpeted as “certainly one of the Cape’s supreme expressions of this variety” – the Alheit Radio Lazarus 2012, from an old neglected vineyard on Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Hills. At R380 per bottle a lot of money, but not as expensive – at least to those on the Alheit list, of which I’m grateful to be one – as I’d expected (I would have thought a higher price perfectly justified, given the tinty yield, expense of farming, and the great quality).

The Alheits were justly praised not only for the quality of last year’s maiden release under their name, the Cartology (the 2012 vintage also to be released soon), but also for the packaging. Interestingly Chris and Suzaan Alheit are going for very different labels for their small range, with just the Alheit logo as the unifying factor. (I think this is pretty unique here – but stand open to correction.)

So I asked Chris about the Radio Lazarus label, which wasn’t to be seen when I visited the cellar last month, nor is it on the website. But no advance preview available. Says Chris firmly: “The label is still under wraps.  Its a little unorthodox, but we love it.” Even more to look forward to.

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