It was a long and wet winter in the Cape winelands. Grape-growers grudgingly admit to being pleased at full dams and water-packed soils. Being farmers, however, they are obliged to complain: it was difficult getting tractors into soggy vineyards for the first spring vine-treatments, and where moisture lingers too long, fungal disease breeds amongst the humid leaves.
Weather for red wine-drinking it was, but now the sun is shining [most of the time, I must add as I post this on a horrid, dull, blustery day!] even in the Cape, and the idea of a well-cooled white is enticing. And what treats are in store! South African white wines, even more than reds, are receiving ever-greater critical acclaim, both locally and internationally – with chenin blanc and chenin-based blends among the most applauded. Locally, however, popular preference shows sauvignon blanc well to the fore, to judge by the serried ranks on retail shelves.
Lovers of crisp, flavourful, fruity sauvignon are unquestionably well served – but market forces mean they have to pay more for their pleasure, at all levels of quality, than do the smaller number of chenin-drinkers. I myself tend to find chenin (again, at all levels) more satisfyingly interesting than sauvignon – though when I taste such marvellous sauvignons as Reyneke’s oaked version (simply called Reyneke White) I confess I have to blink.
A number of chenin producers now have separate offerings at those different levels of quality and price. The cheaper ones are usually fruitier and less demanding than the more cerebral, complex grander ones, often matured for a while in oak barrels. Neal Martin, who tastes South African wines for Robert Parker’s influential Wine Advocate in the USA, was presumably thinking more of the latter when he remarked that “unfortunately, unlike some of the obvious monolithic varietals, you do need a brain to drink chenin!”
That snobby remark clearly doesn’t apply to wines like KWV Classic Collection Chenin Blanc 2013, for which all you need is a nose and a mouth, and a willingness to take delight in a fresh, flavourful, rather elegant wine. At under R40 it’s hard to beat as a modestly priced bargain this summer. That’s a conclusion and price equally applicable to Kleine Zalze Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2013, which is also delicious – a touch richer and sweeter-fruited than the KWV, perhaps, and correspondingly less elegant.
Both of these producers also make more ambitious chenins – the current ones are from the 2012 vintage, as they’ve both spent some time maturing in oak barrels. The Kleine Zalze Family Reserve hints at this oak in its youth; it’s a rich, full-flavoured, intense mouthful of wine. If I were on a budget, however, I’d rather spend my R130 on three bottles of the more modest wine, which is admittedly less complex and refined (and won’t mature as well), but is rather more fun.
Again, something similar for the KWV Mentors Chenin, a beautifully made, restrained and suavely expressive wine. At around R180, however, it’s expensive, and has not quite as much character and fascination as a few others at that price (Sadie Family Skurfberg and DeMorgenzon Reserve, for example), and even as some for a substantially less hefty price. To mention just a few more of the brilliant chenins available if you’re happy and able to go a little above R100: like Reyneke (again), Botanica and Stellenrust. And then there are all the brilliant blends with chenin as their base. All helping to bring on a good summer.
First published in the Mail & Guardian, 1-7 November 2013