Perhaps I’m becoming indecisive in my old age or (and this is an unlikely but intriguing idea) more open-minded about wine (as opposed to about whether people should dye their hair pink, or put safety-pins through their nipples, or be allowed to say “alternate” when they should say “alternative”, about all of which I am more tolerant these days). Anyway, when it came to these three, very different chenins, they each had their turn at being my favourite. I opened them all the same evening and tried them over the next three days – sometimes catching them unawares for a quick sip, sometimes having glassfuls with meals.
The first night was the best outing for Boland Cellar Reserve No1 Unwooded Chenin Blanc 2014, the winner of the General Smuts Trophy at last year’s Young Wine Show. It’s an immensely accomplished wine from this huge Paarl winery – testimony to the quality of fruit it takes in (in this case from a particular farm in the land between Paarl Mountain and Perdeberg), and to the cellar’s ability to handle small parcels with great skill. It’s perfectly poised, beautifully balanced, clean and fresh, and packed with fruity charm; not too ripe nor yet too green. Although it was the bottle whose level dropped most on that first evening, over dinner (I can’t now remember the food) it was, in fact the only bottle with a good heeltap in it on the third night. Frankly, for me, the fairly simple fruitiness palled a bit after a while. But I don’t withdraw my praise in the least. Bang for your buck, if this fruity style is what you like, at R60 it would be hard to beat – and this was undoubtedly the best bargain of my three.
My least favourite that first night (but watch this space!) was David Finlayson Camino Africana Chenin Blanc 2013, which in terms of simple fruitiness is at the opposite extreme from the Boland. This is a grand, ambitious wine, from the same block on Kaapzicht (Stellenbosch) that produces the Kaapzicht 1947 (that date being the year the vineyard was planted). It was picked not ultra-ripe, whole-bunch pressed and underwent spontaneous fermentation, in fairly oxidative circumstances. All sounds rather radical-Swartlandish – but then David indulged in his delight in new oak and it remained in its two new barrels for nearly a year. And the obviousness of all that oak flavour was what made it such tough going that first evening – although there was real complexity and depth of flavour struggling and gasping amongst the wood, with a lovely rich texture, and the intensity of the wine revealed in the length of flavour (while the golden colour spoke of both oak and oxygen).
Three days later, the Finlayson was in better balance flavour-wise, and I was almost reconciled to the oak. I have no doubt that I would have regarded this wine more highly if it had much less oak influence on the flavour – but others, no doubt including the winemaker, would disagree. And I have to admit that I was, finally, very impressed, and have no trouble putting it on the winner’s rostrum in my triangular contest. But whether or not this style is for you, I’m sure we’d all agree that the wine needs five or ten years of loving maturation before it shows its best. By the way, it costs a luxurious R300, so you should certainly try to get the most out of it.
So can I offer my third chenin as somehow a totally satisfying synthesis of the other two? Well in a way, yes. At R105, Delheim Family Chenin Blanc 2014, following on the delightful previous maiden vintage, is between the other two in price; it’s lightly oaked (the wooding regime adding more breadth than flavour, though there’s a faint and complexing toasty note), following spontaneous fermentation. So it does happily combine some honest fruit expression (melon, peach) with thatch and earthiness to give a vividly authentic chenin character, unspoilt by oak. It balances between rich and elegant and is totally satisfactory. It’s not an ambitious wine of excellence like the Finlayson comes close to being, nor is it a “commercial”, fruity obvious charmer like the Boland. Really well made, it should go down pretty well with most palates, which is why I was now and then, over the three evenings, tempted to give it the prize – though not for long. As to most pockets – I’d say that it’s the Delheim price that’s a touch ambitious.