For the last couple of days I have been judging the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge, held at Klein Zalze in Stellenbosch. 126 different wines were entered, and the panel of five, chaired by Cristian Eedes, tasted all of them, and then retasted the top 32 wines to select 10 winners. So here are some of my thoughts from spending two days immersed in South African Chenin Blanc
Chenin is lovely. And it does well in South Africa. This should be the most important take-home message. Buy it! It’s usually really great value for money.
Chenin is a chameleon variety, able to make wines in many styles. This is a positive, but it does have a downside: the problem consumers face when they try to select a bottle. They just don’t know what to expect. The words ‘Chenin Blanc’ on the label don’t give a reliable cue as to what’s in the bottle. Cheap Chenin is simple enough in this regard: it’s almost always made in a fresh, fruity, unoaked style. But for more expensive bottles, where style varies dramatically, some sort of easily understood scale on the bottle would be helpful, and I propose that it should be a visual analogue scale with three dimensions. People understand these scale bars – your battery life on your phone, the time remaining for a download, or attributes on a video game. The dimensions could be: rich and ripe to fresh and crisp; sweet to dry; and wooded to unwooded. (Probably in the other order, actually – that is, the scales start with fresh and crisp, unwooded and dry.)
Don’t make the foot fit the slipper. Making Chenin Blanc is all about intelligent interpretations of the terroir(s) you are working with. You may admire Loire Chenin (whatever that is, the style varies massively), but the Western Cape is different from the Loire. A few Chenins I tasted felt forced: it’s as if the winemaker had a stylistic goal in mind but the site (or sites) didn’t have a natural talent for this style. If your vineyard gives you rich wines naturally, then make good examples of the richer style.
Likewise, there has been a bit of a pendulum swing away from the big, rich styles. I can understand this, but it’s best if the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in the other direction. We should be praising wines for their positive virtues, not awarding them for what they are not. I would like people to think well of me because I was kind, not because I happened not to beat my wife.
Chenin Blanc doesn’t have a price ceiling in the way that Sauvignon Blanc does. It’s a variety that can make wines with greater complexity and depth as you go up the price scale, and which produces bottles that people can justify spending a lot more on. I guess this is a result of its flexible personality.
What is it that makes a Chenin highly desirable at the top end? In other words, if you wanted to create an ‘icon’ Chenin (horrible, horrible term, I know), what would it taste like? In the Loire, the most expensive wines are sweeter styles of Vouvray that live forever, and top dry wines such as the best Savennieres. These are multidimensional, complex, vital wines that combine richness with concentration and definition. For South Africa, I guess the most expensive Chenin would be Eben Sadie’s old vine series Mev Kirsten. This is a beautifully detailed wine that combines richness with precision. It’s only made in tiny quantities, but this sort of style seems to be the way to go at the very top end.