South Africa’s Shining Chenin

For spectacular summer sipping

By Robyn James

Talk to your average wine-savvy consumer about chenin blanc and chances are they’ll immediately reference the Loire Valley of France.  Truth is, since the 1600s chenin blanc has been the most widely planted varietal in South Africa, where they grow twice as much as in the Loire.  South Africa’s alias for chenin blanc is “steen.”

During the dark days of apartheid South Africa’s wine industry suffered deeply. Embargoes prevented them from ordering modern equipment, and American and European winemakers boycotted consulting with them. The government placed demanding, unrealistic restrictions on how much they could grow, where and what grapes they could plant. They were at least 50 years behind the rest of the world.

Chenin blanc’s potential was going unrealized.  It simply created a neutral-tasting bland base for inexpensive table wine and brandy. Post-apartheid winemakers began to experiment with the grape that many in our industry consider to be the most versatile.  They discovered the effects of terroir on chenin (meaning different flavors from different vineyard sites influenced by soils and climate). They tried fermenting some in stainless tanks and others in small French oak barrels, creating two completely different results. 

Winemakers formed a group called The Chenin Blanc Association.  Ken Forrester, owner of Ken Forrester Winery, is the current chairman of the group.  His winery produces five different kinds of chenin blanc, including a sparkling and a dessert wine.  His unoaked Petit Chenin Blanc is the most affordable at about $11.  Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate gave it 86 points, and says it: “Has lime flower, orange zest and just a touch of almond in the background.  The palate is well balanced with a fine line of acidity, composed in the mouth with a touch of bitter lemon and orange peel towards the finish.  You cannot argue at this price, as with all Ken Forrester’s ‘Petit’ range.”

The Mulderbosch winery is located in the famous Stellenbosch region and has been considered one of South Africa’s premier wineries since its inception in 1989.  American investor Charles Banks purchased Mulderbosch in 2011 and helped take the winery to a new level when he hired winemaker Adam Mason, who built strong relations with growers.  Now the winery is recognized to be Integrity and Sustainability Certified by the Wine and Spirit Board of South Africa.  Mason’s steen is 100 percent chenin and partially aged in small French oak barrels and stainless tanks. In The Wine Advocate, Parker describes the current vintage: “There’s a prevailing nuttiness to the nose and mouth of this Chenin, with assertive tones of toasted hazelnut and straw throughout.  Flavors of honeydew and baked apple unfold on the medium-weight palate, ending on a spiced orange-cream note.”

Another chenin blanc, Essay, is a play on words for the abbreviation of South Africa (SA).  At just under $10, it has 15 percent viognier blended in for touches of floral notes.  It’s unoaked and earned a Best Buy, 85 points from The Wine Enthusiast. Its description of the wine was: “Bright aromas of tart apple, melon rind and fresh chrysanthemum dance in the bouquet, while the lively, lightweight palate offers notes of white peach and citrus pith.  A subtle astringency graces the close.”

Be sure and check out a steen this spring. It’s the perfect warm weather wine.  PS

Robyn James is a certified sommelier and proprietor of The Wine Cellar and Tasting Room in Southern Pines. Contact her at robynajames@gmail.com.

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