Lifestyle / Food And Drink

Wine Wizard
2 minute read
21 Jul 2014
7:00 pm

Filling in the Blancs in the story

Wine Wizard

Not so long ago – in fact, less than two decades ago – Chenin Blanc was a much-abused workhorse driving the volume, and a portion of the value, side of the Cape wine industry.

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The volume part of the deal came from the fact that roughly one third of the national vineyard was planted to the variety. The value part worked for the producing wholesalers who used it for everything from Blanc de Blanc to so-called Premier Grand Cru. They paid the growers very little money and owned most of the margin. Occasionally it was the central or sole component in super-premium wines like Nederburg Edelkeur.

The common factor in all this, other than the presence of Chenin Blanc, was that very few producers dared mention its name on the label. That’s why the brand owners of successful products – like Bellingham Johannisberger and Grand Mousseux – were able to control the value part of the equation: the punters didn’t want to buy Chenin Blanc, but they were happy to purchase the branded wines from which it was made.

In the immediate aftermath of South Africa’s first democratic elections the export market for Cape wines grew exponentially. Most of the foreign buyers wanted reds, but at the time the vineyard plantings were predominantly white. In their urgent desire to take advantage of the export boom, many growers simply grubbed up whatever unfashionable vineyards they had and followed the red variety planting boom. A programme to save the best Chenin Blanc vineyards was launched by wine writer Michael Fridjhon in conjunction with Wine Magazine.

The initiative was supported by SA Airways and Jannie Retief at the KWV. A Chenin symposium was held and the Wine Magazine Chenin Challenge was created as an annual competition to inspire producers to make small batches of really fine wines. Suddenly interest, followed by real enthusiasm, was kindled and some of the country’s best known producers rose to the occasion.

In the ensuing years South Africa has seen the creation of several styles – from the steely, elegant, mineral wines of Jean Daneel to the fuller, richer, oakier and more leesy cuvees of Teddy Hall. In between there have been the natural fermentations, the just-off-dry examples, and the funkies – all indications of the versatility of the variety in South Africa. Even the French have come to acknowledge (grudgingly) that Cape Chenin is world class.

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