One of the oldest white wine grapes in South Africa, and still today the most widely planted, Chenin Blanc is quite rightly being promoted as a national treasure. Over the past decade or so, there has been a huge resurgence in the punting of Chenin as one of the local wine industry’s unique selling points, and for good reason.
A Checkered History
The variety is grown in most regions, a legacy from the days when the KWV controlled the industry, and Chenin Blanc was the go-to grape for making pretty much every alcohol product imaginable: cheap and cheerful bulk wine, brandy, gin and even perfume. This has led to modern winemakers being spoilt for choice in terms of the diverse terroirs from which they can source their Chenin fruit. The fact that vast tracts of old vines of 30 years and older are still around is another bonus.
As is the case with all things abundant, some Chenin Blanc wines are certainly better than others. Offerings vary from budget-quaffers, fresh and dry varietals that are made to drink within a year, right up to single-vineyard wines aged in wood with a statuesque structure and a showy flavour profile to rival Chardonnay.
The Best Finds
Although I keenly glug the aforementioned style of offerings from wineries such as Perdeberg, Windmeul and Orange River Cellars, the fuller and more stylish Chenins currently available are truly impressive. A fine example is the Riviersteen 2017 from Doolhof in Wellington, the name being a quaint play on steen as Chenin Blanc was more commonly known a few decades back, and this Afrikaans word’s meaning of “stone”, as in River Stone.
The Wellington region is renowned for Chenin Blanc excellence, and this relatively new label from the Doolhof winery shows that the variety is well-suited here, having a traditional home in the area of mountains, valleys and rolling hills.
Riviersteen is made from three rows of vines from Doolhof’s only Chenin vineyard. As one can imagine, the grapes are treated with the gentle coaxing and fuss similar to that which the Japanese reserve for Kobe beef cows. The fruit is gently hand-picked, presumably to the tune of early-morning birdsong, hand-sorted and fermented in second and third-fill French barrels. Once fermented, the juice is kept in the barrel and on the lees for nine months before being lovingly bottled.
Extreme delicacy is the pronounced feature of this Chenin. The colour is straw, with a light green hue. The aroma is of fresh-cut flowers and a light salty sea-breeze. In the mouth, everything is restrained, elegant and very pretty. Yes, there are notes of melon, honeycomb and citrus with a sunny edge of fynbos, but that is not what rules here. The wine is fresh, refined and beautiful to drink — a real Old-World European style of class and brilliance. It’s totally delicious, and I confess I drank the entire bottle, making a second opinion on the experience impossible.
Fine And Fabulous
Talking old school and classic, one might as well mention the enormous Rabelais, a red wine which stands at the top of the vast and reputable range of wines offered by Thelema in Stellenbosch.
Rabelais 2015, which is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a splash of Petit Verdot, is named after the eponymous 16th-century French writer that created a motley array of fictional characters who held court in the mythical Abbey of Thélème.
Like the author and his characters, the Rabelais 2015 is larger than life. First up, the 2015 is turning out to be a monstrously good Cape vintage. Then there is the Cabernet Sauvignon, a fine example of what can be done with the grape originating from the Simonsberg.
Add 18 months of ageing in new French oak barrels, tight-grained for extra power, and the Rabelais comes with great expectations of the Dickensian kind. And it delivers. The wine is firm and large, with an opulence that could be described as immodest were it not so deliciously personable. Everything a lover of good red wine expects is found here: crushed blackberries augmented by intriguing dimensions of pine needle and cigar box. Supple, long tannins make it a firm, yet kind drink. The finish lasts longer than the memory of a teenager’s first kiss, and as a gastronomical partner, the Rabelais 2015 will make any edible offering simply glorious.
Let’s not forget the New World. The growing fingerprint of the New Zealand wine industry has reached South Africa, with a number of labels being imported from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Sauvignon Blanc dominates that country’s wine industry pretty much the same way the All Blacks overpower their opposition, and the expression of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc has led to tremendous success in European and American markets.
One of the easier-to-find New Zealand wines in the Cape is the Rimapere Sauvignon Blanc, made by one of Rupert & Rothschild’s half-sister farms in Marlborough on the South Island. It is also available for purchase and tasting at Rupert & Rothschild’s winery between Paarl and Franschhoek, and I always suggest wine lovers experience juice from other nations to broaden the horizons.
The Rimapere Sauvignon Blanc 2016 is New Zealand Sauvignon in a bottle. Just one sip is required to give the taster an immediate impression of the style of Sauvignon Blanc, which has allowed the Kiwis to own this category internationally.
Intoxication begins on the nose with loud scents of asparagus, cut grass and nettles — like a walk through a green forest after the rain. This visceral expressiveness continues onto the palate. A dry, stony wine, it is rim-full of lyrical flavours including green apple, sweetpeas, melon and pear. And they are not flavours one has to search for in the dreamy space of memory and remembrance of things past — New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc shouts, screams and rattles these tastes about with the kind of brash confidence one expects from that land way down south.
In with the old, and in with the new.