Between the deep green valleys running down from the Cape Fold mountains to the open plains of golden farmlands, there’s one grape variety that has thrived in the Cape Winelands for centuries. Chenin Blanc is not only South Africa’s most planted variety — over 42,000 acres today, occupying the space as one-and-a-half San Franciscos — it is also as diverse as the winelands it comes from.
“Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most distinctive and exciting grape, producing a huge diversity of styles, according to terroir, vine age, and winemaking,” says wine critic and Master of Wine Tim Atkin, who has written an annual report on South African wines for a decade. “South African Chenin deserves a greater global following.”
Chenin Blanc is thought to be one of the first grape varieties planted in South Africa. Nobody is certain how it arrived, but it’s generally thought to have been among the first vines to arrive in the 1650s, probably brought by Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company, who was charged with creating a refueling post for Dutch ships. Another, less likely, story is that it was brought over by Huguenots fleeing France later that century. Known as Steen for centuries, the grape wasn’t genetically identified as Chenin Blanc until 1963, by which time it was already widespread and well adapted to many regions in the country. Yet despite its deep history and excellent quality, global recognition of South African Chenin has been slow. It’s worth seeking out. Not only does Chenin offer a crisp, delicious taste experience, but it also offers a remarkable overview of South Africa’s wine regions.
South Africa at a glance
The cool climates of Elgin, Darling, and Walker Bay — where cool wind and icy water whip at the nearby coastline — produce steely and mouth-watering wines with aromas of green apple and ginger, as Gabriëlskloof Walker Bay Chenin Blanc 2019 ($19) shows.
The gnarly old vines nestled in the Swartland’s warm inland hills, on the other hand, offer fleshy and spicy wines, underpinned with taut acidity and notes of beeswax, orange blossom, and white peach — such as the iconic, richly textured Mullineux Old Vines Swartland White 2019 ($30) made by leading South African winemaker Andrea Mullineux.
Stellenbosch, the mecca of the Cape’s wine route, is situated between sea and mountains and offers ripe, rounded Chenin wines that typically have tropical notes of melon and apricot, like the lush, wooded DeMorgenzon Reserve Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc 2018 ($30).
“Chenin is a reflection of the diversity of South Africa,” says winemaker Leon Coetzee, who makes three Chenins under The Fledge & Co label. “It’s a metaphor for South Africa — it’s one grape, one nation, but extremely diverse. The flavor spectrum — because of our latitude, the sunshine and the people who make it — have a myriad of styles. It has completely adapted here and lost its Frenchness, becoming very African.”
“Chenin is a reflection of the diversity of South Africa.”
One grape, many styles
It isn’t just the different regions of South Africa that produce different styles of Chenin Blanc, but also the different approaches that winemakers have. This can result in wines that can range from lusciously sweet to a variety of sparkling wine styles. Chenin Blanc champion Ken Forrester, for example, makes a complex, creamy Forrester ‘Sparklehorse’ Stellenbosch Sparkling Chenin Blanc NV ($34) using the traditional method — called Methode Cap Classique in South Africa — with 24 months on the lees, whereas Bosman Family Vineyards make the spritzy, youthful Bosman Family Vineyards Chenin Blanc Pét-Nat ($27).
“Chenin Blanc yields wines in a wide range of styles, and that’s great for wine geeks and sommeliers,” explains Jim Clarke, author of “The Wines of South Africa” and marketing manager of Wines of South Africa, which has recorded a growth in exports of South African wine to the US from 10,000 12-bottle cases in 2001 to more than 120,000 cases in 2020. “Chenin can also appeal to a wide range of palates: with the body and roundness that appeals to Chardonnay drinkers, the aromatic generosity a Sauvignon Blanc fan craves, and the freshness Pinot Grigio drinkers look for,” he adds.
Sommeliers are driving this increased interest. “There’s definitely a growing interest in South African wine overall, and Chenin comes in all sorts of styles that will suit just about any palate, and they’re often absolute bargains,” says Pittsburgh-based sommelier Adam Knoerzer, the US champion of the 2019 Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup. “Seriously, you can spend as little as $10 to $15 on a bottle of Chenin and come away with a lip-smackingly delicious experience. And it’s a grape that works in all seasons for all occasions. What’s not to love?”
South African restaurateur Suzaan Hauptfleisch has been serving Chenin at Kaia, her restaurant and wine bar in New York since 2010. Her clients come regularly to explore her Cape cuisine and to try 70-plus South African wines poured by the glass: “South African wine, and Chenin in particular, are some of the most underrated wines in the market today. We have such an incredible array of winemakers making incredible Chenins — nuanced and elegant.”
Given the great diversity and quality to be found, there’s no better excuse to raise a glass of South African Chenin Blanc.