Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc From Bellingham Emphasis Classic Status With Top 10 Chenin Blanc Spot

The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020, one of the premier wines under DGB’s Bellingham brand, cemented its position as one of South Africa’s leading Chenin Blancs by claiming a spot in the Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc Challenge announced on 16 September. This is the country’s leading competition dedicated to Cape Chenin Blanc and Bellingham’s achievement follows on its showing at the Decanter World Wine Awards in July where the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc from the 2019 vintage scored 97pts, the highest for any South African white wine on that prestigious show.  

Named after one of the South African wine industry’s great pioneers, the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc from the Cape’s famous Bellingham brand is recognised world-wide as an ambassador for Chenin Blanc made from the Cape’s old vines. The wine was originally made under Bellingham’s erstwhile The Maverick label from the 2002 vintage, but since 2007 it is found in Bellingham’s Bernard Series range named after the legendary Bernard Podlashuk. 

Podlashuk was the former owner of Bellingham who, along with his colourful personality, was responsible for various innovative endeavours in the South African wine industry.

Andrew Harris, Marketing Director for wine at DGB, the independent South African wine company that owns Bellingham, says the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc can rightfully be seen as one of the first Cape wines to market itself as an old vineyard wine.

“The wine has built-up a loyal following and has found favour with consumers and wine critics alike – locally and abroad,” he says.

Bellingham winemaker Richard Duckitt says that since the first vintage of this wine, Bellingham’s viticulture team has identified various pockets of old Chenin Blanc vineyards from throughout the Cape. 

Bellingham winemaker Richard Duckitt

“There is nothing like having an experienced viticulture team who know the winelands like the back of their hands,” says Duckitt. “The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc demanded old vines from day one. So, before these vineyards had official Old Vines heritage status and before the concept of old vines found real traction in the local wine industry, Bellingham was able – and continues – to identify incredible sites of Chenin Blanc vineyards for making Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc.” 

Bellingham’s The Maverick Chenin Blanc hit the market in 2002, at the beginning of the Cape’s Chenin Blanc revolution that has subsequently become one of the driving forces of South African wine. 

“We recognised back then that old vineyards bring something special to a wine, a certain complexity, depth and balance that younger vineyards sometimes lack,” says Duckitt. “And as part of its marketing strategy, Bellingham specifically referred to the fact that this Chenin Blanc was made from ‘old vineyards’, a concept which at that time was hardly heard of, never mind being used to promote a wine.”

But under the name of Maverick, the thought was that using the fact of the wine’s old vineyard provenance was a different and alternative way of promoting this specific Chenin Blanc. 

The Maverick Chenin Blanc was an instant success, a result of the curiosity generated by marketing it as a wine made from old vineyards as well as the critical acclaim it received for its undeniable quality, primarily a result of old vine fruit.

In 2007 the name was changed to refer more directly to Bernard Podlashuk and the Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc was born.

“Despite the name change, the processes of identifying old vines and using cellar techniques to get the best expression from this wonderful old vineyard fruit, has always been at the heart of the approach to this wine,” says Duckitt. “And the 2021 vintage sees the 20th consecutive year in which it is made.”

Currently, the focus is on two old vineyard sites: a vineyard in Cape Town’s Durbanville ward and two vineyards in Stellenbosch’s Bottelary Hills that were planted in 1971. Both are cool climate vineyards, the Durbanville vineyard some eight kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, while the Bottelary vineyards are on the top of the Bottelary Hills, on the saddle and exposed to winds from Table Bay and False Bay.

“If there is one thing one notices when working with old vine Chenin, it is the concentration,” says Duckitt. “From the moment the grapes are off-loaded at our cellar, the fermentation and the barrel-tastings, there is the sense of working with something extraordinary that deserves respect. Aromas are dense, juice is viscous and it tastes of character, even before fermenting.”

Duckitt prefers a natural fermentation because this is what has shown to work best. “We trialled commercial yeasts including ‘wild yeast’ that you can now buy in a packet,” he says. “But compared to what one gets from the wine through natural, spontaneous ferment, the commercial yeast does not do justice to the extraordinary quality the fruit gives.”

When it comes to maturation, Duckitt believes in using a combination of vessels to allow the diverse and complex aspects to show in one magical whole.

“A portion of new wood in 300l barrels is used for maturation, while a certain segment of the wine goes into old wood foudrés,” he says. “And for grip and minerality I put some wine into concrete. Each passage on the journey to maturation, which occurs over about one year, gives the wine an extra dimension.”

According to Duckitt, old vine Chenin Blanc shows a completely unique feature of this variety that is inextricably linked to South Africa. 

“Quite simply, I think this category of Old Vine Chenin Blanc should be seen to be among the best white wines the world has to offer – something I am not alone in believing, as the judges of this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards tended to agree when they scored Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” he says. “The wine is about concentration, complexity and balance, the age of the vines and true minimal intervention winemaking allowing the old vines to speak for themselves. Depth of flavour, texture and that sunny sweetness on the finish. It is an honour to make wine from South Africa’s vineyard provenance, the quality of which definitely shows year-in and year-out in Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc.”

Harris says that old vine Chenin Blanc has captured the imagination of the international wine world. “Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc is one of Bellingham’s most widely distributed wines in the global market-place,” he says. “This proves that the provenance of old vineyards, South African Chenin Blanc and an established brand such as Bellingham offer consumers a wine proposition with the kind of legacy they can trust, which carries over into the quality of the wine.”