Chenin Blanc: The Comeback Kid

As the cold weather arrives, we’re sure your palates are making the seasonal transition from white to red, but there is one wine that seemingly defies all seasons and all styles – Chenin blanc. With South Africa owning two-thirds of the world’s Chenin vines, we’ve no doubt that you’ve come across this grape in some shape or form. With #DrinkChenin Day this month, we explore why Chenin blanc is so prevalent in our country, what makes it so special and why you should pay attention.

South African Steen

Thanks to our nation’s enthusiasm for brandy, Chenin blanc is South Africa’s most widely planted variety (18.5% of the national vineyard area) and makes up the majority of old vine plantings. You wouldn’t be amiss to call this our national white grape variety aka the Comeback Kid of our generation. Among winemakers, Chenin blanc is adored for its hardiness in the vineyards (a crucial element during our increasing water shortages), fruity aromas in the cellar, and diversity of styles – from sparkling wines and lean, dry whites to sweet, golden nectars and brandy.

Alleged for having a long and complicated history, the origins of Chenin start in the Anjou region of France as long ago as the ninth century and was probably known then as Chenere. Lucky for us, the first vines were introduced to the Cape in 1655, and one of these varieties was called Steen, alongside Groendruif (Semillon) and Fransdruif. Directly translated from Dutch, ‘steen’ means stone, and some say this name was bequeathed thanks to the stoney minerality present in the variety.

What Makes Chenin So Special?

Chenin blanc, in South Africa, has extensive depth in terms of vineyards, terroir diversity and winemaking expertise. It is also practically synonymous with the word ‘versatile’. As a varietal, Chenin can make everything from sparkling wine to dry wine to sweet wine to noble late harvest wine, and it does it exceptionally well. Really, winemaking techniques depend on the style of wine desired. This is also possibly why few winemakers took this variety seriously in the past – it was a kind of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ situation.

Yet, things are changing. While most South African Chenin blanc wines are still made in a fresh and fruity way, there is also a wonderful collection of old vines available locally, which if you read in our previous journal entry, offer wines of intense flavour and character. More and more producers are focusing on mature bush vines, as well as experimenting with oak fermentation and maturation.

In addition, the formation of The Chenin Blanc Association, an annual competition that rates local Chenin blancs, has helped push up the quality, year after year. As it stands, international critics are lauding South Africa as the new ‘leaders’ of Chenin blanc worldwide.

Why Go Chenin?

If you’re at odds with Chenin and prefer a Sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay, allow us to appease any fears by divulging what the cultivar is most famous for – drinkability and affordability. Plus, if it is made in a fruity style, it is often compared to a Sauvignon blanc, whereas a wooded Chenin can often be mistaken for a Chardonnay. So really, you can’t shy away from it, as you’re bound to find something you like and at a competitive market price. To top this off, when produced well, Chenin blanc ages beautifully and gains in complexity.

All that stands in the way of Chenin is marketing. The varietal’s reputation as a workhorse of the industry used to produce bulk wines precedes it, and heavyweights like Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay still dominate the white wine playing field. To be honest, Chenin blanc needs a full 90s-style ugly-duckling-to-swan makeover. Luckily, efforts such as #DrinkChenin Day is doing just that. While celebrating a white variety in the middle of winter might seem odd, it puts the spotlight on the diversity of Chenin blanc. While the fruity and fresh version delights in summer, Chenin can be just as enjoyable during the South Africa winter with fuller styles ranging from sur lie to wooded styles.

Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc

At Bellingham, we are proud of the fact that Chenin blanc is a cornerstone of the Bellingham brand. We offer three different variations of the variety, available in our Tree Series Chenin blanc, our Homestead Chenin blanc and our Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin blanc.

Whether it’s summer or winter, we recommend wine-ing down with your preferred Bellingham Chenin blanc – a wine that pairs perfectly with anything from roast chicken and salad to heartier fare such as duck and gammon.

The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2017

On the eyes: Luminescent gold wine
On the nose: Fleshy peach, passion fruit, honey melon, papaya and pineapple fruit aromas
On the palate: Powerful yet balanced on the palate with discernible, yet seamless and subtle spicy oak complexity.
Delicious with: Roast chicken, duck or even pasta dishes
Available for: R235 per bottle
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Bellingham Homestead Chenin Blanc 2019

On the eyes: Bright straw yellow hue
On the nose: Hints of ripe stone fruit
On the palate: Layers of honey, marmalade and peaches on the palate
Delicious with: Vegetable dishes or salads, white fish or meat
Available for: R510.00 *per 6 bottle case (LIMITED OFFER)
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