In “Hey Ho Let’s Go!”, the book that accompanies the two-CD compilation covering the entire career of legendary New York punk band the Ramones, released in 1999, David Fricke writes “It is a remarkable measure of the cruelty and reactionary posture of the rock establishment in the ’70s that ‘stupid’ – applied to punkers in general but particularly to the Ramones – was a favourite potshot of prog-rock aesthetes and California champagne cowboys”.
Since the launch of the WINE magazine Chenin Blanc Challenge in 1996 the number and quality of entries has risen dramatically. The 40 to 50 wines submitted to the panel in that first year produced just one wine judged worthy of 4 Stars with nine picking up 3 Stars. The 2005 competition sponsored by TOPS at SPAR saw 111 wines entered with two getting 4 Stars and a further 12 picking up 4 Stars. In a very short space of time, Chenin Blanc has become one of the strongest categories the Cape possesses.
However, just as the Ramones were initially shunned, local Chenin is yet to be really appreciated for the quality it offers. Towards the end of last year, Dr Paul Pontallier, managing director of Bordeaux First Growth, Chateau Margaux, visited the country and offered some insights concerning the local industry. Should local winemakers persist with the widely planted but often maligned Chenin Blanc? He managed no more encouragement than to say: “Why not? It makes simple but nice-to-drink wine. However, compared to Sauvignon Blanc, it lacks character.”
That sort of bias against Chenin might be expected from a man resolutely Bordelais in outlook. But even the general public seems to remain underwhelmed by the variety. This time last year, visitors to the WINEmag.co.za website were asked in a poll what their favourite white wine variety was, and the results saw Chenin Blanc coming in third with 14% of the vote, behind Sauvignon Blanc (47%) and Chardonnay (32%).
This year’s Chenin Challenge ended up with winemaker Teddy Hall clinching victory for a remarkable fourth time. The winning wine was the Rudera Robusto 2002, “amply textured but with adequate acidity to rein in the fruit and to deliver length and persistence on the palate,” to quote tasting panel chairman Michael Fridjhon. Of particular note is that it has a residual sugar of 15.7g/l, which contributes to a sumptuous palate. Nevertheless, there will be those who automatically criticise it for being too sweet. Just as the music business has its reactionaries, so does the wine industry. . .
Whereas local Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are so often unexceptional, the overall quality of Chenin is high, while the range of legitimate styles is unusually wide. Moreover, because the grape generally does not share the same cachet as other white varieties, there are plenty of examples offering excellent value for money. It might take a few more years to win over the sceptics, but you feel that time will come. The Ramones proved they weren’t a stupid band, and neither is Chenin a simple wine.