The Chenin Blanc Association held one of its semi-regular conferences recently and the purpose of the day was once again to debate what was necessary on the part of producers to ensure that the variety be considered South Africa’s signature white wine.
As is well documented, Chenin is South Africa’s most prolific variety, total plantings comprising 18 515ha at the end of 2010, or 18.3% of the national vineyard. “Nothing focuses the mind like the absence of alternatives,” as Ken Forrester of Ken Forrester Wines and chairman of the association put it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the day was the presentation by Dr H√®l√©ne Nieuwoudt of the University of Stellenbosch’s Institute of Wine Biotechnology. Along with some of her Masters students, she presented findings regarding how Chenin Blanc styles are perceived in the market place.
Chenin is unusually versatile, allowing for wines across a very broad stylistic spectrum as well as at good quality across all price points. This versatility, however, has proven to be something of a double-edged sword ‚ the very lack of stylistic consistency serving to make wines from the variety difficult to understand for the consumer.
Education, specifically in the form of labelling to communicate stylistic differences, was the cry from many and identifying wines as “Fresh and Fruity” versus “Rich and Ripe, Unwooded” versus “Rich and ripe, Wooded” has long been the suggested starting point.
Nieuwoudt and co. pointed out, however, that wine professionals and consumer alike struggle to discern anything beyond “Unwooded” and “Wooded” when tasting blind. Essentially, wine drinkers experience individual examples of Chenin along a continuum from fresh and fruity to rich and ripe and being too specific about where a wine sits on that continuum is not that helpful.
Further, when label cues are used, then it is essentials that expectations set up by those cues should match the actual drinking experience. In the event of a mismatch between what’s promised and what’s delivered, the danger exists of alienating the consumer. Wine-specific information only really works for those consumers who already have some wine education but basically any information (i.e. more imaginative packaging) is better than no information as consumers generally feel at sea when making a wine purchase.
The advice from the institute was to avoid a literal approach to wine education. Rather, the challenge was to create the right image for Chenin Blanc as a category. Marketing efforts needed to be engaging, non-threatening and most importantly needed to include the fun factor.
The bombshell for me was Nieuwoudt’s observation that Chenin is essentially a “very well kept secret”‘ ‚ surveys around the country demonstrating that consumers have very low knowledge levels about the variety.
The thinking in many quarters until now has been that the problem for Chenin producers was overcoming the stigma of making cheap ‚n nasty wine. What Nieuwoudt is saying is that rather than Chenin having a poor image, it doesn’t have any image at all!
As I sat at the conference, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d heard it all before. What is clearly needed is a little less conversation and a little more action. Less introspection and tearing out of entrails and more decisive, consumer-oriented marketing efforts. If you want to be a winner, you need to behave like a winner. The Swartland and its Revolution is proof of that.