SA vs Loire Chenin Blanc

September 7, 2015
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 16 Comments
World beater.

World beater.

Are we making the most of Chenin Blanc? It may seem a strange question to ask at a point when the variety is receiving the most positive media coverage it has done in the past 20 years but that was the precisely the theme of a recent Cape Winemakers Guild technical tasting presented by Niels Verburg of Luddite Wines. It should not be forgotten that plantings have dwindled significantly, once over 60% of the national vineyard but now down to only 18%.

To explore where SA top-end Chenin is at, six pairs of wines, one leading local example and one from the Loire per pair, the wines tasted blind.
Here’s how I rated the 12 wines:

Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2011 – 96
Clef de Sol 2013 – La Grange Tiphaine Montlouis – 95
L’Insolite 2013 – Thierry Germain Saumur – 94
Moulin Touchais 2002 – Coteaux du Layon – 93
Teddy Hall Wines CWG Hendrik Biebouw Reserve 2012 – 93
Cartology 2011 – 92
Coulée de Serrant 2012 – Nicolas Jolly Savenniéres – 92
Le Mont Sec 2012 – Huet Vouvray – 92
The FMC Forrester Meinert Chenin 2012 – 91
Mosse 2013 – Anjou – 90
Raats Old Vine 2013 89
Rudera CWG Noble Late Harvest 2002 – 86

The Hope Marguerite 2011 from Bot River producer Beaumont was my wine of the evening as it was for most in attendance. In most instances, it was quite easy to tell the South African wines from the French but with the elegant and composed Beaumont poured next to the somewhat wild and woolly Coulée de Serrant from biodynamic pioneer Nicolas Jolly, it was more tricky.

In discussion, a lot of winemakers remarked on the difference in the acidities of the South African wines compared to the French wines, the latter showing more integration. For me, however, what was even more marked was how technically correct the South African wines were in contrast to the French – I reflected that while the South African winemaking felt overly rigorous (perhaps stemming from the over-riding concern of finding market acceptance) some of the French winemaking appeared not rigorous enough!

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  1. EilisSeptember 11, 2015 at 3:16 pmReply

    This debate is really good – lots of open frank discussion on how wines are rated – scale of 100, 20, Platter stars. While there is an increasing amount of science in wine, it is far from an exact science and the art of the producer will always be a big part of the final result. Then there is the tasting – open label or blind, single bottle tasting or a range by varietal or mixed, alone or in company, purpose of tasting – to create a report or simply to enjoy and so much more.
    Debate is always good .
    The world, and increasingly Ireland, is waking up to South Africa’s wines being up there with the best in the world.

  2. EliasSeptember 9, 2015 at 3:15 pmReply

    Thank you for the great blog Christian. Great number of people enjoy your informative reports and tasting notes. You are by far the most influential and honest palate in the SA industry. If this was Tims blog we would only be reading about Eben, Mullineuxs, Adi, Eben and Swartland. Sorry did I mention Eben?

    • ChristianSeptember 9, 2015 at 3:55 pmReplyAuthor

      Cheers, Elias. Kind words, indeed. But Tim’s not a bad sort, his, um, man crush on Eben notwithstanding…

  3. Tim JamesSeptember 8, 2015 at 10:33 pmReply

    Even by 1979 chenin had only reached 29.3% according to KWV statistics (see p 43 of my book), adjusted to exclude sultana. It was still climbing. (My favourite imaginary graph has an X shape, showing cinsaut decline and chenin ascend; their paths crossed around 1968 at about 22%). Chenin was also important for brandy, not only Lieberstein etc. Its highpoint was around 1990, not the 1960s. Excuse me being grumpy, please.

  4. Tim JamesSeptember 8, 2015 at 9:40 pmReply

    If you can’t find any information to contradict Niels Verburg’s eccentric idea that chenin has ever constituted 60% of the national vineyard, Christian, you have presumably never looked for any information about the subject (like Niels). Try the official KWV/SAWIS stats for a start (and a finish); and I gave you a copy of my book, which quotes them. 35% max.

    • ChristianSeptember 8, 2015 at 10:18 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Tim, Thank you for the copy of your book, which I reference fairly regularly. SAWIS online vineyard status records go back as far as 2006, which indicate that Chenin plantings amounted to 26.8% of the 92 602 ha total planted in 1999. I’m happy to be wrong on this matter but it would be fascinating to know how much Chenin was planted in the early 1960s when semi-sweet white Lieberstein became the world’s largest selling branded wine and, as I’ve always been led to understand, contained a good deal of Chenin….

  5. Francois.RSeptember 8, 2015 at 4:57 pmReply

    Debate and engagement is all good, whether about the wines or commentators. Rather that than being a non-descript or irrelevant wine producing country.
    The value lies with the report and engagement about the SA and Loire Valley wines, let’s celebrate the fact that they are worthy of attention and drinking pleasure.
    Happy to know that not only did I ‘trust my taste’ to purchase the Beaumont – Hope Marguerite 2011 but also kept enough aside for further maturation to offer the reported drinking enjoyment opportunity to international visitors to Africa.

  6. KwispedoorSeptember 8, 2015 at 1:27 pmReply

    I, for one, love the debate. Too many bloggers can’t handle any criticism or moderate readers’ comments to death. I applaud Christian for apparently handling this with aplomb.

    It would be nice if everyone could try to be considerate when they comment, but it is perhaps too much to ask nowadays (vitriol rightly being criticized on this thread, but by using more vitriol…)

    I agree with Tim, though, in that I don’t see any significantly finer gradations offered by the 100-point system (13 different scores are available between 13 and 19 on the 20-point system, where everyone uses half points, and 13 different scores are available between 84 and 96 on the 100-point system).

    I don’t think that Christian, Jancis Robinson or anyone on the planet can be expected to score one wine the same over time in different circumstances (ambient temperature, wine temperature, preceding wines, wine development in bottle, taster’s mood, etc. etc.) Scores in the same ballpark are very much acceptable, I think.

    Tasting wine is far from an exact science. Let’s debate it passionately!

  7. Phillip MeiringSeptember 8, 2015 at 9:22 amReply

    It would seem that some so called wine writers/critics spend more time bashing their peers, than actually writing their own blogs. Counter productive if you ask me, and not very appealing to the local wine aficionados.

    • JamesSeptember 8, 2015 at 10:08 amReply

      I couldn’t agree more

  8. DaveSeptember 8, 2015 at 7:19 amReply

    Hey Christian
    “Interestingly enough, I have written about Hope Marguerite 2011 on two previous occasions, scoring it 17.5/20 in June 2012 and 93/100 in March this year, both times sighted. When it appeared next to some of the best of the Loire, it really shone…”
    so you marked it up based on the competition, proving that you are are they type of taster that could not handle the 600 on offer for Platter 5 stars. Back in you WineMag days you were more often wrong in scoring, so what makes you right now?

    • ChristianSeptember 8, 2015 at 8:02 amReplyAuthor

      Hi Dave, I don’t believe wine assessment which is ultimately a matter of aesthetics comes down to “right” and “wrong” but rather more or less valid – if someone bought Hope Marguerite 2011 when it was still commercially available back in 2012 based on my rating of 17.5/20, then I don’t think she’d feel that she’d been misdirected now.

      Your comment implies that that you consider my scores for Hope Marguerite inconsistent but I’m quite chuffed that I’ve flagged it as basically pretty bloody good on three separate occasions over a three-year period – if you’re expecting me (or any other taster) to give precisely the same score every time they encounter a particular wine, then I think you’re expecting too much. Wine can change over time for one thing…

      I don’t expect anybody to follow my ratings unthinkingly but if you’re interested in top-end South African wine then hopefully you’ll find this site rewarding and stimulating. Ultimately, however, If you think I’m “more often wrong” than right in scoring wines and that irritates you then you are welcome to follow a critic or guide which you feel is more in alignment with your own palate.

  9. Tim JamesSeptember 7, 2015 at 9:58 pmReply

    Oh come on Christian. Your holier-than-thou attitude is inappropriate. The 100 point system is really a 20 point one: 80-20, as is the 20-point system: 10-20 via half-points – so where is the “finer gradation” you refer to?

    And Angela’s interpretation of your eccentric attitude to scoring over 95 seems perfectly correct, from my reading of your recent comments.

    And do try to be accurate in reporting. I myself am not enamoured of the schizophrenic Platter system, but the “over 600 wines” (rather fewer than Tim Atkin’s over-90 pointers, but then he’s keener on selling stickers) are not 5 star candidates, but 4.5 and 5 star candidates. The huge majority of the wines had been scored closer to 90 than 95 by the Platter tasters. Whether it will be the “right” wines that emerge from the exercise with 5 stars is pretty much the same question as whether the “right” chardonnays, cabs and white blends emerge from your own big blind tastings (with identically-sized panels of 3). Somewhat up for grabs and imterpretation in both cases, I’d say.

    By the way, I rather applaud your reticence in scoring (generally!), if not for the reasons you have given. You’ll sell fewer stickers than Tim Atkin (for that and other reasons), but you know that.

    Incidentally, the CWG’s lineup might be seen as a bit odd in various ways. Why include Cartology, for example (which includes semillon)?

    Also – when was chenin over 60% of the national vineyard as you claim?! Wow. And why should “it not be forgotten”? What do you think is the real significance of chenin’s decline (from 30+5)?

    • ChristianSeptember 8, 2015 at 5:26 amReplyAuthor

      Hi Tim, Apologies if I come across as sanctimonious but I think an argument can be made that Platter’s is in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

      You’re of course perfectly entitled to label my attitude to scoring as “eccentric” (a badge of honour for some) but then I would counter that determining 5 Stars in Platter’s has always been arbitrary and now more so. It used to be that one individual nominated a wine after careful consideration and then his or her colleagues tasting blind would endorse or not endorse which was problematic enough but now anything scored 90 to 95 is in the running…

      Blind tastings have their shortcomings but in convening the panel, I thought it was important to have the same three individuals each time which hopefully goes some way to ensuring aesthetic continuity.

      A further point: I am led to understand that a wine had to score 97 or 98 in order to be in the running for “wine of the year”. Such a score implies something very close to perfection and philosophically I’m just not sure that South Africa is churning out that calibre of wine. Taking into account the emotion of the moment which must always play a role in wine assessment, I might have had a dozen wines in my entire life I would consider truly great/close to flawless and want to score that high…

      I can’t comment on how precisely the CWG line-up was devised except to say that while a 12 wine line-up is hardly definitive, it at least serves to facilitate the debate and so worth doing.

      As to when Chenin constituted around 60% of the national vineyard, this was a figure quoted by presenter Niels Verburg and while I can’t find any information to corroborate it, neither can I find any to the contrary. I’m quite sure market forces are ultimately what’s behind it’s decline but the point is that the long-term trend is down not up and if it is South Africa’s signature white varietal, then this must be worrying, at least on some level.

  10. Angela LloydSeptember 7, 2015 at 11:19 amReply

    Some clarity on your top score here, please Christian. I was under the impression that you don’t score over 95 as that leaves little room to score SA wines when we do reach world class level. For this reason you criticise Tim Atkin for his scoring generosity. So why 96 for the Hope Marguerite, or did you really think it was French and therefore could go beyond your limit?

    • ChristianSeptember 7, 2015 at 12:15 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Angela, For the sake of readers new to the debate, it should be pointed out that 95/100 has become the new threshold for 5 Stars in Platter’s whereas it used to be 18/20.

      I would like to very quickly do away with the impression that I am in principle against scoring South African wines 95 or more on the 100 point scale – most recently, for instance, I gave Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2013 95 and just before that Palladius 2013 95 and Columella 2012 96.

      My concern is that when Platter’s includes “over 600 wines” in its blind taste-off to determine which wines rate 5 Stars, it’s throwing the net too wide. Are there really that many wines in the running? My guess is some 10% of the wines will get the guide’s ultimate accolade but will it be the right 10%? I’m sure that the thinking on the part of Platter’s management is to do good by all producers and not just the “seeded players” but then it doesn’t really make sense to begin the exercise using individuals tasting sighted and finish with a panel tasting blind.

      There is a lot that is problematic about the 100-point scale but it does offer finer gradations than the 20-point system. To my mind, a producer has made a very fine wine at 93 points while 95-plus is reserved for the greatest wines in the world, extra points becoming exponentially more difficult to achieve the closer you get to a perfect score of 100. Why use the 100-point system and then convert back into Stars? So many questions…

      As for the Beaumont, I can say that I was of the opinion that it was indeed South African (and as someone wanting the best for the local industry, was immensely proud when I was proved correct when the wines were revealed).

      Interestingly enough, I have written about Hope Marguerite 2011 on two previous occasions, scoring it 17.5/20 in June 2012 and 93/100 in March this year, both times sighted. When it appeared next to some of the best of the Loire, it really shone…

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