Tim James: In praise of Chenin Blanc

November 28, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 0 Comments

cheninOh, not another praise poem about chenin blanc, I hear you mutter. And bashfully acknowledge the unoriginality, and admit: oh, yes. Sometimes these things just strike us – and I’ve had recent opportunity to drink some varied, fine and interesting chenins (actually drink and not just taste – a comparatively arid experience).

Mostly it was at a recent evening on the Paardeberg. I’d brought a bottle of Domaine Huet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray Demi-Sec 2009, and that inspired a chenin theme – though it was the last to be opened. We started with a another example of Loire chenin, also Vouvray, but dry, from the young estate of Vincent Carème, a frequent visitor to the Cape whom I met at recent Swartland Revolutions. Elegant, light and racy wine, less rich and with more acid in its balance than most local versions, restrained and even subdued by comparison.

Second up (presented blind by Eben Sadie, and the chenin theme hadn’t been established yet) was a wine with a rather burgundian, cool, understated feeling about, though clearly not chardonnay. It proved to be my first-ever Israeli chenin, from Shvo Vineyards, in coolish, elevated Upper Galilee. An even newer label than Carème (2009 the first vintage), it’s owned by winemaker Gaby Sedan – who’s also visited here: hence this 2013. Good chenin character, and a pleasing integrated fresh acidity.

Eben was more enthusiastic than I was – I said I could easily find a few dozen local chenins that were superior to this, pleasing as it was, and he looked doubtful and went for another wrapped bottle. Which I couldn’t identify blind (in fact I’d never had it before), but was happy to insist was a good illustration of my point. It was revealed as Patatsfontein 2014 – the chenin which Boschkloof’s Reenen Borman and its Montagu growers rescued from co-op anonymity, and with which we can see yet again the wide spread of favourable terroir for chenin in the Cape. This bottle unfortunately disappeared before I could include it in my blurry photo; it was taken home by Lammershoek viticulturist Charl van Reenen (perhaps the name connection counted) who’d called in for a drink to celebrate neighbour Sadie that day successfully drilling for water on his farm. But my glassful of Patatsfontein made me look forward even more to a visit – very soon – to Reenen Borman.

Just to remind us, perhaps, that Eben also makes a few decent enough chenins, he produced a bottle of the splendid current Skurfberg 2015. Which meant we’d had chenins from Vouvray, Upper Galilee, Montagu and Olifantsrivier, all of them fine advertisements for the variety – whether from cool climates or hot. One to go – the emphatically off-dry Huet Haut-Lieu. Now that’s a style of chenin which warm climates can’t easily do, I reckon (and which Huet does incomparably well): with charm that just gets more interesting with the years and decades which pass, and a freshness and light, lovely elegance to the soft sweetness, so different to the heaviness which tends to characterise local table-wine chenins when they get sweeter than, say, the gorgeous old-vine Stellenrust Barrel Fermented.

The coda to this chenin mini-extravaganza was extravagant in itself, in many ways, and came a week later, when I spent some evenings in the unparalleled company of David and Nadia Sadie’s Höe-Steen Chenin Blanc 2015. I’d only had a taste of this and was determined to have the chance to mull over it, sipping, considering, observing, enjoying. David kindly agreed to sell me a bottle, and it was worth a higher price than I’ve ever spent on a local chenin other than (only rarely!) Mrs Kirsten. David uncannily manages in all his wines to combine a forcefulness of essence and character with an understated, fresh lightness that is unique, and valuable. And chenin helps, marvellous grape that it is.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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