Is SA Chenin Blanc really that good?
By Christian Eedes, 10 March 2011
I’m still waiting for my April issue of Decanter to arrive in the letter box, but a recent posting on A Word from the Herd, the Fairview Wine blog alerted me to a tasting report in the UK magazine that is going to upset many local Chenin Blanc producers. Out of 155 wines tasted, Fairview’s relatively modest offering La Capra 2010 was the only example to be rated 5 Stars while the panel apparently was generally underwhelmed: “Aside from a small selection of wines, the majority were average and not fitting to be positioned as a calling card for the country,” was the sentiment of the Decanter panel according to the Fairview blogger. The generally highly regarded Ken Forrester Wines The FMC 2009 rated 2 Stars, defined as “Fair” by Decanter.
News of the Decanter tasting provided an interesting backdrop to another tasting held yesterday and convened by Dutch wine journalist and educator Cees van Casteren, who is busy exploring the potential of Chenin Blanc to be South Africa’s signature wine as the subject of the dissertation required for him to gain qualification as a Master of Wine.
Van Casteren’s departure point is that a wine category must at least be distinctive feature of a national wine industry (as Malbec is to Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc to New Zealand) if not unique to that industry (Carmenere to Chile, Grüner Veltliner to Austria). Clearly, Chenin Blanc is not unique to South Africa (France’s Loire is renowned for the variety) but it just might be distinctive of South Africa, Van Casteren having proposed the requirement that the best local examples “must at least be in the same quality league of other countries”.
Hence a gathering of local producers (Ken Forrester, Teddy Hall and Bruwer Raats) as well as commentators to review a line-up of 13 wines, the first part of the exercise being simply to see if tasters could tell the Loire examples from the local ones and then to score them using the 100-point system.
There were eight South African and five Loire wines, of which I confused only two, thinking that the Cederberg Five Generations 2009 might be an austere Savennières and the Rijk’s Reserve 2007 an opulent Vouvray.
Does SA stack up? Three of my top four wines were from the Loire but then so were my bottom two. While Van Casteren revealed upfront that all of the wines were considered premium examples hence making excessively low scoring difficult, it would’ve have taken a Decanter panel member in a particularly bad mood not to have got excited by the overall quality.
What makes South Africa different from the Loire? For me, the local wines have a sun-kissed abundance of fruit that the French wines typically do not. In addition, the acidities on local wines are either harsher and more abrasive as a result of added tartaric or a little flabby as a result of winemakers foregoing added acidity and natural being insufficient. The French wines meanwhile tend to be high in natural malic acid, which is softer and smoother but still refreshing.
Other factors: South African soils typically have low pH values requiring the addition of huge amounts of lime during vineyard preparation; the Loire has soils that are chalky and hence very alkaline. It is more difficult to see South African wines as being representative of place as they typically come from contract vineyards, a problem exacerbated by winemakers inclined to move from cellar to cellar while in the Loire, vineyards are producer-owned and winemaker tenure is more stable.
That said, the stylistic gap between local and Loire is narrow and getting narrower all the time. Terroir is being overwhelmed by winemaker intervention and the leveling effects of climate change. The Loire provides the standard by which South African Chenin Blanc is measured, necessarily so as the Loire is the more established region but to insist that it provides the only legitimate or most authentic expression of Chenin Blanc is dangerously prejudicial.
The line-up and how I scored them:
Domaine de Bellivière Les Rosiers Jasnières 2008
Rijk’s Reserve 2007
Foreau Domaine de Clos Naudin Sec Vouvray 2007
François Chidaine Les Bournais Montlouis sur Loire 2008
Jean Daneel 2009
Perdeberg Rex Equus 2008
Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine 2009
Cederberg Five Generations 2009
Ken Forrester The FMC 2009
Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection Bush Vines 2010
Rudera De Tradisie 2009
Domaine du Collier Saumur Blanc 2006
Clos du Papillon Savennières 2006