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Tim James: On Chenin Blanc from the Cape and the Loire

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The latest edition of World of Fine Wine, just recently released, carries the results of a rare tasting of top-flight chenin blanc from around the world – mostly from the Loire and the Cape, but a few examples from Washington State, California, Argentina and New Zealand. It was the Cape and Loire which dominated in quality as well as numbers. In fact it was a remarkably good result for the South African, perhaps especially given that at least two of the tasters – Andrew Jefford and Victoria Daskal – would presumably have been much more familiar with Loire styles, and Loire acidity, than with the South African versions. The third taster, Jamie Goode, is a regular visitor here and knows local wines well.

It was, though, above all, a good result for internationally rather unfashionable chenin, with 25 wines out of 37 scoring an average of 89 or more out of 100, meaning “very good” wine on the World of Fine Wine scale (the magazine is one of the more ungenerous scorers, I’d say). Fifteen wines came in the “outstanding” band of 92, 93 and 94 points – eight of them South African, seven French. The 94s went to two wines from the great Vouvray producer Domaine Huet, both from the 2013 vintage (making them the oldest wines in the tasting, which might have had some relevance).

The top-scoring Cape wine was DeMorgenzon Reserve 2016 (93 points). Those scoring 92 were: Alheit Magnetic North 2016, Raats Eden High Density 2015, Badenhorst Dassiekop Steen 2015, Badenhorst Secateurs 2017 (which must surely have been the lowest-price wine in the tasting), Botanica Mary Delaney 2015, Keermont Riverside 2014, and JC Wickens Swerwer 2016.

If you’re surprised not to see any Sadies yet, well Skurfberg 2016 got 91 and Mev. Kirsten 2016 got 90, as did Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve 2016.

(I should point out, in case anyone looks at all the published results, that unfortunately the transcription of some South African labels was incorrectly done, and the Keermont and Swerwer mentioned above were both credited to AA Badenhorst, though Adi doesn’t need that kind of help! And Höe-Steen 2016 (87 points on average, but one of the three tasters dragged down the average with 81) wasn’t credited to anyone; it is of course from David & Nadia.

One of the Vouvray wines also scoring 92 was from Domaine Vincent Carême, a name not unknown in South Africa. He’s been a regular visitor (I last met him at Eben Sadie’s 15-year vertical tasting of his Columella in 2016) and he presented his wines at the 2013 Swartland Revolution, alongside Benjamin Joliveau from Domaine Huet, and Damien Delecheneau from Domaine La Grange Tiphaine in Montlouis. And in fact Tania and Vincent Carême have made a few vintages of a Swartland chenin called Terre Brulée, which I confess I don’t know, but it’s apparently been well received internationally – would have been fun to have had that at the World of Fine Wine tasting.

Conversely, in 2016, the Confrérie de la Chantepleure, an organisation celebrating and promoting the wines of Vouvray since 1937, made Messire Adi Badenhorst and Messire Eben Sadie “chevaliers de l’Ordre de la Chantepleure”. So clearly there are good relationships developing between South African and Loire producers of chenin, an excellent thing.

There’s more in this regard of significance. The Chenin Blanc Association says that in 2016 a research exchange and networking meeting was held in Savennières (another famous Loire chenin appellation) between the Association, the University of Stellenbosch, and various French research organizations. In the same year a meeting laid the foundations for an Académie du Chenin and an international chenin congress in Angers next July, which the Association is involved with. The central aim of the academy is to increase the knowledge of chenin internationally, particularly in terms of history, terroir, viti/vini, research, and also wine tourism. This is a most exciting bit of international cooperation – even more so as it’s built on shared wine excellence.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. When I see results like this, it makes me feel the whole endeavor is a waste of time. When world renown critics can score the Hoe Steen at 87 (actually 81!) and up to 97, or the measly (in this inflated world) scores for amazing bottlings like the Makstok, it all seems such an opinionated mess. Perhaps not everyone sees profound quality in the Hoe Steen, but to relegate to supermarket level with a score like 87, makes me doubt the abilities of people who spend massive amounts of time (supposedly) honing their palates.

    Score debates have been in heat this weekend, and I guess this reinforces the current tremor…

  2. Hi Tim,

    Genuine question, without getting into another tiresome scoring debate, but does this not deserve to be called out when someone on the panel gives the 2016 Hoë-Steen 81 points?

  3. I’m afraid, James, that there’s no avoiding debates like that … when you start debating. I doubt if there has ever been a substantial blind tasting when one of the panel wouldn’t at least privately admit to have got at least something wrong, or that the panel as a whole hadn’t got something wrong. Any taster, however honed their palate, must surely admit to have made mistakes in such circumstances, and the more mistakes the more tastings they’ve done. Concentration falters, perhaps. Or am I overestimating their honesty? (I fear I am in some cases – arrogance is not rare among win-judges.) Also, AB, the averaging effect of group tastings (in this case the panel was of three) usually drags things down. And the World of Fine Wine tends to be a bit meaner than most. The same issue had a tasting of Brunello di Montalcino 2013, a famous appellation in an average year, in which the highest average score was 93, and a tasting of California Zinfandel with the highest average being 92.

    I agree that Hoe-Steen was woefully underrated by that one taster (though the other two were only at 89 and 90 – perhaps it wasn’t a great bottle?); similarly underrated was, in my opinion, Sadie Mev Kirsten, where the scores were, ludicrously, 85, 90, and 95! How useful a result is that? And there are others; and probably people who know the Loire wines well might have a similar set of complaints. But at least this magazine does give the scores and comments of all three tasters, so one can see anomalies – and come to conclusions about the general or specific shortcomings of individual tasters.

    Anyway, there was also a lot of consensus, and the important conclusion was that Cape chenin is really good stuff. As we know already – and as a whole lot more international winelovers will now also know.

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