Chenin Blanc – when too much of a good thing is a bad thing
By Christian Eedes, 21 June 2017
Volumes of the Old Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2016 from Darling Cellars which won the Harold Eedes Trophy for best in class at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show are small, 1 642 bottles to be precise. From 38 and 39 year old vineyards, winemaker Pieter-Niel Rossouw tells me he was compelled to make the wine in order to keep the vineyards in the ground. It sells for R183 a bottle so Rossouw and co. appear to be off to a good start.
The problem with local Chenin, however, is that wine drinkers are spoiled for choice. It remains South Africa’s most widely planted variety, white or red, with 17 707ha in the ground at the end of 2016, making up 18.5% of total plantings. Moreover, there’s a disproportionately large amount of old vines Chenin – 998.93ha or 46% of the total vines used for wine over the age of 35 years, when I last checked.
The above scenario means that there are stacks and stacks of really good examples of Chenin around. I wasn’t on the Chenin panel at Trophy Wine Show this year but based on previous experience, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Note that wines which got left on silver this year included Ken Forrester Old Vine 2016, Nederburg The Anchorman 2015, Perdeberg The Dryland Collection 2015, Simonsig Avec Chêne 2015, Stellenrust Barrel Fermented 2016 and Stellenrust Old Bush Vine 2016 among others.
All this caused me to observe on Twitter that when it comes to Chenin, it’s particularly fraught to single out just one wine, as is the Trophy Wine Show modus operandi, to which Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick in Stellenbosch replied: “Very few solid recognized Chenin brands that can muster sufficient volume to be meaningful – globally. A general industry weakness” and “I love Chenin. I buy Chenin. But: Chenin is barely a category. Globally – where the market is. Sad but true.”
And, of course, he’s right. The plethora of excellent Chenin grapes to be had more or less keeps a ceiling on price and makes it difficult for producers to create meaningful brands. If you think the Darling Cellars example is remarkable, then consider the case of the Hoë Steen Chenin Blanc 2015 from David and Nadia Sadie: From a 50-year-old Swartland vineyard, production amounted to a single barrel. I scored it 96 on the 100-point quality scale while Tim Atkin MW went even further making it his overall white wine of the year with a score of 97 in his South Africa Special Report of last year. A great achievement but you imagine most of it was drunk before it left Cape Town let alone South Africa…
How is the South African wine industry going to escape this predicament? I suspect that the only solution is by dint of hard work. It should not go unnoticed that volumes of the Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine 2015, which placed among the winners in the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 competition last year, amounted to a not insubstantial 60 000 bottles, the wine selling locally for around R160 a bottle. In related news, DGB Pty Ltd, owners of the Bellingham brand, recently secured an exclusive distribution agreement with China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation, the country’s largest import-export body in these fields…