Editorial: How far has Chenin Blanc come in the last 20 years?

By , 26 March 2024



DeMorgenzon, Stellenbosch.

Did the Reserve Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch Kloof property DeMorgenzon change the landscape concerning the renaissance that the category has enjoyed in the last two decades? Sitting in the grand home of owners Wendy and Hilton Appelbaum high above the vineyards with a line-up of this wine stretching from the maiden 2005 to the current 2022 recently, it was difficult not to succumb to this idea.

The 2005, as made by Teddy Hall, was rated 5 Stars in the 2007 edition of Platter’s as was the 2022, as made by the outgoing Alastair Rimmer, in the 2024 edition and there have been one or two other vintages to achieve the same besides.

Tasting through the line-up, critic Michael Fridjhon commented that the exercise was akin to an “archaeology of modern SA wine” which I thought was apt. If archaeology is defined as “the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture”, what does 18 years of this wine tell us?

First, some context. The Wine magazine Chenin Blanc Challenge was begun in 1996, the thinking behind to encourage producers to aim for new benchmark wines from this variety at a time when it wasn’t considered to carry a premium. This competition would run until 2011 and the list of winners is insightful:

Year Wine Winemaker
1996 Boschendal Jean Le Long 1993 Hilko Hegewisch
1997 Morgenhof Private Bin 210 1996 Jean Daneel
1998 L’Avenir 1997 Francois Naude
1999 Villiera 1996 Jeff Grier
2000 De Trafford 1999 David Trafford
2001 Kanu Wooded 1999 Teddy Hall
2002 De Trafford Keermont 2001 and Kanu Wooded 2001 (joint winners) David Trafford, Teddy Hall
2003 Jean Daneel 2001 Jean Daneel
2004 Kanu Wooded 2002 Teddy Hall
2005 Rudera Robusto 2004 Teddy Hall
2006 Spier Private Collection 2004 Eleonor Visser
2007 KWV Val du Chêne 2004 Tania Joubert
2008 Jean Daneel Directors Reserve 2008 Jean Daneel
2009 Mooiplaas Bush Vine 2008 Louis Roos
2010 Perdeberg Rex Equus 2008 Albertus Louw
2011 Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection 2008 Johan Joubert

Some observations. In the case of the inaugural winner, the wine rated best overall was Glen Carlou Devereux 1995, a blend of 85% Chenin Blanc and 15% Chardonnay, but it didn’t take the honours because its sugar level (17.5g/l) was above the maximum laid down in the entry criteria (13g/l).

No specific mention is made of where the Boschendal grapes came from, so presumably these were from the Franschhoek property itself. For the next 10 years of the competition, that is from 1997 to 2006, grapes for the top wines all came from Stellenbosch vineyards.

In 2007, the KWV Val du Chêne 2004 incorporated grapes mainly from Malmesbury but also Stellenbosch and Wellington. The result of that year’s challenge caused a stir because there were two wines rated 5 Stars, one being the unheralded KWV selling for R45 a bottle and the other being the well-established Ken Forrester The FMC 2004 selling for R230 a bottle.

Jean Daneel Directors Reserve 2006 was again a multi-site wine, grapes from Durbanville, Paardeberg, Stellenbosch and Wellington (whereas Daneel’s 2001 was from Remhoogte). In the case of Mooiplaas, we start to see the potential of Bottelary as a great Chenin area while the Perdeberg win in 2010 demonstrated how well suited Agter-Paarl is to the variety. With Kleine Zalze in 2011, we return to Stellenbosch and of course, this cellar has subsequently gained many accolades for its various takes on Chenin.

What is telling about the above is just how new the “New Wave” is. Many who’ve come to be seen as great champions of Chenin Blanc had yet to work with 20 years ago. Eben Sadie bottled his first vintage of Mev. Kirsten in 2006 and that of Skurfberg in 2009; David and Nadia Sadie put something under their own label for the first time in 2010, Alheit in 2011, and Lukas van Loggerenberg in 2016…

Also remarkable about the Challenge roll of honour from 1996 to 2011 is that the Swartland does not feature at all. Of course, this has subsequently changed dramatically, the Paardeberg now widely acknowledged for the excellence of its wines from Chenin Blanc.

Teddy Hall has subsequently left the industry but no wonder the Appelbaums contracted him to make their wine at the outset of the DeMorgenzon undertaking. He was hot property! How is the 2005 drinking now? I fear it’s past it’s best – amber in colour and very nutty. I also didn’t care much for the 2006 while the 2007 and 2008 are just about hanging on; the 2009 has a RS of 8.1g/l and it shows; 2010 would be Halls’s last vintage and it’s in good shape – it has an alcohol of 13.6%, one of only five vintages between 2005 and 2022 to be under 14%.

The Appelbaums got Carl van der Merwe across from Quoin Rock (they’d been interested in acquiring this Simonsberg property before deciding on DeMorgenzon) to take over from Hall and he would be incumbent from 2011 to 2020.

Van der Merwe is nothing if not technically minded and the question about the Reserve under his tenure is does “house style” trump site – there is no gainsaying that definitive feature of the wine is power. “Our soils are granite and the wines can be quite tightly wound – they need to be coaxed out through winemaking technique,” he says.

There’s the old adage about horses and jockeys when it comes to successful wine brands – a great property needs a great winemaker to guide it in the right direction. Since Van der Merwe’s departure to Canada, there has been uncertainty around the position of winemaker at DeMorgenzon, Adam Mason seeing out just the 2021 vintage and now Alastair Rimmer handing over to Anthony Sanvido after being responsible for 2022 and 2023.

As has been discussed often, Chenin Blanc is capable of many legitimate but divergent styles. DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin has traditionally sat at the “sweet, rich and full” end of the spectrum. Will it always be so or can we look forward to slightly drier, more elegant iterations? My sense is that what is fashionable right now is wines of more finesse, and it will be interesting to see if DeMorgenzon can move in this direction without losing its many fans.

Read a review of the DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2022 here.

Enter the Prescient Chenin Blanc Report 2024 here.


7 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Tim James | 31 March 2024

    It would be interesting to look at the analyses of those Challenge winners (and how odd that FMC didn’t feature); going by my recall, I suspect they were mostly effectively off-dry and heavily wooded in the ruling style of New World chardonnay. If the Challenge was useful in helping to establish the claims of chenin, it was also something whose effect needed to be escaped before the wines “of more finesse”, as you aptly put it, could emerge as dominant at the top end.

    As to DeMorgenzon, it’s a bit of a euphemism to speak of “uncertainty around the position of winemaker”. They’ve been leaving pretty quickly in the post-van der Merwe era. Let’s hope the latest one holds on a bit longer!

      Christian Eedes | 1 April 2024

      Hi Tim, Wine magazine only began to publish analyses of the top wines (Four Stars and above) from 2009 onwards and stylistically these wines typically were in a richer style (alcohols on average around 14% and RS around 4g/l) although I don’t think it necessarily follows that they were all heavily wooded.

      In the case of the controversial 2007 Challenge outcome, the analyses of the two top wines are available:

      KWV Val du Chene 2004
      Alc 13.06%, RS 2.2g/l, pH 3.29, TA 5.86g/l – 3 months in second-fill French oak

      Forrester Meinert The FMC 2004
      Alc 14.5%, RS 9.7g/l, pH 3.38, TA 6.6g/l – 9 months in French oak, 50% new

      Of interest, winemaker Martin Meinert was on that panel and scored both wines 18.5 out of 20…

    david1 | 27 March 2024

    I’m glad to see a mention of the Devereux, a tribute to the late Peter Devereux a friend who played a pivotal role in Walter’s career in the 1980’s. At that time the vineyards were already about 35 years old which means that if they had remained in the ground they would be about 65 years old today. The grapes were from a low yielding vineyard with a single wire cordon trellis and the grapes had previously been delivered to Koelenhof Co-op where the farm had shares. The changes in the Co-operative structures post apartheid meant that we were no longer committed to delivering the grapes and as a freshly graduated winemaker I decided to see what the vines could do if the grapes were treated with more serious winemaking. Sadly it was a bit too early for the renaissance movement of Chenin Blanc in those days , fermented in old oak barrels , spontaneous ferment etc, aiming for a demi sec Vouvray style. We struggled to sell the wine at +- R35 per bottle as I recall as the general market wanted dry crisp acidic Chenin Blanc at a bargain price. The new partners in the winery demanded the vineyard be uprooted and more trendy varieties like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon be planted on the land . Hindsight is 20/20 vision as they say. Take care of those old vines out there , especially those that have great terroir!

    Wessel Strydom | 27 March 2024

    Where is Teddy Hall and under which label will I find his wine?

    Gareth | 26 March 2024

    Where is Alistair going?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.