Greg Sherwood MW: SA Chenin Blanc – Regional oddity like Gruner Veltliner from Austria or more than that?
By Greg Sherwood, 1 May 2019
The wine trade is such an intricate, nuanced business that is so multifaceted and fractured with so many products created to appeal to one market segment or another. But segment the market you must, for without this approach, very little can be achieved in reality. With so many different grape varieties, a multitude of wine styles, from a plethora of wine producing nations, it can, even for professionals, just seem a little bit overwhelming sometimes. In short, we never stop learning. It was one such eye-opening moment of learning in 2001 that brings back interesting memories. Whilst visiting Helmut Donnhoff in Oberhauser in the Nahe, Germany, I will never forget how, one by one, he brought out wine after wine after wine… starting with basic Kabinett Rieslings, then moving on to Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and then Trockenbeerenauslese. But of course, it did not stop there. There were still the recently 100-point Parker rated Eisweins to taste! After all this bravado and excitement, tasting some of the most momentous, crystalline Rieslings in the world, I was needless to say, in a very happy place.
However, what caught my eye as we were about to leave the winery tasting room was not more stupendous sweet liquid gold Riesling, but in fact a few modest bottles of dry or trocken Riesling. I immediately enquired to Helmut if we could taste these wines. He look puzzled and replied… “Well, of course. But the English market only buys fruity style Riesling. These dry styles only sell in the local German market.” The rest, as they say, is history. My next shipment from the Nahe included 20 to 30 cases of very affordable trocken Riesling that became the first shipment of its kind from Donnhoff to hit the UK market. Almost 20 years later, the dry styles of Riesling from Germany are apparently outselling the sweeter styles across the broader UK market. What of course this product had working in its favour was the ability of producers to write the grape name boldly across the front label. In reality, the dry styles of Riesling were merely meeting a newly created demand that the Australian Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills dry Riesling producers had created in the UK in preceding years with their varietal labelled wines.
In many ways, South African Chenin Blanc was a little bit like Riesling – famous but never a popular or lauded grape in the European markets despite KWV Chenin Blanc being almost as popular and well received as the KWV Roodeberg red blends of the early 1980s and 90s. What South African Chenin Blancs could do, however, was boldly display their varietal name on the front label and register a certain amount of recognition, however benign, with the consumer. This simple and almost trivial factor has in many ways allowed the new generation of high quality South African Chenin Blancs to move past the point of being a regional oddity or enjoyable peculiarity to becoming one of the most desirable and championed white varieties produced from any New World grape growing nation. Of course the noise of this hype and excitement can almost simultaneously be matched by the tears and frustration of the great French Loire producers who have been producing iconic benchmark Chenin Blanc for centuries but without the ability to put the Chenin Blanc variety on the label of their Vouvrays, Saumurs and Savennieres.
The power of the varietal brand and more latterly, the power of the producer brand from the likes of Chris Alheit, Ken Forrester, Eben Sadie and Ian Naude has elevated Chenin Blanc from South Africa to a new level of adoration. For many consumers, it is South Africa who has claimed this variety as their own, as if the glory was somehow stolen from underneath the noses of the once great French estates of the Loire. The varietal brand ownership has been firmly claimed by South African producers and there seems little chance of France grappling this mantle back. As if having some of the greatest Chenin Blanc in the world was not enough, South Africa now has a nuanced offering of not only old vine Chenin Blanc from rock star producers, but it has the unique selling proposition of incredible Chenin Blanc based white blends that have moved the market in a way that no other wine producing nation globally can compete with. Unlike the quirkiness of Austria’s Gruner Veltliner and the spicy unloved loneliness of Australian Semillon, Chenin Blanc is becoming the new Chardonnay, the Chameleon grape that marries itself to unoaked and oaked styles as readily as it does to dry or sweet dessert styles.
This stylistic flexibility has now elevated Chenin Blanc at the premium level, to the status of the only grape variety on the market that has a realistic chance of rivalling the greatest white Burgundy Chardonnays produced. The consumer love affair now has the spice, energy and excitement of a 16 year old on his first date with his girlfriend. More importantly, the demand for South Africa’s best Chenin Blancs is now being driven primarily by on-premise restaurant buyers as well as off-trade connoisseurs and collectors, not by transient fair weather high street consumers. The demand is real, tangible and primed to be long lasting. With South African Chenin Blanc having already confirmed its age-ability credentials, the demand from fine wine merchants looks set to continue growing exponentially creating exciting opportunities for a new generation of young producers like Sakkie Mouton and his incredible maiden sell out 2018 Revenge of the Crayfish Chenin Blanc. So my advice is to buy now before the good stuff is all exported. The demand from fine wine lovers in the UK and beyond has only just begun.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.
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