Tim James: Chenin blanc offers great quality but how much to pay?
By Tim James, 4 October 2021
I’ve been idly thinking about chenin blanc, as one does from time to time, and as one should. In fact, I was prompted by a friend I was lunching with, who was being grumpy about the high prices being asked for some chenins these days, and pushing the claims of Riebeek Cellars Chenin and the like. I too am a great admirer of simple “co-op” chenins. The Riebeek costs about R60, much the same as the most modest member of the Perdeberg Winery chenin range I wrote about a few months back.
Things get increasingly controversial, though, as one climbs the ladder of price and ambition. As far as I know, the priciest current-release chenin around is Ken Forrester’s Dirty Little Secret – oddly for an ambitious wine, it seems to be unvintaged, but numbered; you can buy Two and Three online for R1255 a bottle from Port2Port (though Two is discounted on the KF website at a mere R1067).
Of the most famous chenins, however, I think the costliest are Magnetic North from Alheit and Mev Kirsten from Sadie, both hovering just under R900 per bottle. (Raats Eden High Density Single Vineyard is nearly there too.) Mev Kirsten has always been expensive, but the other famous Sadie chenin, Skurfberg, remains comparatively modestly priced, Eben Sadie wanting his wines to be drunk rather than collected or invested in, and Skurfberg is made in larger quantities. It’s interesting to note, though, that Magnetic North has risen dramatically in price in less than a decade, capitalising on its fame and success: the maiden R2013 was R360, the 2015 was R630. Thus speaks the market! Thus speaks the fame of the best Cape chenins! Therefore grumbles my pal!
There are a whole raft of smarter chenins (that is, grander than Riebeek, etc) between about R100 and the peaks over R500 or R600 – the latter including a good handful of wines like the Mullineux single soil versions and David & Nadia’s single-vineyards and Kaapzicht’s 1947, and others. In fact, I’ve just seen that those three David & Nadia 2020s are offered at Great Domaines for R755, but on allocation only.
The few rockstar wines (cult wines?), like Magnetic North, Mev Kirsten and, it seems, the David & Nadias, apparently have no trouble in selling at their very high prices. And don’t believe that these are discounted South African wines, still cheap by international standards – you can buy, locally, recent releases from some of the finest Loire chenins, from Domaine Huet, for less.
Please note that I’m not disputing their claims, by the way. Though I’m always taken aback at the revelation of how many rich people there are in South Africa, spending this on local wine (and vastly more – look at what the decade-old Sadies and Alheits are getting on auction). What interests me a bit more is that inbetween category of, in this case, chenin blancs, leaving aside those who buy at the top end and those who buy those tasty co-op chenins. Wine Cellar in Cape Town offers only six chenins at R100 or less – and only two of those at less.
Unless many producers are wasting their time, there are a great many people who are spending R100, R200, R300 and more on a bottle of chenin. Wow. I wouldn’t have thought it likely. But every year it seems, for example, Thistle & Weed can add another chenin to their range – and their chenins at under R300 seem like good value, given the applause they get. And that’s just one. Badenhorst, for example, some years bottles five expensive single-vineyard chenins. There’s no stopping especially newer entrants to the wine market from seeking out some old chenin vines somewhere, minimalistically (of course) making wine from them and slapping on a hefty price.
Winemag’s competitive chenin tastings don’t draw in many of the more expensive wines, and in fact paints only a slightly more pleasing picture (from a consumer’s point of view) than I’m suggesting. The average bottle price for the 49 wines rating at least 90 points in the 2021 Report was R192, with the Top 10 average lower, at R144 – and, frankly, I’d guess an average somewhere around those numbers would have been similar for the rest of the entrants.
Most importantly the quality across the whole range of Cape chenin is high, as we know. I enjoyed the final comment posted about the 2021 Report and the discussion of the ratings: “I understand the urge to dig into the minutiae of the scores, but surely the takehome point is: we are really flippen spoiled for choice and there isn’t really any bad chenin to be had. At these prices, why even bother to drink water?”
Well, perhaps a bit of over-enthusiasm in the last point, though I would agree that, compared to especially red wines, the quality:price ratio for chenin is unparallelled. But R192 still seems to me a lot of money to ask even ordinary middle-class winelovers to pay very often for a bottle of good chenin to go with their dinner. Spoiled for choice, yes. Chenin was by far the largest group of five-star winners in the 2021 Platter Guide, with 35, and I’m sure it’s going to be the same for the next. In fact, it’s probably even something of a problem to keep the numbers down, judging by the reputation of some of those that don’t make the list.
- 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
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