Tim James: Old-vine chenin and an important award for its greatest champion
By Tim James, 3 October 2022
The breadth, depth and quality of the Cape’s serious chenin offering is remarkable. We all know this, I think, perhaps to the point of being blasé about it, but sometimes one is obliged to recall and reaffirm the conviction. As I did last Saturday evening in Stellenbosch, at a grand tasting put on by the Old Vine Project as one of the events clustered around Cape Wine 2022, the large trade show taking place this week.
Wines were the focus, of course, but it must be mentioned that the gathering also saw it announced that OVP founder Rosa Kruger has been inducted into the Decanter magazine Hall of Fame – becoming what most such organisations call their “person of the year”. It’s undoubtedly a greatly prestigious award, which has previously won by some of the world’s most eminent winemakers, oenologists, critics, etc. This is the first time it has gone to a viticulturist – or to a South African. A happy moment, enthusiastically welcomed – not dashed by the fact that the award had been prematurely leaked on Twitter by an over-eager Tim Atkin, who’d been responsible for writing the accompanying Decanter article. Rosa made a characteristically modest and short speech, most memorably reminding everyone at the tasting of the work of many people involved in the larger old vine project, especially “the people in the fields”.
It was good to have this tribute to the people that enable or carry out the vision of any viticulturist and winemaker. And the wines at this tasting were a tribute also to the success of the Old Vine Project team, also fully recognised by Rosa. Not just wines from chenin, of course, but, given the Cape’s heritage, they are undoubtedly in the majority. Given my need to drive home afterwards, I decided to limit myself to chenin, especially those I hadn’t ever tried, or at least not for a while. Only some of them are mentioned below.
To emphatically make the point about the number of old-vine chenins, and the laudable determination of many winemakers to preserve these vineyards, consider the splendid array under the Roodekrantz label, a joint project of the Burgers of Roodekrantz farm and the Morkels of Diemerskraal. There are seven chenins in the Old Vines range at latest count, from widely sourced vineyards. Incidentally, the range does also make clear something that’s occasionally forgotten when fetishing old vines: that age in itself is not everything – some terroirs are more blessed than others. My two Roodekrantz favourites are the Brand se Berg, from Agter-Paarl vines planted in 1975, and Die Kliphuis (Swartland, 1968). Both are partially spontaneously fermented, matured in older oak; both lowish alcohol yet sufficiently vinous, and both lovely.
Not well known to me are the wines of Old Road, but the Stone Trail Chenin Blanc 2019 is excellent – it has that grippy, focused and stony dryness that is augmented when at least part of a cuvée is matured in clay pots. Stone Trail also showed the fine Grandmère Semillon, but that was a brief bit of straying from my evening’s self-imposed brief. There’s a small semillon contribution to a new entry, both delightful and serious, to the old-vine ranks: Kattemaai 2021, part of the portfolio of the revived and now ever-improving Tempel Wines in Paarl. Also new, and on the fringes of the evening’s wine experience, perhaps, is a really attractive skin-contact chenin from Joostenberg’s Small Batch Collection: Kaalgat Steen 2022, which should be released within months, says Tyrrel Myburgh. Is it the only skin-contact wine (12 days it spent on the skins) made from old-vine fruit? It certainly works very satisfactorily, as one might expect from Joostenberg.
A wine I was particularly glad to see was Ken Forrester’s Dirty Little Secret from 1959-planted Piekenierskloof vines – this one again not vintaged and numbered Three, making it only the third since the first from 2015. At R1270 ex-producer it’s surely the most expensive regular white wine in the country. That sort of price tag was probably one reason I was rather rude in print about number One, greatly angering, I remember, the eminent Mr Forrester (to whom the chenin revival owes much recognition, of course). But I recall I was most exercised by the prominent label claim about this being a NATURAL WINE, despite it apparently not being made from organically grown fruit. As the original article has disappeared into the ether, I can’t check – but probably I owe some apology for intemperance. Anyway, Dirty Little Secret Three (which has dropped the “natural wine” reference from the label) is a most excellent wine, both elegant and deeply fruit with a real magic to it. It’s made from the fruit of four vintages, 2017–2020, but is full of life and freshness and should age beautifully, such is its inherent harmony. But hard to resist now. A great advertisement for Cape chenin and for old vines.
- 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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