Tim James: The rise of terroir-based varietal ranges in the Cape – notably chenin
By Tim James, 4 September 2023
Writing recently about such matters as winery size and appellation size, I made the hardly original, but I think important, point that the great model for ambitious new-wave winemakers in South Africa is not Bordeaux – as it was here when the concept of the estate was paramount; rather it is “tiny-parcelled Burgundy (and Germany), where terroir is the mantra”.
An inevitable consequence of this is that some such producers are now offering different versions of wines made from the same grape, vinified pretty well identically, but relying for difference on the origins of the fruit. Makers of the great burgundian varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, have of course been drawn to this idea: Storm, Crystallum, Iona, Oak Valley and Richard Kershaw come immediately to mind. The last two of those producers also introduce clonal differerences – making the game even more interesting for wine lovers, and, I confess, sometimes despairingly complicated for a critic trying to write notes adequately discriminating between them all and getting tangled up in the nomenclature quite apart from the aromas flavours and structures.
There are other bases for having more than one example of a grape in your range – possibly vineyard quality or vine age, as for the lower priced pinot and chardonnay from Paul Clüver, or barrel selection or different cellar treatments, as in Creation’s four pinots. Two of Capensis’s three chards are also not terroir-based. But I’m thinking here of terroir, when the winemaker takes grapes from areas with different mesoclimates, soils, slopes or whatever, and make wines from them in the same way.
And it’s not done only with the Burgundian varieties. Diemersdal, for example, has at least half a dozen sauvignon blancs, though that largely involves winemaking differences; Klein Constantia also has up to that many, involving terroir and winemaking differences. Richard Kershaw does his Deconstructed thing also with syrah, and the Mullineux have rather brilliantly established a prestigious market for their range of syrahs from distinctive soil types (now largely merging with the concept of single vineyard origins).
More pertinent to my present focus, Mullineux has similarly done so with chenin blanc, and have four such examples. (I checked with Andrea about the current absence of the Quartz version alongside, Shale, Granite and Schist; she says that version was temporarily withdraw as “it presented a fresh yet textural component that was super-important to keep in the Old Vines White” – showing splendidly the priorities at this cellar, in defiance of the common misconception that the blended wines are somehow less important.)
It’s no coincidence that, in fact, there are now surely more multiple-terroir offerings of chenin in the Cape (and especially involving the Swartland) than of any other variety, given chenin’s wide planting and the large number of mature (“old”) vineyards. Many come from some of the best-known of the new-wave wineries. Alheit has six bottlings (if you include Cartology with its splash of semillon; quite widely sourced); David & Nadia also has six (including a CWG Auction wine, four of them single Swartland vineyards); so too does Badenhorst (excluding Secateurs; all single vineyards on the home farm), though they’re seldom all available.
Six is perhaps a magic number for chenin bottlings, as that’s also how many are offered (I think!) by a probably less-known label: Roodekrantz. This splendid and growing range of wines was established by the Burgers of Roodekrantz farm and the Morkels of Diemerskraal about a decade ago to save the grapes of fine old vineyards from the vast blending vats of big brands. All the chenins are from registered Heritage Vineyards in Swartand, Paarl and Stellenbosch. All are elegant, refined and characterful, each with its own personality. They’re not all the same quality, perhaps (some vineyards are undoubtedly better than others), but all are at least good and recommendable, some excellent. And at prices vastly lower than the fancier names demand. Worth looking for.
There’s one aspect that occurs to me, though it’s not exactly troubling. When I wrote recently about the latest Sadie releases, including the new Rotsbank chenin, I remarked that the good news about the three chenins now available, “is that they are not only all good, but really distinct – something that doesn’t always apply when producers offer more than one chenin”. It might of course just be my inadequacy, but when I taste the amazing range of David & Nadia single-vineyard chenins – all of them superb, mostly from vineyards not all that distant from one another, nearly all made identically and with very close technical analysis – the differences tend to be subtle. As with the Badenhorst, if I sit down to compare them, I can revel in those subtleties. But spin me around and re-arrange the bottles, I’d mostly have trouble re-assigning them to their places, even helped by my notes.
I partly make that point to suggest that if a chenin-lover can’t find all the David & Nadia chenins, or can’t afford them all at about R900 per bottle (as overwhelmingly most of us can’t), you’re not going to lose out all that much by having just one (except in terms of desirable volume, of course). Whereas I think most people will have more definite favourites amongst, say, the Sadie, Alheit, or Roodekrantz ranges. (And I’m scratching my head wondering if I’ve left out any more larger ranges of chenin – please comment, if you know of others that I don’t or have forgotten about.)
The rise of all these terroir ranges for different varieties in the Cape is a splendid thing, and testament to the ever-developing maturity off the fine-wine industry here. A pity they tend to be so pricey – but, inevitably, they’re made in small quantities, and by cultish producers; they are nonetheless to be welcomed and encouraged. I have no doubt, in fact, that there will be more.
- 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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