Tim James: Uniting around Chenin Blanc
By Tim James, 6 November 2023
Last Friday evening there was a strong American flavour to the platform line-up in an old building in Saldanha, on the Cape’s West Coast. The venue for the occasion was an old filling-station that Adi Badenhorst is renovating and developing for his Saldanha Wine & Spirit Co (giving sea air for the maturation of his sherries, apart from anything else). And what was happening was the second edition of The Swartland Gospel – heir to the famous old Swartland Revolution happenings of some years back. The Friday event was to be followed on the Saturday by the Swartland Wine & Olive Route Seaside Party, featuring a whole array of Swartland wine producers.
The main focus on Friday was Teagan Passalacqua, head winemaker of famous Turley Wine Cellars in California. He also, more to our purpose, has his own new-wave Sandlands project, making wine from old vineyards (some extremely old) that “harken back to California’s roots of exploration, wonder, and hard work” says the website. So you can immediately see the connection with the modern Swartland. And Teagan is no stranger to the area. I first met him back in 2011 when he came out to work the harvest with Eben Sadie – the start of a strong connection with the country, particularly the Swartland.
Also on the platform, as discussants along with Adi Badenhorst, were California-born Andrea Mullineux and local guy Graham Weerts, who has spent many years working for Jackson Family Wines and now also makes chardonnay for the US-owned Capensis Wine in the Cape.
I’m not going to discuss the eight splendidly fresh, elegantly charming and deeply expressive Sandlands wines he showed, but only mention one of them, the 2021 Amador Chenin Blanc, from a 1979 vineyard. There used to be considerable plantings of chenin in California, but the variety was perhaps even less valued there – a mere workhorse variety – than in South Africa, and swathes of the vineyards have been lost (partly to the demands of white zinfandel, partly to chardonnay). It seems that few old vineyards like the one used by Sandlands survive, which would undoubtedly forestall any really significant chenin revival similar to that which has been so signal a part of both the Swartland quality wine revolution and the wider South African one.
Elements of revival are clearly there, however, with more winemakers seeking out any remaining fine chenin vineyards to make serious wines like this Sandlands, and there are even some ambitious new plantings, it seems. Teagan is obviously significant in this, and no doubt Andrea Mullineux too (she’s made some Californian chenins). Andrea told me of the importance of the example of top South African chenin for this small Californian renaissance.
But if South African chenin blanc is helping to build vinous links with California, it’s even more significant in relation to France and the great historic home of chenin in the central Loire Valley. As a sign of this connection, in the enthusiastic audience on Friday evening were two notable vignerons from Vouvray: Benjamin Joliveau, winemaker at the great Domaine Huet, and Vincent Carême, who set up his own domaine in 1999 – with his South African-born wife, Tania, whom he met while working harvests in the Cape from 1997 to 2000. He’s gained a great reputation for his Vouvray wine and as helping to bring new energy to the region. Both Benjamin and Vincent presented their wines at past Swartland Revolution events – and Vincent comes out here every year to make his own two Swartland wines for the Terre Brulée label (Le Blanc of course from chenin, Le Rouge a syrah-cinsault blend): no doubt, bottling time in November is useful for catching up with events like this one.
More than anyone else, Eben Sadie tells me, it is Vincent who, apart from so personifying the Cape-France connection, has encouraged and helped develop the links between the world’s two great chenin-producing regions – especially through bringing French vignerons here and welcoming their South African counterparts there. And that’s not to diminish the indispensible role of the tireless Chenin Blanc Association. The Chenin Blanc International Congress can no doubt be seen as a fruit of this internationalism (the second congress was held in Stellenbosch in 2022; the first, in 2019, and the forthcoming 2024 edition is in Angers). There’s no equivalent strong link of mutual warmth and respect, I think, between other varieties or styles in South Africa and the European wine homeland.
Working together to build the international reputation of chenin – with its ability to produce truly fine wines in a range of styles that perhaps only riesling can match – is no doubt the crucial thing. I daresay one of the reasons why South African and Loire producers can get on so well together is that the wines they make are essentially different, complementary rather than competing. But there is something really special and exciting about this reaching across borders and language barriers. It was a part of the great atmosphere last Friday in out of the way Saldanha, with fine Californian wines as the focus, including a chenin blanc, and Americans and Frenchmen, as well as a host of geat Cape producers (few from beyond the Swartland, sadly), and of course a crowd of happy wine lovers, gathered together.
- 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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