Ugly ducklings, swans and Chenin Blanc

By , 12 October 2012



“Is it really possible to sell Chenin at R195 a bottle?” asked Tinus Els, cellarmaster of L’Avenir of Wendy Appelbaum, owner of DeMorgenzon at the “Summer Chenin Showcase” put on by the Chenin Blanc Association yesterday. 22 wines in a variety of styles including the DeMorgenzon Reserve 2006, with a suggested price of, yes, five rand less than R200 a bottle. And I’m quite sure it does sell at that price if you get enough critical endorsement behind it – 5 Stars for the maiden vintage in Platter’s 2007, a place in US magazine Wine Spectator’s Top 100 for the 2009. Are people buying Chenin or are they buying the ratings and the DeMorgenzon name though?

Another way to achieve the premiumisation of Chenin is to add some Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Semillon, Palomino and “some lesser grapes” and call it Palladius. Then you can charge R426.59 a bottle.

Somewhat less extreme is to make your wine from 100% Chenin Blanc but leave any reference to the variety off the front label and instead name it after your grandmother Hope Marguerite, which will allow you to sell your wine for R150 a bottle. Ken Forrester, of course, has got this really right – The FMC stopped being expensive Chenin and became a cult wine a long time ago.

There is money to be made at lower levels of the market – Kleine Zalze make 120 000 litres of its Cellar Selection Bush Vine Chenin and sell it for R37 a bottle. The wine totally over-delivers in terms of quality relative to price and here it’s a case of small margins, big volumes. Mulderbosch are even more bullish about middle market Chenin – production of Steen op Hout is pitched at 30 000 cases a year and the aim being to sell it for $16 a bottle in the US.

The question remains however: why does the consumer not engage with Chenin past a certain price point? The first flight yesterday included Slanghoek 2012, Riebeek 2012, Windmeul 2012, Perdeberg 2012, MAN Vintners 2012 and Bellingham Citrus Grove 2012, the wines ranging in price from R27 to R45 a bottle. The wines were all perfectly likeable if rather straightforward – clean and fresh and relatively low in alcohol. Good for Chenin, you might say. I would counter that it’s utterly irrelevant that they are made out of Chenin (there are plenty of wines made from Colombar or Sauvignon Blanc with an interchangeable flavour profile) and these are commodity wines aimed at the sort of consumer with no intereste in varietal typicity or provenance.

You don’t have to trade up terribly much and Chenin becomes a whole different ball game. Much, much more complexity for relatively very little extra money (favourites from yesterday where the Beaumont 2012 at R69 a bottle, the Raats Original 2011 at R85 and the Stellenrust 2012 at R40).

But this is precisely where the problem for Chenin lies. Because it’s relatively flavour neutral compared to Sauvignon Blanc, it depends a lot on winemaking technique (the inclusion of botrytised fruit, pre-fermentation skin contact and post fermentation time on lees) and this is precisely where most consumers get left behind. Average Joe is going to prefer the easy-to-understand primary fruit of Sauvignon than the difficult-to-understand secondary character of Chenin. Lime, grapefruit, granadilla and pineapple over bee’s wax and wet wool, please.

Much debate within the Chenin Blanc Association about how to communicate effectively to the consumer about the different styles of Chenin but I increasingly believe it’s not about intrinsics. It’s about extrinsics. Chenin simply isn’t sexy and obsessing about breaking it down into ever-smaller stylistic categories (“Fresh and fruity”, “Rich and ripe, unwooded”, “Rich and ripe, wooded”) isn’t going to make it so. Chenin needs an image makeover and crucial to that is the introduction of the fun factor.


2 comment(s)

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    Dieter | 12 October 2012

    Chenin’s image problem is not uniquely South African. My observation is that most big/chain wine retailers in (non-producing) northern Europe have shelves roughly divided into units representing the major French regions, some Italian regions and the rest world by country. Nine times out of ten, white wines from the Loire are represented by the upper Loire (Sauvignon) appellations and an obligatory Muscadet (the default mussels wine). Now and again, the odd bottle of co-operative Vouvray demi-sec features but for decent examples of Chenin you need to go to specialist shops and the odds are you’ll only encounter the big names like Huet and Baumard, and if your lucky one or two Cape bottlings. The top,

    whether French or South African, never stretch beyond a €20-€25. (The stickies are a different matter). I can’t figure out whether the grape has a bad reputation thanks to the horrid supermarket demi-secs (á la Blue Nun) or whether it’s simply not known and therefor not popular. Increasingly complex categories and classifications also don’t help. The CBA

    only has to look at how impossible the complex Anjou appellations have made choices for consumers, and around Tours and Saumur the appellations are straightforward village names, but the difference between sec and demi-sec is often theoretical. Personally I would like to be able to tell from the price how much ‘winemaking’ the wine has seen and how

    complex I should expect it, but definitely a perceived sweetness indicator.

    Kwispedoor | 12 October 2012

    I fail to see the point of the stylistic categories. People who know wine, know what’s up with chenin. Those consumers that just drink the stuff, have never heard of the Chenin Blanc Association, much less their elusive and controversial categories. It’s not practical.

    BUT WE ALL LOOK AT WINES’ LABELS. You don’t critically need too much extra info on a sauvignon blanc label – 97% of the time it’s going to be a dry unwooded white. With chardonnay, producers have realized that you need to indicate on your label if the wine is unwooded (most people expect chardonnay to be wooded, but they will mostly want to specifically seek out or avoid the unwooded versions). With chenin, the biggest two issues dividing and confusing consumers are residual sugar and wood treatment. It would go a loooooooooooong way towards educating consumers, improving sales and moving Chenin forward if the Chenin Blanc Association will drop the stylistic categories and concentrate their efforts towards getting producers to indicate sugar levels (categories would be helpful in this instance) and wood treatment (categories here would be trickier if one moves beyond the mere wooded vs. unwooded, but helpful either way) on their front labels. More intricate details can go on the back label, if producers are inclined to reveal more.

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