Top Chenin Blancs from South Africa

Old Bush Vines in Darling: The Old Vine Project

Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most widely planted grape, and it makes some of the country’s most distinguished wines, including the ones reviewed below. Many of the best ones come from old vines, some very old. Rosa Kruger, whom we interviewed in Adi Badenhorst’s vineyard for the International Wine Review YouTubechannel a couple of years ago, is the force behind the Old Vine Project that aims to preserve these old, dry farmed bush vines. Farmers can afford to maintain these very low yielding vineyards only if they receive prices commensurate with the quality of the fruit. Our reviews of South Africa’s top Chenin Blancs, most from old vines, shows these wines are the equal in quality to the best white wines made anywhere in the world and should be valued accordingly. Hopefully, consumers and commercial wineries will realize this before it’s too late.

Rosa Kruger

Most premium quality Chenin Blanc is grown in Stellenbosch and Swartland, but it’s also grown as far north as Lutzville on Olifants River and as far east as Malgas, located to the east of Cape Agulhas.  This area covers many different climates, ranging from the cool coastal areas of Walker Bay and high altitudes of Cederberg (1000+ m) and Piekenierskloof (as high as 750 m) to much lower (e.g., Walker Bay/Bot River) and wamer (e.g., Paarl) areas. Soils also vary widely, from sandy soils to decomposed granite, slate, and other soils.  For more on South Africa Chenin Blanc, its history, where its grown, and how its grown, see our special report on South African Chenin Blanc and the many articles on South African wine we’ve published on our blog, including the recently published one on the Chenin Blancs of Breedekloof.

Most of the wines reviewed here are from the 2017 and 2018 vintages. These are the last two years of the Western Cape’s extended drought.  The drought and heat reduced yields, thickened skins, and brought about early harvests. Amazingly enough, and thanks to creative winemaking, the quality of Chenin Blanc produced remained very high during the drought. In some cases acidity was reduced, but growers picked earlier and changed winemaking to retain freshness and elegance in the wines.

We find four principal styles of South African Chenin Blanc table wines. The first is fresh and fruity, often with citrus aromas and flavors and bright acidity and always unwooded; these wines are inexpensive, usually $10-$15 in the US market. Ken Forrester’s Petit Chenin Blanc, which is in this style, is widely available. The second style exhibits rich aromas and flavors, often of stone fruit, and a suave texture derived from battonage and time in neutral oak barriques; these wines are a little more expensive in general, usually in the $15-$20 range.  The Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc is a good example of the style and is well distributed in the US. The third style is generously oaked wines that are usually rich in ripe, sometimes honeyed fruit, often accompanied by minerals, herbs and even saline components; the DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc is a good example.  These wines are usually $25 and above in price. The fourth style: The most special Chenin Blancs, we find, are the old vine, single vineyard wines, which are usually judiciously oaked and elegant. Because they’re made from very low yielding vineyards, these wines can be $35 and above in price.  Good examples of this style include the Raats Eden High Density Chenin Blanc, the Sadie Family Skerpioen, the Keermont Riverside Chenin Blanc, and the Thistle & Weed Brandnetel.

Stellenbosch University has come up with a Chenin Blanc aroma wheel (see below) that helps describe the diversity of Chenin styles.  This diversity poses a marketing challenge as consumers may not know what to expect from a bottle of Chenin Blanc.

The reviews below from wines tasted in early 2019 cover just a portion of the great Chenin producers of South Africa.  Thanks to Ana Ines and the Chenin Blanc Association for assembling many of these wines and thanks, also, to Mike Bampfield Duggan of Wine Concepts for generously sharing his Chenin Blanc discoveries. Time did not permit more extensive tasting, so important wineries  that previous tastings have shown to produce outstanding Chenin are not included in this article. We promise to give them priority in followup tastings later in the year.

The Wines

A.A. Badenhorst 2017 The Golden Slopes Chenin Blanc Swartland 93  Taut and tense, this is a Chenin of impressive purity and delineation showing notes of lychee, guava and dried honey complemented by firm lemon acidity. Long, focused finish. From a single vineyard of yellow granite soil planted in 1966.  A.A. Badenhorst 2017 Piet Bok Se Bos Steen 92  Sourced from vines planted in 1968, the grapes of Piet Bok Se Bos were previously blended into the Secateurs Chenin Blanc. The wine reveals yellow cling peach, beeswax, almond and chamomile aromas and flavors. Wonderful, creamy texture accompanied by firm acidity. US Importer: Broadbent

B Vintners 2016 Haarlem to Hope Stellenbosch 91 Showing scents of guava, pear and cling peach on the nose, this is fruity Chenin with notes of stone fruit, lemon meringue, and almonds on the palate.  It shows nice firm acidity and a long finish.  A blend of 69% Chenin Blanc, 26% Semillon, 3% Muscat de Frontignan, and 2% Muscat d’Alexandria; the Chenin Blanc  fermented with ambient yeast in 300L and 500L French oak after which it was aged 10 months in oak.  US Importer: Cape Classics

Beaumont 2018 Chenin Blanc Bot River 89 Fermented and aged in stainless steel, Beaumont’s entry level Chenin is a welcome fresh, crisp alternative to Sauvignon Blanc for pairing with fish and other light dishes. Quince and lime zest notes run through this wine from the first fragrance to the final aftertaste.Beaumont 2017 Hope Marguerite Bot River 92   Sebastian Beaumont knows how to make Chenin Blanc that is rich but elegant with a deft oak regime that perfectly integrates rich citrus, honeycomb and stone fruit aromas and flavors with lightly honeyed, ever so slightly smoky oak.  A gorgeous wine that’s, oh, so easy to drink. Sourced from estate vineyards planted in 1974 and 1978 and fermented using ambient yeast in 400L French oak (22% new) and no malo. Kept on the lees for 10 months with regular battonage.  Beaumont 2018 Hope Marguerite Bot River 93  Like the 2017 vintage, fermented and matured in French oak. Lifted citrus and quince aromas give way to riper, guava, tangerine peel and a hint of ginger on the palate. Dense yet refined with perfectly integrated oak. Drinking superbly right now. If you can find it in magnum, set it aside in the cellar for at least a couple of years. Beaumont 2017 New Baby Bot River 92  A Chenin Blanc led blend that includes Sauvignon Blanc and a mélange of other varieties, naturally fermented and oak-matured. Bright and crisp on entry with rich fruit and a hint of smoky oak. Complex palate and long rich finish.  US Importer: Broadbent

Bellingham 2010 Bernard Chenin Blanc 94   Green gold. This 2010 vintage bottling shows how beautifully Chenin can age. Made from old vines up to 55 years of age and aged a minimum of 9 months in barrel, it reveals vibrant mango and beeswax on the nose and offers multiple layers of generous flavors on a succulent, tropical palate. Excellent freshness underpinned by remarkable juicy acidity.

Deetlefs 2017 Reserve Chenin Blanc  92  Flint, honeysuckle, and peach scents give way to densely flavored palate with a firm backbone and fresh acidity. It all comes together in this opulent and expressive wine. Made from vines planted in 1987 and 1993 and fermented in barrel (22% in new 500L) and a small amount fermented in concrete egg.  4% Viognier blended in, half skin fermented and half oxidized. Ferdi Visser makes the wine.

Delheim 2017 Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 91 A superb example of a Chenin Blanc partly matured (30%) in used French oak, giving the wine a pleasing fatness without noticeable oak flavors. Finely delineated, dense guava, peach, and cured lemon on a broad, full palate with vibrant freshness.

DeMorgenzon 2017 Chenin Blanc Reserve Stellenbosch 92  This is a rich, well oaked, extroverted Chenin that exudes rich aromas and flavors of ripe stonefruit, honeyed roasted nuts, and smoky minerals. It’s full and creamy on the palate with good lemony acidity and a lovely, long finish. Sourced from low yielding 45 year old vines entertained with Baroque music during the growing season. Picked in three separate passes, pressed whole bunch, and fermented with ambient yeasts in 20% new French oak barrels and aged on the lees in barrel for 10 months without battonage and soothed with Baroque music. The winemaker is Carl van der Merwe.  US Importer: Cape Classics

Indaba 2017 Chenin Blanc Western Cape 88 Bruwer Raats , one of South Africa’s top Chenin Blanc winemakers, is the man behind this easy drinking wine.  Sourced from vineyards throughout the Western Cape, it’s fermented and aged in stainless steel, which gives the wine a fresh, clean character.  Pear, apple, and a hint of tropical fruit show on the nose and are mirrored on the medium weight palate. Impressive length and richness on the finish for a wine this inexpensive. US Importer: Cape Classics

Keermont Vineyard in the Blaauwklippen Valley

Keermont 2016 Terrasse Stellenbosch ($27) 91 Always a crowd pleaser, the Terrasse shows very appealing white stone fruit, lemon curd and floral scents. Softly textured with good backbone and firm acidity complementing riper stone fruit and citrus flavors. A blend of 39% Chenin Blanc, 34% Sauvignon blanc, 14% Viognier and 13% Chardonnay fermented and aged in used 500L barrels for 12 months. Lees stirred only during fermentation then left to sit on the lees.13% alc. Keermont 2017 Riverside Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 93 Subtle bouquet of orange blossom, cling peach, and beeswax. Taut and focused, revealing dried orange peel and apricot pit on a dense, mineral like palate. Sourced from the oldest vineyard on the farm, planted in 1971-2, it’s a selection of the best 500L barrels. About 250 cs produced. 13.5% alc. US Importer: Kysela

Ken Forrester 2017 The FMC (Forrester Meinert Chenin) Stellenbosch 94  Made from very low yielding (3 tons/ha) bush vines, harvested by hand in several passes, naturally fermented in 400L new French oak and matured for 12 months in oak, 40% new. An outrageously rich and richly textured wine showing notes of jasmine, honeycomb, acacia, lemon curd and clementine with a lanolin like texture, fresh acidity, and a firm backbone. It’s really a shame to drink this wine young; it will simply become more expressive and lush with additional years in the bottle.  Ken Forrester Dirty Little Secret Two Piekenierskloof 93 Yellow gold straw. Honeycomb, peach and herbal scents.  Excellent concentration on a mineral inflected palate with peach and dried apricot flavors complemented by tangerine, brioche and herbal notes. Firm backbone, medium acidity, and rich extract on a prolonged, dry finish. While delicious now, this wine offers much, much more with additional bottle aging. Sourced from very old, dry farmed, self rooted, gobelet style vines planted in the Piekenierskloof in 1965.  Ken Forrester’s take on natural wine, made with extended soaking on skins and stalks before pressing in barrels with  ambient yeast and malo and matured 5 months is neutral 400L French barrels. (No vintage date on the label.)  Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 91  Light yellow straw. A superbly balanced, delicious wine made from a mix of bush and trellised vines grown on decomposed granite soils and aged with 27 percent new oak. It’s complex and ripe with stone fruit and lemon curd notes on a nicely weighted, creamy palateUS Importer: USA Wine Imports

Klein Zalze 2018 Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc Vineyard Selection 89  Pleasant bouquet of quince and melon that’s mirrored on an easy drinking, nicely delineated palate. Finished clean and fruity. Fermented and aged  in neutral oak for 6 months. Klein Zalze 2017 Family Reserve Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 91 A harmonious wine, beautifully integrated with a nice chewy depth of flavor and a subtle touch of sweetness.  Impressive persistence of minerals and fruit. Old (40+ years) dry farmed bush vine fruit fermented and matured in 400L French oak for 8 months.

L’Avenir 2018 Provenance Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 89  Pale straw. Made in a fresh, youthful style, there’s nice cling peach and melon fruit with bright notes of lime-like acidity.  Vivacious fruit flavors linger on the palate.  Fruit from both young and 40+ year old bush vines; average age 19 years. Fermented in stainless steel and half matured in used oak barrels for 9 months. L’Avenir 2017 Block 30 Single Block Chenin Blanc Stellinbosch 92   Made from 45 year old vines planted by Marc Wiehe, the founder of L’Avenir.  Honeyed peach and honeysuckle aromas give way to a full-flavored, beautifully balanced wine showing vibrant apricot and mango fruit complemented by well integrated toasty oak.  Show considerable finesse and outstanding length.  US Importer: Taub Family Selections

Lubanzi 2018 Chenin Blanc Swartland 90+  Pale straw. This is an easily approachable wine with flowers and minerals and a touch of citrus on the nose and white and yellow stone fruit on the palate, enlivened by invigorating acidity.  Made from a mix of dry farmed bush vines and younger, drip irrigated vines. Available in 750 ml bottles and 375 ml cans. US Importer: Lubanzi Wines

Luddite 2017 Saboteur Overburg  90  An unusual 77% Chenin Blanc blend with Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc partners aged in barrel for 6 months. Appealing nectarine and almond nose. Firmly textured with full flavors and an appealing mineral like character. Good extract on the finish.

Michaella 2017 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch/Paarl 92  Beautiful texture and balance. Vibrant fresh yellow stone fruit, wet gravel, and a perfumed gardenia scent appear on the bouquet and are mirrored on a sensuous, silky full flavored palate with good balancing acidity and perfectly integrated lightly toasted oak.  Fruit from trellised bush vines planted in 1971. Fermentation begun in stainless steel and finished in large format oak barrels where it is further aged on the lees.

Mulderbosch 2017 Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout Western Cape 89 Light yellow straw. Restrained aromas of stone fruit tropical nuances are mirrored on the palate. This is a bright, brisk wine with expressive fruit complemented by juicy acidity. Sourced from Stellenbosch and Darling old vines (60% > 30 years), fermented in stainless steel and 28% matured 6 months in used oak.  US Importer: V2 Wine Group

Opstal 2017 Carl Everson Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc Slanghoek 93 Highly complex, perfumed bouquet of yellow flowers, acacia, peach and beeswax. Soft on entry and creamy smooth palate with well integrated stone fruit, marzipan, and honeycomb.  Acidity gracefully supersedes sweet fruit on a prolonged finish.  From a 1982 single vineyard that’s part of the Old Vine Project; spontaneously fermented in barrel over a 4 month period and aged another 6 months in large format French oak barrels.  Attie Louw is the winemaker.

Raats 2018 Original Chenin Blanc Unwooded Stellenbosch 90Vibrant kiwi and quince on the nose are joined by hints of starfruit, tangerine peel and oyster shell flavors. A lovely, fresh and vibrant wine. Sourced from a single vineyard with an average age of 35 years with grapes picked 3 times over 4 weeks to add complexity. Aged on the lees for 6 months.  Raats 2017 Old Vine Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 91A beautifully made wine with edgy acidity, rich breadth, and judicious oaking. White peach with hints of flint and tropical fruit show on the nose, leading to a flavorful palate with a tense interplay between fruit and acidity. Sourced from old vines (average age 40+ years) grown on a single vineyard parcel of decomposed dolomite granite and sandstone.  50% fermented and matured in 300L French oak and blended with 50% in stainless after 9 months.  Raats 2014 High Density Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 94  A beautifully crafted wine by Bruwer Raats and Gavin Bruwer Slabbert, this single vineyard, old vine Chenin offers succulent stone fruit melded with honeyed toasted oak aromas and flavors. It’s silky and pure on the palate with notes of optimally ripened summer peach, passion fruit, mandarin, and a touch of toasted almonds.  Outstanding Chenin Blanc. Sourced from three Stellenbosch vineyards with vines 45+ years of age and planted on decomposed granite and sandstone. 30% of the wine fermented and matured in 300L French oak for 9 months after which the oak and stainless portions are blended and left on the lees an additional two months.  The winemakers are Bruwer Raats and Gavin Bruwer Slabbert.  US Importer: Cape Classics

Sadie Family 2017 Skerpioen Swartland 93  Beginning with an herbal, almond and pear nose, this is a field blend of 80 year old dry farmed Chenin Blanc and Palomino grown on sandy soils just 1 km from the sea. It has a focused, pure palate with saline and oyster shell notes. The Palomino and Chenin Blanc grapes are co-fermented in old casks with aging half in concrete egg and half in the casks.Sadie Family 2017 Skurfberg Olifants River 94  Made from dry farmed , 80+ year old Chenin Blanc from Citrusdal Mountain, the Skurfberg is an elegant, mineral laden wine, perfectly balanced with white stone fruit complemented by savory herb notes and fine acidity. Fermented and matured in old foudres.  Give this one a little more time. Eben Sadie is the winemaker. US Importer: Broadbent

Spioenkop 2017 Johanna Brandt Chenin Blanc Elgin 91 Fermented and aged one year in oak, the Spioenkop Chenin Blanc retains a crisp, fresh personality. Full ripe flavors of stone fruit are complemented by bright acidity.

Stofberg Estate 2017 Chenin Blanc Breedekloof 89 A very appealing wine with emphatic lemon zest and flint like notes on the nose. The palate is full and round and densely flavored with just enough balancing acidity to keep the wine bright and lively. Finishes with good persistence.  Just the right amount of oaking, too. Sourced from 30 year old vines grown on sandy loam alluvial soils and fermented in lined concrete tanks. After 2 months lees contact, wines from free-run and pressed juice are blended and aged 4 months in 225L French barriques for 4 months.  Pieter Stofberg is the winemaker.

Stofberg Family Vineyards 2017 Mariëtte Chenin Blanc Breedekloof 91 Honeysuckle and toasted hazelnut scents give way to a bright attack of lemon curd and fresh apricot.  Richly oaked but well integrated on the palate and densely flavored with scintillating citrus acidity and a long, lingering finish. Very well done. From 34 year old vines grown on rocky sandstone soils, hand picked, 40% whole bunch pressed and fermented in 225L barrels, 20% new.  Mariëtte Stofberg Coetzee is the winemaker.

Terre Brûlée 2018 Le Blanc Swartland 89   Made from hand harvested, old vine (40+ years) Chenin Blanc grown in decomposed sandstone soils, Le Blanc is made in an attractive, easily accessible style with citrus and white stone fruit complemented by floral notes. The 2018 vintage is particularly fresh. Terre Brûlée is the South African project of Vincent Carême of the Loire Valley, and the 2018 vintage is his fifth.  US Importer: Cape Classics

Thistle & Weed 2017 Brandnetel Chenin Blanc  92    Minerals, cling peach, and stone fruit pits describe this wine and its appealing chalky texture in the mouth. The wine is dense yet understated with excellent focus and length and just a hint of salinity.  Made by Stephanie Wiid of Thistle & Weed and viticultural consultant Etienne Terblanche from a 0.3 ha trial vineyard planted in the granite based foothiils of Simonsberg Mountain in 1980. Whole bunch pressed and naturally fermented in old barrels and 50% matured in tank, 50% in barrel for 8 months. Alc 12.5%

Tierhoek 2015 Chenin Blanc Piekenierskloof 90 Medium yellow. Intriguing almond, acacia and white peach scents. Creamy palate showing hints of tropical fruit with excellent balance, finishing with mineral notes and rich fruit extract. An impressive wine.  From high altitude, 37 year old vines grown close to the cold Atlantic. Roger Burton is the winemaker with Basie Snyers. Tierhoek NV Chenin Blanc Straw Wine Piekenierskloof 90  This non vintage straw wine is made solera style. It’s a viscous, syrupy wine with layered, rich flavors of apricot, dried peach, and honeycomb with hints of orange marmalade. Made from 40 year old vines and matured in solera.  US Importer: Verity Wine Partners

 

 

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