Well-made Chenin Blanc is a delight to drink. The Loire Valley and South Africa both produce superb Chenin Blanc of three different styles:  unoaked and fresh;  oaked with rich layers of marmalade, honey, and peach; and  sweet with the complexity of botrytis and dried apricots. We review the wonderful Chenins of the Loire in our recently released Report 22 Wines of the Western Loire. On May 11 we had the opportunity to taste equally superb examples from South Africa at the Great South African Wine Show held in lower Manhattan. The event was sponsored by Wines of South Africa (WOSA].
Ken Forrester of Ken Forrester Wines, Sean Griffiths of Kanu, and Andre Shearer of Cape Classics presented South African wines representative of the three styles noted above. The Mediterranean climate and ancient decomposed dolomite granite and Table Mountain sandstone soils of the South African Western Cape produce wines more fruit driven and higher in alcohol than those of the Loire but equally well-balanced with excellent acidity. As is true in the Loire, the oaked Chenin Blanc of South Africa generally improves with a couple of years in bottle.
The connection between the Loire and the Cape is no accident. The Dutch played a major role in marketing the wines of the Loire, and they also sailed around the Cape, bringing Chenin Blanc with them as early as 1655. Today, South Africa produces about twice as much Chenin Blanc as the Loire, and it’s South Africa’s single most widely planted varietal.
With the guidance of Messrs. Forrester, Griffiths and Shearer we tasted six wines. Our tasting notes are given below. All the wines are made from old bush vines, which are uniquely well suited to the Cape’s brisk winds. Coincidentally, two days later we had lunch with Zakkie Bester, cellarmaster for Riebeek Cellars, and tasted the Chenin Blanc he exports to the US under the Royal brand name; our review of that wine is also included here. All the wineries producing the wines tasted here are members of the Chenin Blanc Association [www.chenin.co.za].
Unoaked Chenin Blanc
Raats Family Wines 2009 “Original” Chenin Blanc Coastal Region ($13) 88
This unwooded Chenin Blanc is made in the fresh and fruity style with citrus, honeysuckle and mango aromas carrying over to a velvety smooth palate with lively acidity on the finish. See our earlier review of this wine tasted at the winery near Stellenbosch: http://i-winereview.blogspot.com/2010/04/raats-wine-loire-in-stellenbosch.html
Riebeek Cellars 2009 The Royal Chenin Blanc Swartland ($10) 88
Another unwooded Chenin Blanc, this full-flavored wine is made from 48 year old vines in the Swartland wine growing region. It shows a very good concentration of ripe stone fruit with honeyed notes and nice balancing acidity. A surprisingly good wine for the price!
Oaked Chenin Blanc
Mulderbosch 2009 Chenin Blanc Western Cape ($14) 89
First produced in 1996, this was one of the first premium Chenins produced in the Cape. It shows minerals, honeysuckle, and coconut on the nose and high toned stone fruit and light toast on the palate. The texture is lush with good acidity. About 30 percent of the wine is aged six months in American and French oak. A really delicious wine for the price!
De Morgenzon 2008 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($30) 91
This dark yellow straw wine is superb! Smoke, honey, toasted oak and apricot show on the nose, and there’s a dry attack boasting rich flavors of hazelnut and stone fruit with caramel notes on the finish. This wine is made only from free run juice, and it’s fermented in oak using natural yeasts and then spends eight months in oak, 40 percent new. Very good value, even at this price.
Rudera 2008 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($15) 90
This dark yellow straw wine is rich, lush, and made to be slowly savored. Plus, it’s a steal at $15 per bottle. The nose shows notes of dulce de leche, lemon, and orange marmalade. There’s a lush attack, a richly textured mouthfeel, and lovely nut and caramel notes on the palate.
Forrester Meinert Chenin (FMC) 2007 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($65) 92
Smoke, honey and minerals on the bouquet give way to a concentrated, rich palate of hazelnut and dried apricot with a touch of botrytis. Produced from the fruit of low-yielding, (2t/ha) old bush vines. The harvest consists of six tries or pickings to ensure ripeness and contribute complexity. Fermented in new oak with native yeast and matured on the lees for twelve months. This is a gorgeous wine that is consistently one of the best produced in South Africa.
De Trafford 2004 Straw Wine Stellenbosch ($47) 91
The gold bronze De Trafford Straw Wine shows marmalade and dried apricot on the nose, followed by a rich and unctuous palate. Produced from grapes dried on racks under oak trees and then pressed to yield a concentrated and unctuous liqueur of raisined grapes. South Africa now produces several Straw Wines, and this is one of the best.
South Africa also makes delicious late harvest botrytis dessert winesIfrom Chenin Blanc. One that is especially good is the Kanu 2004 Kia-Ora Noble Late Harvest, A blend of Chenin Blanc 93%) and Harslevelu (7%) , it is aged 14 months in 60 percent new French oak. It offers dried apricot and honeyed peach on the nose and palate and a very long, off-dry finish. Perfectly integrated fruit and oak and a lovely balance of sweetness and acidity, this wine competes with the world’s best dessert wines. The 2006 is the current vintage, but our experience suggests that a couple years further aging can only add to the complexity and harmony of the wine.