Making a case for versatile Chenin

© Cape Times Friday 22nd July 2016

Okay, come on – ‘fess up. When was the last time you drank a Chenin Blanc?? Chances are that you’re either going to say “last night” (you hipster trendsetter you) or, more likely, “fifteen years ago at ‘varsity when I couldn’t afford anything else”.  Despite so many people’s best efforts, it seems our best asset is still lagging behind the bucketloads of yawn-making Sauvignon Blanc when it comes to choosing our daily tipple. Should we just give up and resign ourselves to a lifetime of teeth-searing acidic Sauvvies? Hell no. Should I join the ranks of those putting the case for Chenin and explaining why we should drink more of it? Hell yeah, why not?

“You see, the problem with Chenin Blanc is its diversity” as all we wine experts will agree, nodding sagely into our beards – which is the biggest load of rubbish to start with, and yes, I am as guilty of saying this as the next person. Sure, Chenin is a versatile grape, capable of making lots of different styles of wines to suits lots of different tastes – but since when has the ability to offer customers exactly what they want been a problem?? Henry Ford made his millions offering his new car in only one shade of paint (“The customer can have any colour he likes, as long as its black”) – imagine what he could have done if he’d had a rainbow palette to choose from?

Because that is what Chenin is – a rainbow palette of flavour for the palates of this Rainbow Nation and beyond. At the recent Chenin Showcase, a regular event which brings the diversity of the grape to the attention of lucky journalists and retailers, I tasted a fabulous range of different wines and I promise you – there really is something to suit everyone here. If you can’t bear to abandon your Sauvignon Blancs – there are Chenins which taste almost identical in terms of lip-smacking freshness and vibrancy (try Stellenrust Chenin Blanc 2016 R50). If you like a wooded Chardonnay – there are Chenins which taste very similar with oodles of yellow stone fruit balanced by creamy, spicy oak (give the delicious De Morgenzon 2015 a whirl for R225 or the more affordable Delheim 2014 for R110).

If you like sparkling wines, then there are Chenins which do that too (Ken Forrester’s engagingly-named Sparklehorse for R200) and if you prefer off-dry or semi-sweet, there are plenty of Chenin options, balancing sweetness with lively fresh acidity to make a more complete wine. If you like it sweet and sticky, luscious or unctuous, there are noble late harvest Chenins of real richness, depth and complexity, coating your mouth with haunting flavours, tantalising your tastebuds with a cat’s tail whisk of acidity and freshness. And finally, Chenin is the King of Blending and my find of the day at the Chenin Showcase was the Riebeek Cellars Short Street CGV 2014. At a ridiculously-cheap R50 a bottle, this should be everyone’s fridge stalwart this summer.

So I don’t think there’s anything lacking in terms of the actual Chenin wines themselves. In fact, I think the problem lies not with the grape, but with us instead. We don’t drink more Chenin because we’re lazy and it’s easier to stick to our same-old, same-old wines with all their faults rather than find something new which may possibly suit us better.  We allow ourselves to be confused by diversity and have our confidence dinted by differences in style, price, packaging and labelling terms, when in fact we should start every glass with the belief that it’s going to be amazing and simply take it from there. When it comes to Chenin Blanc, that’s almost certainly going to be a worthwhile journey to make.