Super Chenin

© Cape Times Friday 14th June 2013

When it comes to South Africa’s signature grape, it’s very easy to paraphrase Pliny and say ‘Ex Chenin semper aliquid novi’ – there is always something new from this amazing, versatile variety. Maybe it’s because the people who make Chenin are a particularly enthusiastic bunch who get excited about every latest incarnation of their favourite grape. Or perhaps it’s because the Chenin Blanc Association is wo-manned so well by the proactive and dynamic Ina Smith, so anytime anything happens, she makes sure we ALL know about it. Either way, I’ve been to a few events recently which showcased new examples taking the variety to even dizzier heights.

Ken Forrester is in charge of the Chenin Blanc Association and lives, breathes, drinks and thinks about the stuff all the time. A tasting of ‘7 Deadly Chenins’ aimed to illustrate the versatility of the variety and he started with a less-expected version – a cap classique Chenin. This is a very common occurrence in France where Cremants and sparkling Vouvrays are the toast of the Loire Valley, but here in SA, very few MCC’s use Chenin. The new ‘Sparklehorse’ 2011 (R120 from the tasting room) comes from an old block of chenin which slopes down in the centre making the soils very damp and ill-drained. This was affecting how well the grapes were able to ripen, so Ken decided to stop beating his head against a brick wall and simply harvest them early and turn them into fizz. Apart from winning my vote for best name and label of 2013, the Sparklehorse is a salty, tangy, frothy number with plenty of character and oomph. Bit like its maker really.

Most of Ken’s top Chenin vineyards are planted with bushvines – a style of planting which can be expensive because it produces much lower yields than a trellised vine, but the fruit produced is often highly-prized for its intense flavours. Over the last 3 years, 82ha of bushvines have been uprooted in Stellenbosch because the farmers can’t make enough money from them. Leading producers like Ken and Kleine Zalze’s Johan Joubert are doing all they can to stem the tide and make good quality Chenin a viable financial proposition for Stellenbosch farmers, but it’s not always an easy ride. Johan has been on a three year mission to find the best Chenin sites in Stellenbosch, believing that the right combination of soils can offer the qualities he looks for in a Kleine Zalze Family Reserve wine – consistency, longevity, pure expression of the site. He finally found the right combination of old bushvines on the Groot Zalze farm and launched the new Family Reserve Chenin 2012 (R130 from the farm) last week. Right now, the wine is quivering on the edge of being awesome and all its going to take to push it over, is a little time – buy it now and stash it away for a year and see what I mean.

The final two Chenins I’ve tasted are really as much to do with food as they are with wine. The first comes from a cellar which can’t put a foot wrong at the moment – KWV. The Mentors Range is cleaning up at every competition going and they’ve just released a new Chenin Blanc 2012 (R180 from the tasting room), the first Chenin in the range for 4 years and one of the most food-friendly wines I’ve had in a while. Matthew Gordon is the chef at Laborie’s Harvest restaurant (also owned by KWV) and he matched it with a Malay Curried Crayfish Samoosa, melding pineapple, fresh ginger, sweet crayfish and a sappy freshness in the craziest, most wonderful mouthful. As for my final Chenin, it’s back to Ken Forrester, who’s just released a new and amazing semi-sweet ‘moelleux’ Chenin, specially made for London restaurant, High Timber. This wine just cries out for food – I immediately thought of Asian pork belly with its aromatic spices and rich crackling – but I bet it goes with everything. It’s on the pricy side at R500 from the tasting room, but I promise you, it’s worth it! There certainly is always, always something new and exciting from Chenin Blanc.