Could South Africa hold the key to global fame for Chenin Blanc?

For David Kermode, Chenin Blanc is massively underrated. Here, he ponders if old vine wines from South Africa might offer the grape variety its best chance of achieving the kind of international fame it deserves

Words by David Kermode

chenin blanc grape on the vine in south africa

Chenin Blanc is a grape that could easily be described as enigmatic, but the aura of mystery relates not so much to its numerous attributes as to the reason that it remains so underrated.

Naturally high in acidity, at ease with oak and almost unparalleled for versatility – whether sparkling, bone dry, off dry or lusciously sweet; be it lithe, taut and tense, or broad-shouldered, textured and rich – Chenin Blanc is the jack of all trades that has mastered them all, yet it remains the Cinderella rarely seen at the ball. If there’s an ugly sister here, then I am afraid it is Chardonnay, which usually steals the show, while Chenin labours elegantly in the shadows.

With the earliest recorded examples dating back one thousand years, Chenin Blanc’s spiritual home is, of course, the Loire, where it is sometimes called Pineau (just to add a little gallic complexity); King Louis XI was certainly a fan, calling it ‘a drop of gold’. However, these days, there’s twice as much planted in South Africa, where Chenin is also known as Steen. It has an illustrious history in the Cape, dating back to Dutch settlers who brought cuttings from Europe. It is also reasonably widely planted in California, where its propensity for high yields has traditionally been indulged, making it less distinguished – though that is starting to change, not least because of that stirring acidity.

The best examples from the Loire exhibit blossom, plump orchard fruits, wild honey and damp straw

Tasting across the Loire’s sub-regions at Loire Millésime earlier this year, Chenin Blanc revealed its beguiling, chameleon-like character, the best examples exhibiting blossom, plump orchard fruits, wild honey and damp straw. But crucially, it also shone across numerous price points, often over-delivering. At the top-end, the fine dry wines were sensational, with those from the schist soils of Savennières a match for the upper echelons of Burgundy in all but price. Maybe they are simply not expensive enough to be taken as seriously?

Perhaps Chenin has suffered because it has failed to convincingly conquer the New World, where varietal naming has worked wonders for the likes of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the USA.

Most wine lovers of my generation will be familiar with Sauvignon Blanc because of Marlborough, not Menetou-Salon. Let’s be honest, a reasonable number will not even connect Chablis with Chardonnay (and there is no shame in that), yet they’ll lap up a varietally-named example from the Adelaide Hills or Carneros. Malbec is a success story mostly because the good burghers of Mendoza gave priority to the grape’s name, where in the Old World, Cahors offered merely a clue to those curious enough to find out more.

stellenbosch vineyard
'South Africa boasts some of the world’s finest old vine examples of Chenin'

Despite the incredible quality on offer in the Loire and signs that it is, at last, being taken more seriously in California, I think South Africa probably offers the best hope when it comes to giving the variety the global esteem it deserves. The country’s wines are finally winning the serious critical acclaim and loyalty they deserve, and the Chenin Blanc grape usually gets a proper namecheck, albeit sometimes alongside Steen.

Collectors surely also have a role to play, as they search for alternative wines to lay down alongside depleted collections of increasingly scarce Burgundy. Built on foundations of firm acidity, Chenin Blanc ages with aplomb, most notably in the Loire where it retains an incredible freshness. A friend of mine with a fine palate has been banging on about aged Chenin for years, quietly amassing an impressive collection of it without spending a fortune.

Chenin Blanc is truly the cougar of grape varieties, its seductive qualities almost certainly unrivalled by any other vinous veteran

In South Africa, age plays a slightly different though equally enticing role, as the country boasts some of the world’s finest old vine examples. Chenin Blanc is truly the cougar of grape varieties, its seductive qualities almost certainly unrivalled by any other vinous veteran. Visiting South Africa to judge wines for the IWSC, it was the old vine Chenin that I was dreaming about on the plane home. As the vines age and adapt, digging ever deeper for water, so they undoubtedly seem to explore greater depths of complexity and concentration. South Africa’s pioneering Certified Old Vine scheme can only help to elevate the status of this estimable grape, so let’s hope this is, at long last, Chenin’s moment to shine.

What David has been drinking…

  • Stellenbosch Vineyards, Credo, Chenin Blanc 2021 was a Gold medal winner at the IWSC, judged in situ in Paarl this year. One of the rewards of blind judging is, of course, ‘the reveal’ afterwards when we find out what we were assessing and enjoy another sample (without the requirement to spit). With golden apple, honey, ripe apricot and toasted hazlenuts, this delicious wine is lavishly layered, with oceanic complexity and a long satisfying finish.
  • Quinta do Noval, Touriga Nacional 2016. With a history dating back to 1715, Quinta do Noval made its name in Port but is also a pioneer of the relatively new wave of Douro wines under the direction of Bordeaux boss, Christian Sealy. Enchanting floral notes of violet and rose petals lead into a complex wine that speaks of its place, with a herbal undertow, its brooding fruit perfectly balanced by a spear of earthy minerality. Superb.
  • Weingut Dorli Muhr, Reid Spitzerberg, Blaufränkisch 2011. Tasted at a vintage celebration to mark 30 years of Austria’s ÖTW (Österreichische Traditionsweingüter), a textbook ten-year-old Blaufränkisch that still offers plenty more mileage. Juicy hedgerow fruit, pink peppercorn and spice are kept in check by crunchy acidity, with a lingering and ethereal sense of purity.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.