South African Chenin Blanc

Exciting diversity and discoveries just in time for summer.

 


It’s time again to venture into the unknown in order to find some new wines for the coming summer season. Chenin Blanc may be best known in it’s home, France’s Loire Valley, but it is also an exceptionally important variety in South Africa. Perhaps the most important white variety as South Africa continues to re-establish it’s markets around the world. While much of the South African wine that reaches our shores is more international in style, their Chenins tend to be somehow more South African.

Perhaps it simply due to the lack of comparable wines, very little Chenin is typically available at retail, but there is also the historical basis for this assessment. Once wildly important to the domestic wine scene, when it was known as Steen, Chenin Blanc in a certain style can be thought of as typically South African. The wines tend to be dry and firm with a fine blend of mineral, savory and fruity flavors. they are refreshing, if fairly big and as such serve superbly as both aperitif wines and wines that can accompany a wide variety of dishes at the table. Perfect for lazy summer afternoons that drift languidly into dinner. 
South African Chenin is also a wine that is able to age quite well. The variety’s acids, and the tendency of the flavors of the wine to evolve as opposed to simply fading away make it a fascinating a reliable wine to age for several years. It also helps when the retail scene is less than consistent and you might be faced with a back vintage sitting on your retailer’s shelves. Don’t worry about that too much. This is not Sauvignon Blanc after all. 
 
Make it a point to try something new this year. A few white varieties as the weather continues to warm up. You’ll be surprised by the variety the world of wine has to offer, and for me the great opportunity for food and wine pairings that comes with that variety. South African Chenin generally has the power to stand up to dishes that might hobble other white wines.  This first wine for example really would be a wonderful wine to pair with a roast pork dish, I’ve suggested seasoning it with coriander and bay leaf, but I’m really thinking about the way well seasoned and sweet cover fat will work with the firm structure so typical of South African Chenin. 
 
What would you pair with it?
 
 
Earthy on the nose with faint shadings of oak adding nnce and contrast to the dried apple and faintly spicy fruit that has a gentle honied cast to it. Dry, firm and austere on entry, this has real nervous energy on the palate as it opens with dried citrus peel, melon and tart apple flavors. It’s a restrained, almost elegant, if not for its intensity, kind of Chenin that relies as much on savory nuance as it does on intensity of fruit. Austere and hard on the relatively long finish, this is a dry, severe wine that will test some people’s palates. I think it’s gorgeous with incipient orange pekoe notes on the finish which goes on and on with stony minerality. It’s a wine that deserves time in the cellar but if you want to try one now pair it with some slow roasted pork shoulder flavored with coriander and bay leaf. 91pts
 
 
Intensely aromatic this is both floral and herbal at the same time with lots of almost medicinal fennel seed and coriander notes layered under white flowers and polleny notes. There’s some oak here and that adds to the spiciness of the nose and help to frame the core of apple and quince fruit that wrapped in dusty nuance. Faintly sweet on entry, this is powerfully put together with blazing acids that add great cut to the palate. the fruit is fresh and bold with layers of green apple, papaya, fig, and tart plum flavors that power through the long finish. the oak adds some nuanced spice on the palate and a slightly nutty cast to the backend and through the moderately long finish but shows up mostly on the nose at this point. The flavors in the mouth take on a honied character with air, along with a hint of cigar box spice that adds further complexity. Additional bottle age should help round this out and add another layer of complexity to what is already an exciting wine.  This needs some rich food to help balance the power and acid. This would be an interesting pairing with BBQ ribs that are not sauced but just subtly spiced and a bit spicy. 91pts
 
 
Skin fermented for 2 months in a concrete egg. 
 
Rather candied on the nose with intensely spicy and wooly aromas layered over notes of chalk, sassafras, a hint of nettle and earthy fruit. Broad in the mouth with a lovely early rush of fruit that is supported by lime acids. This is quite vibrant in the mouth, offering up subtly complex notes of herb tinged citrus fruits that are supported by a softly chalky tannic structure. This is complex and perfumed in the mouth, and while the finish is a bit short at first air does add length and a nice fullness to the lingering fruit flavors. There’s a fair amount of delicacy here and this is quite elegant. It would be interesting to see how this pairs with a complex nuanced dish like Vitello Tonnato. 88pts
 
 
Gently floral on the nose with a lovely array of pear, quince and spice aromas. Soft and broad in the mouth, this shows off a riper, fruity side of South African Chenin, though it retains some of the austerity and bitter apple and almond notes that make the wines so attractive. A great introduction to the variety and one that is true to type yet easy to drink and to pair with food. A meaty fish, roasted and served with spanish Romesco sauce would be a great way to get to know this wine; Striped Bass or Wahoo. The finish is lovely here, focused and long, and true to the palate with it’s blend of pear and quince fruit and lovely savory elements finishing with a hint of white pepper spice. 87pts
 
 
A touch reticent on the nose though this does deliver some attractive quince, sour plum and vaguely green nutty aromas. Smooth, tart, and rich though undoubtedly from a touch of RS here. The flavors are simple but intense, with quince, lime, and even a little guava rolling off the powerful palate. Thi is an intense wine and the electric acidity carried it, showing off some white peach notes on the backend before this unfurls on the moderately long finish with all it’s tart, soursop and citron intensity. Break this out with grilled fish featuring fruit salsas and you'll be happy all summer long. 87pts
 
 
Floral and peachy on the nose, in fact this smells of orchard fruit blossoms, very springy and fresh though air does bring out some licorice spice accents and heirloom apple fruit.  Supple on entry, though with bright acids, this is a fruitier style of South African Chenin, softer wand with more peachy and pear toned meat on its bones. There’s a nice floral quality to this in the mouth, and while it is relatively fruity it retains the firmness and edge of austerity so typical of the grape.  the finish is soft and floral again with hints of lavender over subtle orchard fruit note ending with a squirt of orange oil on the finale. This could pair well with a lighter dish, something with a touch of lavender like Herb de Provence grilled chicken perhaps.  87pts
 
 
From 50 year old vines grown at 300m elevation. 50% fermented in barrel, 50% in tank
 
A little woodsy on the with aromas of melon and lime framed with nuanced smoke, white pepper, and slightly starchy, vegetal accents. Silky and with noticeable RS on the palate, this is big and wide open, while it does retain nice cut it’s a touch simple with nice acids driving the modest finish. There’s a hint of heat on the finish along with fine, waxy lemon flavors. 86pts

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