Old-Vine Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc is one of the most underappreciated of white grapes. It produces wines of great versatility - from dry to sweet to sparkling; it has high acidity making the wines refreshing and ageworthy; and it has complex, distinctive aromas of nuts and beeswax.
The Loire Valley is the region most strongly associated with the variety, but South Africa has more Chenin Blanc planted than any other country in the world (in fact, it has more Chenin Blanc planted than the rest of the world put together). Because of that widespread planting, Chenin Blanc is viewed unfavourably by the local consumer - it’s often cheap, fruity, slightly sweet, and very simple. But South Africa’s also blessed with plantings of old-vine Chenin Blanc, dating back over a hundred years and which produce some of the most extraordinary white wines in the world.
Sadie Family Wines
Under Eben Sadie, Sadie Family Wines have become one of the most sought-after producers in South Africa, their wines quickly selling out, so it was a treat to taste through their range. Like other producers in Swartland, they emphasise their attachment to heritage, trying to use the same vines and techniques as their predecessors. Since 2009, they've had an old-vine series called Die Ouwingerdreeks, sourcing from and in some cases saving old vineyards. Their 2016 Skurfberg Chenin Blanc comes from two vineyards either side of the Skurfberg mountain in warm Olifantsriver. Coming in at 14.5% ABV, the high alcohol is balanced by the intensity of aromas coming from the Chenin Blanc vines which were planted between 1940 and 1955. These old vines retain acidity and the lack of irrigation ensures there are no overripe aromas. Despite the high alcohol, the wine is balanced, concentrated, and textured, with a full, creamy body (the wine was aged on its lees), and aromas of stone fruits, wax, nuts, and sweet and pungent spices (R235; ✪✪✪✪✪). I was very happy tasting this wine, but then came along something even better, one of the best white wines I have tasted. Mev. Kirsten is a vineyard in Stellenbosch which has the oldest block of Chenin Blanc in South Africa, bush vines planted between 1905 and 1920. It belonged to Mrs. Kirsten, hence its name, although she passed away a few years ago. The intensity and depth of flavour to the Mev. Kirsten 2016 was extraordinary, with aromas of nuts, flowers, spices, and beeswax. Toasty and rich, it was also so lean, its acidity and mineral texture coating the palate like fine tannins. This wine is like having a conversation with history (R775; ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪).
David and Nadia
With his wife Nadia, David Sadie is equally committed to expressing the heritage of Swartland, sourcing grapes from several old vineyards in the region. One of the significant trends throughout South Africa, for both white and red winemaking, is the more considered use of oak. Like Sadie Family Wines, David Sadie only uses old oak, allowing the purity of the fruit to express itself while adding a subtle, creamy richness to the wines. I tasted two of his whites. Aristragos 2016 is a sophisticated, expressive blend of 50% Chenin Blanc, with Viognier, Roussanne, Clairette, and old-vine Sémillon which received some skin contact. It’s aromatic and rich, floral, spicy, and creamy (R335; ✪✪✪✪✪). His 100% Chenin Blanc comes from six vineyards from vines between 35 and 50 years old. He describes it as “an understated style,” though it’s still creamy, nutty, salty, and spicy. He also describes the wine as having a “perception of freshness” rather than high acidity which is perhaps a good way of thinking about South African old-vine Chenin Blanc (R335; ✪✪✪✪✪).
His friend and assistant winemaker, André Bruyns, has also started making his own wine under the City on a Hill label and David shared his 2016 Chenin Blanc with us, providing further evidence of the quality of Chenin Blanc in Swartland. Again the wine has a light freshness to it, belying the warmth of the region, with waxy, spicy, stone fruit aromas (R285; ✪✪✪✪✪).
A couple of hours north from the heart of Swartland is the Piekenierskloof region, home to the Tierhoek winery. Tierhoek means Leopard’s Corner and leopards still roam on the property. Although leopards are not an issue, wildlife causes problems for South Africa’s producers. At Tierhoek, deer leap over the fence to eat the vine’s shoots, rock rabbits scuttle along the vines also eating the shoots, while baboons saunter into the vineyards and eat the grapes. Here, their favourite is Mourvèdre while elsewhere they have a liking for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - they clearly have good taste.
I don’t think I’ve been to a winery quite as isolated as Tierhoek. The nearest town is 30 minutes away and the farm is accessed only by a 10km-long rough dirt track. But it’s worth the visit. At high altitude and just 30km from the ocean, it operates in its own cooler, wetter climate, making it ideal for Chenin Blanc as well as Sauvignon Blanc. The Chenin Blanc wine is a mixture of newer plantings and some from 1976, those old vines giving an extra structure to the wine. I tasted the 2014, 15, and 16 Chenin Blancs, all of which had a consistent freshness and waxy, honeycomb aromas as well as white pepper - which I found to be a signature of Chenin Blanc throughout South Africa. The 2014 Chenin Blanc Reserve was a one-off, as it's exclusively from the older plantings, making the wine a bit richer and creamier. At over three years old, there was still a freshness and concentration to the wine which had plenty of life left in it (R105; ✪✪✪✪✪).
Mullineux, named after winemakers and owners Chris and Andrea Mullineux, make just Chenin Blanc and Syrah from Swartland, focusing on place and soil type for different expressions of those two grapes. Their signature wine, Old Vines White, is a blend of 62% Chenin Blanc, coming from 80-year-old vines, with Clairette, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Sémillon Gris, an old-vine mutation apparently unique to South Africa. The 2016 is a creamy, fragrant, smoky, spicy wine (R270; ✪✪✪✪✪). They also produce Chenin Blanc from different soil types, demonstrating how different soils result in very different wines. The Granite 2016 is a restrained style (R525; ✪✪✪✪✪), while Quartz 2016 is much richer and riper, with a biscuity, smoky, stony, creamy texture, and herbal aromas (R525; ✪✪✪✪✪✪). The relationship between soil and wine is a difficult one to quantify, but these two wines demonstrate the subtle but powerful differences between two vineyards. In each, Chenin Blanc vines have been digging their roots for nearly forty years. It is this connection between land, the vine, and the people that makes South Africa’s old-vine Chenin Blanc so special.
All prices listed in Rand: $1 = R14; £1 = R18; €1 = R16