When I start talking about a random grape variety or region for no apparent reason (and yes, I’m aware I do that a lot) it’s a pretty sure bet that I’ve recently had my taste buds tickled. Last Thursday evening I produced a bottle of South African Chenin Blanc that made me think why don’t I drink this stuff more often?
The wines of South Africa, for which Chenin Blanc is the country’s flagship white grape variety, are oddly overlooked in Ireland. We don’t buy a lot of South African wine, despite the great value it has to offer. Okay, so there is usually a small enough range to choose from wherever you go, but that’s only because the demand isn’t there. Being a pivotal player in taking Chenin Blanc to the forefront of global recognition, we too often opt for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or an Italian Pinot Grigio instead. Chenin doesn’t seem to be a very fashionable variety here and I think our boycott of South African wines has hindered its yearning for appreciation.
So what are we missing? Chenin Blanc produces medium bodied wines of high acidity. In South Africa their crisp acidity complements clean citrus and tropical fruit flavours. Originally hailing from Loire Valley (France), Chenin of the Vouvray appellation is particularly highly regarded. Here the wines can be dry or off-dry, with some of the same citrus and tropical flavours abundant in the South African wines, but with a vegetal edge that can be attributed to the cooler climate. In the vintages when the grapes don’t fully ripen, the grapes can be used with pleasing results in the sparkling Crémant de Loire. In the hotter vintages, they can ripen enough to provide a honeyed sweetness, yet the wines retain a wonderful balance thanks to the naturally high acidity. Chenin is also susceptible to noble rot, so it makes some exceptional dessert wines.
By its nature, the Chenin Blanc vines can be quite vigorous if they go unchecked. They can produce high yields which ultimately leads to a fairly neutral and bland wine, and that’s why we do have some very cheap South African white in the supermarkets that are nothing to write home about. But for the best part, good quality can be and is achieved from lower yields and smart winemaking, and the final product doesn’t have to be expensive. Like Chardonnay and Riesling do so well, Chenin can express the unique characteristics of where it is grown, and if it is handled correctly in the vineyard – vines pruned, harvested at the right time with the necessary care – and in the winery, where the winemaker has to achieve balance and may even reach for the oak barrels, then you’ve got a very fine specimen on your hands.
The wine got me thinking of Chenin again was the Paarl Heights, recently recommended in the Irish Mail on Sunday. For the even more adventourous wine drinker, try the whites of Vouvray or Anjou. The better the vintage the better the wine. Generally speaking that is.