Notes on South African Chenin Blanc

It’s Chenin Blanc time! I was excited for this one as I love a Chenin Blanc and was really keen to hear from our winemakers and learn all about South African Chenin Blanc.

I LOVE a good Chenin, in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s my favourite white wine. This is because the range is so diverse, but I find its just easier drinking than chardonnays and sauvignon blancs (on the whole). So let’s learn a bit more about our proudly South African chenins. Thanks goes to the following estates for helping me learn: L’Venir, Noble Hill Chenin Blanc, Jail Break, Delheim Chenin Blanc, Altydgedacht Chenin Blanc , The Mentors Chenin Blanc, Kleine Zalze and Romansrivier Steen.

I’ve interviewed a number of wine makers about their special Chenin blancs and this is what they taught me:

5 Facts About Chenin Blanc in South Africa

  1. It is the most widely planted variety in South Africa (One 5th of all South African grapes).
  2. It is also historically known as Steen in South Africa and was only identified as Chenin in 1965 by scientific grape experts.
  3. It is most grown in the Paarl region of the Western Cape, followed by Swartlands and Olifantsrivier near Ceres.
  4. Wine producers eventually reduced the number of grapes grown for quality, assisting in the quality of chenins being produced in South Africa to improve.
  5. In South Africa chenin grapes were crossed with an Italian grape called Trebbiano to produce Chenel (used to combat rot) and Weldra wines. 
  6. Bonus: Chenin Blancs can be wooded or unwooded.

Proudly South African Chenin Blanc

Let’s learn a little more about our featured wine estates and I have to start with this lovely answer from RJ Botha at Kleine Zalze when asking, “What type of grapes do you like to harvest?”

This is almost like asking if I have a favourite child. I like all of them! Every cultivar has its own personality and likes different things. You get to know them and how they react to certain situations etc. Just like children. I love them all….

 

When Is a Good Time to Harvest Chenin Grapes?

Delheim harvests their chenin blanc grapes in mid-February, after the heat of summer.

At L’Avenir the grapes are harvested based on taste. “The key is to strike the balance between crisp and refreshing acidity and the rich and generous fruit intensity of Chenin. The answer is often in the skins: if they are soft and fruity, without bitterness, the grapes are ready!”

Altydgedacht assess their grapes closely to determine when is best to harvest.

“2020 – The grapes were harvested on the 25th of February 2020 at 21.2 Balling. The grapes are harvested once it’s reached phenolic ripeness and this can change every year depending on the season and climate.

2021 – The grapes will be harvested between 22-23 Balling.”

How Does the Cool Sea Air Affect the Grapes of Your Vineyards?

At Altydgedact we get the cool Atlantic seabreeze. We are just a bit too far to get the added benefit of the salinity of the sea (this can give you hints of salty-like flavours on a Sauv blanc), but the cooling effect of the breeze in the evening is huge. We have warm days and then cool evenings, which is perfect for the grape growing.

Are Old Vines Are Used for Chenin Blanc?

A combination of old and new vines are used to make Chenin with each estate using a combination of both. At Kleine Zalze, mostly old vines are used, however, “…we do have some younger vineyards that is showing allot of potential.”

At L’Avenir their oldest vineyard was planted in 1973 – older vines bring depth and balance that is hard to replicate and so they are fortunate to work with some impressive old vineyards.

At Aldygedacht they only use old vines, which were planted in 1973.

“For the Delheim Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc I use my old vines. It hurts my feeling to say they are old because they were planted the same year I was born, but yes they are classified as old vines.”

What’s the Difference Between Hand Picking or Machine Picking the Grapes?

At Delheim the grapes are hand picked as it’s seen as the best method for both the grapes and the vines. Kleine Zalze ops for hand picking as well.

At Aldytgedecht the grapes are harvested by hand early in the morning. And at L’Avenir they are only picked by hand. This is because L’Avenir is a boutique Stellenbosch specialist of Pinotage and Chenin. The wines are hand crafted from selected vineyards,

How Do You Make Chenin Blanc?

Each wine maker has their own process, so we asked them to tell us a bit about their journey from grape to bottle:

Delheim: My approach is to have as little intervention as possible. After the grapes are picked early morning they are pressed immediately and the juice is settled naturally for two days. We then rack the juice off its lees (sediment that sinks to the bottom of the tank) and fill 500L French oak barrels and concrete egg shaped tanks.

The fermentation happens spontaneously using the “wild” yeast that occurs naturally on the grapes. I then leave the wine to mature on its fermentation lees for 6 months before we blend the wine in concrete tanks with the wine in barrel. I do a light filtration before bottling.

Kleine Zalze: We work with some of the best Chenin Blanc blocks in SA. We all know that the vineyard makes the wine, we try and capture the vineyard sites and we use tools like barrels to enhance/contribute to these flavours. We make different styles of Chenin. Our more serious wines are all fermented in older barrels and spend about 8 month in these older oak.

A key aspect of our L’Avenir Chenin Blanc production is that the juice is fermented in older, large French oak barrels. This means that you get the sophisticated layers of complexity, without any prominent oaky flavours.

The wine is produced from small batches, with even single vineyards being divided into different segments.

Altydgedacht:

2020 – After pressing the grapes the juice was allowed to settle for 48h at 10 degrees celsius. Thereafter the juice was taken off the lees and then inoculated. All of the juice was cold fermented in Stainless Steel tanks. Once fermentation was completed the wine was split between Stainless Steel and two first fill french oak barrels. Here the wine was left to mature for a further 9 months. After 9 months the wine was filtered and bottled.

2021 – After settling of the juice it will be split into two components:

  1. Stainless Steel Tank – This component will be cold fermented with Vin13.
  2. First fill French Oak – The juice will be fermented in the barrels with a specially selected yeast at 16 degrees celsius. At this stage the split 50/50.

After fermentation the wine will be kept separate for roughly six months. The barrel component will be stirred (battonage) once a week to add complexity and mouthfeel to the wine. After six months the two components will be tasted and blended together in a ratio that will ensure the best possible wine.

How Does the Soil Influence Chenin Blanc?

Yes, at L’Avenir we produce chenin predominantly on weathered shale soils, which strikes that balance between generous fruit and a pithy freshness with a touch of minerality.

At Delheim it plays a huge role in the vines and ultimately in the wine. “To sum up a 4 year Science Degree in one sentence is a bit difficult, but if you think the nutrients available to the vine, the depth of the soil and water retention all contributes to the vine and grape development.”

Altydgedacht, “Yes it does. Depending on the soil type you can have vastly different flavours even if the same grape comes from the same soil. Chalky soils gives great minerality to the wine. Sandy soils usually gives bright red fruit flavours to reds whereas you richer hutton and tukulu soils gives a lot of complexity and darker fruit flavours.”

“Most definitely. You can taste the difference in the wines. How, is a big debate, but you can taste it. Look at the wines from Loire and Sancerre and you have to believe that it does. We have some amazing Granite Soils in Stellenbosch and you can taste the difference.” – Kleine Zalze

Do You Blend Your Wines?

Wine is put into barrels to mature and develop flavour but that doesn’t mean it’s the final product. At Kleine Zalze, every batch is kept separate and only blended before bottling.

At Delheim, with spontaneous fermentation almost every barrel makes a different wine. Barrels are then mixed to produce the best wine.

Produced from a selection of L’Avenir Estate’s finest vineyards, this blend of unwooded Chenin Blanc and a component that was matured in 300L French oak barrels, delivers a food-friendly, complex and well-balanced wine.

How Does the Climate Influence Chenin Blanc?

Altydgedacht: “Yes. Warmer climates means faster ripening, which can mean that the grapes have less time to develop complex flavours. Usually a warm area will harvest earlier than a cool climate area. The risk you have in warm areas is that if you leave the grapes too long you can develop raisen to jam-like flavours.

In cooler areas you have a long slow ripening period, which means you should have better flavour development. The risk in this area is that you may struggle to gain the right level of ripeness and over development of green flavours in the wine.

Climate has a huge impact on the flavour you end up with in your wine. It’s the job of a viticulturist and then the winemaker to guide the development of those flavours in the vineyards and cellar.

Delheim: Climate is a huge factor at Delheim, yet there are also so many variables involved. The climate and the soil are the biggest factors that make wine so site specific. This is why the Delheim chenin blanc can taste so different to my neighbour’s Chenin blanc. We get the cool air from the Atlantic ocean as we are only 40km away from the coast.

L’Avenir: Yes it does – especially microclimate. Our Chenin Blancs are mostly planted on western slopes and at elevated sites. More moderate temperatures result in crisp wines, with the generosity and richness of fruit that Chenin has become known for. The estate benefits from cooling winds in the afternoons during the ripening season. This maritime influence is invaluable in balance and crispness in our Chenin.

For Kleine Zalze we know that cooler Vintages tend to be better, but, every vintage has its own charm and uniqueness. We have alot of Chenin that face False Bay and these blocks perform very well. The ocean has a cooling effect and definitely has a positive influence.

We always say that a vineyard that can see the oceans is a happy vineyard.

Can Chenin Blanc Age?

There’s a perception that only red wines can be aged, which isn’t the case. Our wine makers gave these responses when asked if their Chenin blancs could be aged:

Jail Break: 90% was fermented in tank and left on fine lees for 9 months, with 10 % fermented in French oak and left to mature for 9 months.

Delheim: 100%, I would recommend ageing the Wild Ferment for another three years from the vintage date. Corks are used to close the bottle as it aids the maturation in the bottle.

L’Avenir: Definitely, our Chenin can mature for more than 10 years. The older wines gain a rich, nutty complexity while retaining crisp freshness and acidity.

Kleine Zalze: YES YES YES…our wines age incredibly well!

Altydgedacht: Yes – around 5 years after bottling. The 2021 might even be 10 years, but we can’t tell just yet.

 

Cap or Cork?

I have no idea how this makes a difference other than a romantic gesture. Corks just make the wine feel special to me but I must say I appreciate screw tops as I don’t always want to finish a bottle in one sitting (hell does freeze over from time to time!). This is what our wine makers had to say on the matter:

Kleine Zalze: I love corks. It is the perfect natural seal. But I love Natural cork, not conglomerate or fake corks…… then I will rather put screwcap.

L’Avenir: For our Chenin, exclusively screwcap. We have done trials with both since 2006 and the screwcap wines simply mature better and retain freshness.

Altydgedacht: Cork – the cork allows small amounts of oxygen to enter the wine which helps with the aging of the wine. Over time this adds to the complexity of the wine and more secondary flavours will develop. The oak aromas will also soften.

What Tasting Notes Can Drinkers Expect to Taste?

Delheim: On the nose it has white stone fruits with a bit of citrus, the palate it layered with tropical fruit, honeysuckle and melon with a medium palate weight from spending time on the lees.

Kleine Zalze: Chenin is a very versatile grape and makes allot of different styles. You can get these very pungent fruit driven wines with intense guava characters to the very full barrel fermented and off coarse the intense mineral styles that I love.

Altydgedacht: Aromas of peach, pear and floral notes combine with hints of oak to create a complex, elegant entry on the palate. Full malolactic fermentation attributes palate weight, with a lingering, lively aftertaste. Oak management revolves around accentuating a sense of place, rather than overpowering the wine.

L’Avenir: Delicate fruit flavours and lower alcohols lead the 100% chenin blanc l’Avenir. Explore a touch of roasted almonds, intense fruit aromas of white peach, apricot kernels and melon with subtle notes of honey. The colour is crisp, pale straw.

Jail Break: Fresh sweet melon, apple and white peach aroma’s burst out with sly flavours of honeysuckle and melon found on the palate. It pairs really well with pork chops, smoked salmon, pizza and goats cheeses pair well with this wine.

What Makes Your Proudly South African Chenin Blanc Unique?

Altydgedacht: It’s the oldest Chenin blanc in Durbanville (as far as I can tell) and a great cool climate, bush vine example of Chenin blanc.

Delheim: The vineyards, the soil, the aspect, slope, the micro climate and our approach to being environmentally friendly that makes our Chenin Blanc unique to our estate.

Kleine Zalze: We work with allot of different vineyards in Stellenbosch. From Falsebay (Firgrove) to Helderberg, to Stellenbosch Mountain to Bottelary Hills, we cover them all. Most of these vineyards are planted on decomposed granite soils. I think there is a definite mineral element in our wines that make it very unique.

L’Avenir: The use of old vines – certified as heritage vineyards by the Old Wine Project – provides balance, depth and texture to our wines. Our winemaker, Dirk Coetzee, specifically values texture in Chenin Blanc and this is certainly reflected in our wines. Another unique attribute is a floral note reminiscent of blossoms. This is not common in Chenin, but adds a fine wine touch, which distinguishes fine Chenin.

 

Thank you so much to these incredible, proudly South African brands for sharing their delicious wines with us and helping us newbies learn! 

 

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