An Ode to South African Chenin Blanc

Let's be real, Chenin blanc doesn't get anywhere near the love it deserves. 

"Oh, you mean Sauvignon blanc?"

...no, I don't.

Nothing against Sauvignon blanc, of course, but I mean the wonderful, versatile, flat-out delicious Chenin blanc. More specifically, I'm referring to the South African take on the grape. While France's Loire Valley is Chenin's ancestral home, I'd like to instead focus my first post on some of the marvelous Chenin blancs and Chenin-based blends coming out of South Africa these days. Don't worry, we'll get to all of the wonderful ways the grape is handled in France -- but today, my friends, we're starting at the southern tip of Africa.

Chenin blanc vines at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa

Chenin blanc vines at Badenhorst Family Wines in Swartland, South Africa

Chenin blanc (or 'steen' as it's sometimes known in the Cape) has been planted in South Africa since the 1650s, so the grape has some serious history there. Although acreage is on the decline overall, it's still the most-planted grape in South Africa with around 18% of all plantings. The problem? For much of that time, Chenin primarily wound up as brandy or bland, neutral still wine. Chenin's vigor and high yields were great for quantity, but that more often than not came at the expense of quality. 

Thankfully the grape is enjoying a bit of a Renaissance these days in the hands of several talented producers. Winemakers are taking full advantage of the old Chenin blanc vines scattered across the Western Cape and making lip-smacking wines in several styles: fruity and fresh, richer and oaked, and even some dessert wines for your sweet tooth. Chenin's versatility means it pairs well with all kinds of dishes, especially if there's a sweet/sour balance (and it would be a perfect partner for your upcoming Thanksgiving dinner). What's more? They're often amazing bargains that deliver extraordinary quality without breaking the bank. Let's take a look at some of my favorite Chenins coming out of South Africa, shall we? 

Note: For readers in Pittsburgh, these wines are generally available at Pennsylvania Fine Wine & Good Spirits Stores and/or wine.com. The prices I list are estimates based on local retailers and may vary slightly depending on your location.

A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2016

A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2016

1.) A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc ($16)

This is the wine that first turned me onto the brilliance of South African Chenin blanc. Grown in the Swartland district, the Secateurs Chenin Blanc from Badenhorst Family Wines consistently delivers: think melon, apple, citrus blossoms, and honey all nicely tied together with a rich, slightly oily texture that finishes nice and dry. This wine would pair well with anything from scallops to poultry and pork, but it's equally enjoyable on its own. Perfect for a summer afternoon on the patio with friends. If you're looking for something a little more full and complex, don't miss the Chenin-based Family White Blend (clocks in at around $40-45).

2.) Mullineux Family Wines Old Vines Chenin Blanc Blend ($35)

Hoo, boy, is this a fantastic wine. Also hailing from Swartland, this is a Chenin-based blend that, for the 2013 vintage (which I adore), incorporates a little Clairette blanche and Viognier. The result? An intoxicating perfume of white flowers, lemon peel, and a certain waxiness. This is a juicy, luscious wine that has a refreshing mineral finish and keeps you reaching for another sip. If you're feeling like spending just a tad less, check out their Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc ($22) -- a little simpler than the white blend, sure, but a delightful wine in its own right.

3.) Vincent et Tania Carême Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc ($16)

Vincent Carême is a well-known producer of Chenin blanc from Vouvray in the Loire Valley, so it makes perfect sense that he'd also make a stellar Chenin in Swartland (noticing a trend here with that district?). His wife, Tania, hails from South Africa, and this wine is a voluptuous mouthful of honeysuckle, tropical fruit (think ripe pineapples), and orange blossoms. Like the other wines I've listed, this has a slightly oily texture that I find to be truly irresistible. Each vintage from 2014-2016 has been a treat, and I can't believe what this wine delivers for the price. 

4.) Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc ($28)

Let's leave Swartland for a little and journey over to Bot River, which is farther south and in a cooler area of the Western Cape. This oaked Chenin takes on a certain nuttiness and has a sweet spiciness to nicely accompany the fruit, and it retains a remarkable balance. Certainly a change of pace from the other Chenins in this list! If you decide the oak isn't right for you (and that's fair!), give Beaumont's other Chenin a try -- it's a little cheaper at around $20, and it's full of tart green apple and pear flavors that showcase the cooler growing conditions.

5.) Alheit Cartology ($49)

Yes, this wine is considerably more expensive than the others, but it's worth every penny. This Chenin, blended with Sémillon (11%), is intense and opulent with flavors of ripe, juicy pears, citrus, honey, and flowers. There's almost a certain salinity on the wine's finish, too. Every wine in this list is wonderful, but the added complexity of Cartology shouldn't be missed.

6.) Sadie Family Skurfberg Chenin Blanc ($40-60)

Ah, I've saved the best for last. Everything Eben Sadie makes is remarkable, let's just state that first and foremost. The Skurfberg Chenin is, for me, a real standout: a sumptuous mouthful of apples and pears that integrates nicely with spiced notes and honeyed waxiness. The vines for this wine are 90+ years old, which makes for amazingly concentrated, powerful juice. It's a fantastic wine now, but feel free to pop this bad boy in the cellar and revisit a few years down the road -- its acidity will allow for several years of aging.

Honorable Mentions:

MAN Vintners Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region ($9 -- talk about a steal; your friends will think you spent a lot more!)

Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch ($15) 

Raats Original Chenin Blanc, Coastal Region ($17)

Mount Abora Koggelbos, Swartland ($12-20; hard to track down but worth it)

Backsberg Chenin Blanc, Paarl ($17)

Have another favorite South African Chenin? Vehemently disagree with my selections?! Chime in with a comment and get the discussion going, I'd love to hear your take!

 

Swartland scenery

Swartland scenery