Chenin & chardonnay – some thoughts

Two recent tastings, one of chenin the other of chardonnay, both of a prescribed selection, have provided food for thought.

The chenins, 21 of them, had been chosen by the Chenin Blanc Association via a blind tasting as wines suitable for summer enjoyment.

StellenrustcheninI guess it can’t be said too often, but what wonderful value chenin offers. Not only do Riebeek Cellars 2013 R30, Perdeberg 2013 R35, Kleine Zalze Cellar Selection 2013 R40, Stellenrust 2013 R42 and Villiera 2013 R45 offer value from a price point of view, but also from their concentration of fruit, much from old vines and virtually all standing tall alone, without any oak infringement (a portion of the Villiera has been in older barrels). Any would offer temptation for a chenin novice to further explore the variety; they are honest, unshowy yet not short of personality and eminently satisfying. Those prices are hardly going to hurt if the wine isn’t to your taste.

So why is the battle still on to get consumers to buy and enjoy chenin? Is it because those mentioned above are seen as too cheap and it’s therefore infradig to drink them or is their quality just not appreciated?

Even going ever so slightly up the price scale there are wines that over deliver. Stand outs on the tasting were Delaire Graff Old Bush Vine Chenin 2013 which sells for R65 or Beaumont Chenin Blanc 2013 for R69, De Morgenzon DMZ Chenin Blanc 2013 R74 and Raats Family Wines Original Chenin Blanc 2012 R85. The last three all play second wine roles to flagships, so perhaps Sebastian Beaumont hinted at a problem when he said ‘a second wine doesn’t have to be simple.’ It doesn’t have to be challenging either to provide interest or satisfaction, which all these do. But are second wines seen as ‘also rans’ by the Delairecheninconsumer interested only in having the best?

If there’s one other issue of unnecessary confusion with chenin, it’s that of residual sugar. Chenin is one variety which, due to a natural high acid, can benefit from a few grams without actually tasting sweet. Balance is all. Perhaps the most helpful move would be to describe the wine as off-dry or semi-sweet if that is the winemaker’s intention. I think my colleague, Cathy Marston has written about a snobby attitude towards semi-sweet wines. There are many great Loire chenins that are semi-sweet (not to mention German rieslings); as always, balance is all. Just because the label says ‘semi-sweet’ doesn’t mean a wine will taste overtly sugary.

Aren’t we getting our knickers in too much of a knot over a variety that can sing in so many ways; as I suggested on Twitter after the chenin tasting; it’s clear diversity in South African chenin is increasing; we should embrace rather than fight this. By fight, I mean try to compartmentalise in ways which scare off consumers.

Unoaked chardonnay has another problem; it’s not oaked, still the default for most consumers. I await the day Christian Eedes includes at least one in his 60 wine selection for his Chardonnay Report, let alone one cracking the top ten. I agree we’re not there yet, but the style has improved significantly, those early, neutral, thin offerings are giving way to more characterful, serious wines.  And they’re great, versatile wines with food.

GlenCarlouunoakedchardThe version that has impressed me most recently is Arco Laarman’s Glen Carlou unoaked (one of three in the range). Fermentation and sur lie ageing in cement eggs has imbued the wine with an extra textural dimension, a richness usually associated with barrel-fermentation. Bouchard Finlayson, Jordan and De Wetshof are others who see unoaked chardonnay as a serious companion to their oaked versions.

How do they age? Do they develop with interest? I’ve not had any unoaked chardonnays with a bit of age, but that’s the next step for them to stand alongside their oaked counterparts. Sadly, treating them similarly to sauvignon blanc, as cash cows, means they’re released young and not treated in the cellar in a manner which would allow them to evolve for at least a few years down the line.

Evolution and a general calming period are required of many of the top 10 chardonnays, as selected by Christian Eedes, James Pietersen and Roland Peens in Eedes Chardonnay Report, sponsored by Sanlam Private Investments.

How winemakers have tightened up their wines! My guess is there’s much less malo-lactic fermentation taking place as well as less working of the lees. I noted a crystalline quality in so many of the top 10, an attribute of my favourites, the 2012s from Paul Cluver and Hamilton Russell Vineyards. Both enjoy an enviable track record – HRV has been in the top 10 for each of the event’s three years – and, on the day, were the most integrated yet have the structure to unfold greater layers of flavour and texture with time.

CluverchardonnayBoth are known for their youthful freshness and tight structure, but I was fascinated to find wines I associate with a richer profile showing this in their aromas, but with more rod-like austerity in texture; Rustenberg Five Soldiers 2011, Groot Constantia 2012, Tokara Stellenbosch 2011 among them. In yet other 2012s, harmony between oak and fruit has yet to be achieved, let alone gaining flesh and flavour.

While I personally prefer this more austere approach to that of the big, rich buttery wines with or without residual sugar, not every vintage will have the guts of 2012; they will need to be treated so their austerity has nowhere to go.

While waiting for these grandees to settle into themselves, I’d suggest getting to know some of the unoaked chardonnays will yield some pleasant surprises.

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One thought on “Chenin & chardonnay – some thoughts

  1. Good points Angela. As a lover of oaked whites and speaking from a personal viewpoint, for me the most salient thing when it comes to white wine enjoyment is palate weight and texture. I think Arco managed to get it right beautifully with the Glen Carlou Unoaked Chardonnay. There aren’t too many other unoaked Chardonnays that get me excited,

    I think unoaked Chenin suffers because it competes with Sauvignon Blanc not just on price, but also image.Until South African obsession with Sauvignon Blanc comes to an end, I reckon unwooded, less serious Chenins will continue to play second fiddle. Unless you wisen up like David Niewoudt and make a Chenin Blanc that could pass for Sauvignon Blanc in a blind tasting.

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