Anyone involved with wine over the past 35 years has experienced a fast-moving and wondrous era – there’s no slowing down yet.
In the Cape, many varieties were ripped out in the 1980s and 90s to make way for sauvignon, chardonnay, shiraz, merlot and cabernet; today, any few remaining blocks are eagerly sought after. Even Simonsig’s Johan Malan, whose father grew and made clairette blanche, is considering re-planting a little.
This brought a smile to my face; in my very early days of wine tasting, I won a blind-tasting at Simonsig. My prize were six bottles including their Clairette Blanche, Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Riesling (Crouchen) – I can’t remember the other two, but all were white.
Palomino is another ‘old’ variety receiving renewed attention; colombard, too, has benefitted from better viticultural practices and imagination in the cellar. But all are surpassed by chenin blanc, the Cape’s dominant variety that has really grabbed the attention of winemakers and the public alike – both locally and internationally.
I was more than a little surprised then to read in Richard Siddle’s latest Grapevine (Richard is editor of The Buyer, UK on-trade magazine; Grapevine is an informative fortnightly on-line publication.): ‘Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s biggest exported varietal (sic) with 52.9 million litres, worth SAR845m, up 20.5%, but is second to Sauvignon Blanc in terms of value sales worth SAR1027, up 16%, on the back of 45.4m litres.’
With a bit of digging, I discovered these figures are from SAWIS’s export report for 2016, so cover all SA’s international markets and all quality levels. But could it be sauvignon commands higher prices than chenin?
Time for some of my own research.
A poll attracting 30 respondents is hardly going to yield conclusive evidence, but when 93% say they’d pay more for premium chenin blanc than sauvignon blanc, it’s not a figure without meaning.
Do retailers agree? From quizzing a handful of our most influential – Jo’burg-based Corlien Morris/WineMenu and from the Cape, Roland Peens/Wine Cellar, Caroline Rillema/Caroline’s Fine Wines and Mike Bampfield Duggan/Wine Concepts – it would seem so.
Duggan emphasises the trend, adding; ‘Previously unheard of producers’ chenins might initially be a hand sell, but once customers have tried the wines, they come back to try and buy more and so it gathers momentum.
Morris does make a telling point about sauvignon blanc; ‘It remains the single variety where we sell the most as far as quantity is concerned,’ before offering, ‘your real wine lover is more likely to choose a really good chenin over its equivalent sauvignon.’
Yes, but at what price? Is there a ceiling for both varieties beyond which winelovers won’t go?
Rillema reminds that chenin is not just one style, separating it into Fresh and Fruity with a ceiling of R100 and premium R195, the latter a good deal lower than the others, who suggest around R350 to R400. There are always the ‘must haves’ Duggan admits, who will pay more, such as Alheit single vineyards, ‘which sell out in a jiffy at R700,’ says Peens, though this is driven by there being so little to go around. According to Morris, a few well-heeled winelovers will pay as much as R800-R1000 (but that’s Jo’burg for you). There’s a marked contrast with sauvignon blanc, capped at R190 to R250. That said, there are some great value, top quality sauvignons within that bracket.
This is a huge turn-around for chenin, which even six years ago was trying hard but battling to get its message across. Just think that the first Sadie Mev Kirsten was 2007 and the Alheit’s Cartology 2011; chenin’s changed fortunes seem so much longer ago than that (alright Ken Forrester’s maiden FMC was 2001)
The international market has been important in giving it a leg up; the old vine story has seen winemakers concentrating on translating their fruit into wine, rather than making it in the cellar; the variety’s food-friendly nature, ability to mature and stylistic versatility. All of these, the retailers reckon, account for at least part of chenin’s current success. I’d add the indefatigable Ina Smith, who permanently drives the Chenin Blanc Association in fifth gear, her ‘side-kick’, Ken Forrester and each and every producer mad about the variety.
Chenin-based blends also attract international approval but I suppose because they are sold under names such as Mullineux Old Vines or Vondeling Babiana, it is more difficult for winelovers to get a grip on styles. A clever idea from Morris is helping to overcome this situation: she positions chenins and their blends together, which enables her to point out a similar style of blend to varietal chenin her customers prefer. Don’t discount the positive effect of the Chenin Blanc Association on these blends either; it’s by far and away the most effective so-called interest group in generating enthusiasm for the variety or style which falls under its umbrella.
White Bordeaux-style blends (sauvignon and semillon) are another, sadder story (particularly for me, who loves both semillon and these blends); ‘They’re impossible to sell, along with straight semillon,’ admits Peens. There are even producers who’ve dropped semillon from the label to fit into the more popular sauvignon category (there would have to be under 15% semillon for this to be legal). The obvious question, at least to me, is where is the group, like the CBA, championing these blends?
A final, positive thought, reverting to my earlier comments. While chenin has proved the standout variety in terms of re-invention and consumer appreciation, it’s not alone. Others experiencing changing fortunes might be more niche but all add diversity and interest to South African wine; winelovers everywhere are the beneficiaries.