A Fourth Way for Whites

by Jim Clarke
August 2006

It’s summer; the time is right for white wine, but can we agree on just one white wine? Chardonnay-drinkers crave the kiss – or even the downright slobber – of oak, while Sauvignon Blanc fans want aromatics and acidity. And Pinot Grigio has become the third party of white wines, offering crispness without too much aroma. Could one varietal satisfy all three camps?

Maybe, maybe not, but South Africa has a promising candidate: Chenin Blanc. While in its native Loire Valley the grape has a clearly developed character, the warmer climates of South Africa’s winelands are creating Chenin Blancs in a variety of styles. Nonetheless, these South African wines have a few traits in common that can appeal to different wine drinkers at the same time.

Chenins from the New World used to be faulted for their low acidity, especially when compared to the searing acidic blast of a Savennieres or dry Vouvray. In the past decade, South Africa has brought acidity levels up, in some cases by harvesting earlier, in others by planting in areas where the vines can benefit from cooling maritime winds. They still rarely reach the teeth-rattling extremes of the Loire Valley, but these wines are much more refreshing and food-friendly than they once were.

Grapes harvested earlier result in dry, lighter wines, with less aromatics – these are the closest to Pinot Grigio style, with citrus aromas and touches of honey. The grapes in the cooler areas can be left on the vine longer, and develop tropical fruit aromas that are reminiscent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or even some California Chardonnay. While they can be fairly aromatic, they lack the biting, grassy nose that some dislike in Sauvignon, making them more appealing for Chardonnay and Pinot drinkers.

There remains an oak divide; most of the Cape’s fuller Chenins spend some time in new oak barrels, in stark contrast to their ancestors in the Loire. Some Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc drinkers may be put off by this, but the best wines balance the grape’s own aromas and acidity with the flavors and creaminess of the oak. These ripe Chenins are weightier than most Sauvignon, which is usually overwhelmed by the oak; on the other hand, they are also more aromatic than Chardonnay, perhaps making it harder for the oak’s flavors to dominate. In fact, the extra acidity seems to change how the oak manifests itself, and many of the wines take on the hazelnut or almond aromas of Burgundy’s whites instead of California Chardonnay’s butterscotch or vanilla touches. In some cases, the wood’s tannins also aid the wine’s finish, allowing it to be dry and clean without being too intense – one of the things Chardonnay drinkers might dislike in a Sauvignon or a Pinot.

South Africa’s Chenins are good seafood wines, pairing well with sushi, scallops, shrimp, and many fish. They also work well as a brunch wine with eggs and omelettes, and the richest versions can stand up to chicken and pork.

Here are some recommended wines, in order from lightest to fullest:

Raats Chenin Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch Very crisp, with floral touches blending well with citrus and mineral notes.

Kanu Chenin Blanc Wooded 2004 Stellenbosch Pineapple and lemon curd aromas, with moderate acidity and light wood tannins. Kanu is the second label of Mulderbosch, below.

Anura Chenin Blanc 2004 Paarl Hazelnut and lemon aromas complimented by a touch of minerality.

Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch One of my favorites, with honey, pineapple, and hazelnut notes and good length.

Kleine Zalze Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch Lots of tropical fruit aromas – passionfruit, mango – with touches of flint and smoke. Wood tannins make for a firm finish.

Mulderbosch Steen Op Hout 2003 Stellenbosch “Steen” is the old local name for Chenin Blanc; “Op Hout” means “ in wood.” The wood shows more in the texture and finish than in the fruity aromas, which include strawberry, melon, and pineapple. The oak tannins complement the moderately high acidity of the finish.

Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch There are lots of tropical fruits here, including passionfruit, mango, and pineapple; the wine’s high acidity and structure make for good length, abetted by the drying touch of wood tannins.

Spice Route Chenin Blanc 2004 From Charles Back, the producer of the Goats do Roam wines, this Chenin is quite rich, with fig, honey, hazelnut and toasty aromas.

Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2005 Walker Bay This top-notch reserve bottling takes on almond aromas that complement the honey and floral notes of the grape; it’s quite full-bodied, with good length.

Tokara Zondernaam Chenin Blanc 2005 Western Cape Shows more obvious oak touches, but has the body and power to balance with it. Toast, pineapple, and honey aromas dominate, with a touch of bitterness on the finish from the oak’s tannins.