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
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
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.
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.
Chenin Blanc 2004 Paarl Hazelnut and lemon aromas complimented
by a touch of minerality.
Africa Chenin Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch One of my favorites,
with honey, pineapple, and hazelnut notes and good length.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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