I wonder why it took so long for wine lovers to realize that Chenin Blanc was one of the truly great wine grape varietals of the world.
Here in South Africa it was regarded for many years as the workhorse of the cellar – a useful stand-by when you wanted to make a reliable everyday drinking wine.
We called it “Steen”. Quite a good name, actually – a brick – solid and reliable.
I remember when Robbie Roberts was cellarmaster at Roodezandt in Robertson many years ago, he produced three different Chenin Blanc wines from the same enormous tank. There was a semi-sweet, an off-dry and a bone dry version, all delicious and different.
This, he said, demonstrated the wonderful versatility of the grape. Usually it was dismissed simply as “dry white”. It had the potential of greatness.
Maybe the fact that the grape was so versatile and performed well in almost every area, was why winemakers held it in low esteem. It presented no challenges to them. “Oh any old fool can make a decent Chenin,” seemed to be their attitude.
Things have changed.
Today an increasing number of winemakers – and wine consumers – are finding that Chenin can produce top quality, world-beating wines. All it needs is the same amount of care and attention winemakers usually reserve for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
An interesting comparative tasting was held recently in Germany, where a panel of respected wine writers compared South African Chenin Blancs to those of the Loire Valley, traditional home of the variety.
The exercise was, according to judges Eckhard Supp and Mario Scheuermann, a difficult one. They came to the conclusion that
a) Chenin Blanc was a world beater and,
b) South Africa’s top Chenins are (at this stage) better than those of the Loire Valley.
Several South African wines achieved high scores in the overall rating, with De Trafford, Reyneke, Ken Forrester and Simonsig in the first four places. The panel felt the South African wines showed exceptionally well.
Now what we need to do is convince South Africans that Chenin Blanc is no longer a plonky old workhorse. Steen is gone forever.
Bearing in mind the composition of our population, we still need to produce budget-priced wines, and Chenin does this admirably.
However, we also need to realize our top Chenins are among he world’s best.
And for these we must be prepared to pay higher prices.