By winemaker Mark Le Roux
Chenin Blanc History & its Revolution in SA
Named after Mont Chenin of Touraine in the Loire Valley in the 15th century, Chenin Blanc is still considered synonymous with the Loire to this day. The region is defined by 4 distinct seasons, with rainfall throughout the year, moderate summers (highs around 24°C) and rather cool evenings. The result is a famously fresh wine with less fruit-driven aromatics than what you might expect from South African expressions grown in a drier climate (with highs closer to 34°C).
Chenin Blanc’s history in South Africa goes back a long way, possibly to the origins of SA winemaking when it is believed to have been included amongst the first vine cuttings brought to the Cape by Dutch settlers in 1655. Admired for its versatility, it is the Cape’s most widely planted white varietal, used in the production of still and sparkling wine, as well as brandy. In fact, South Africa has more ha of Chenin under vine than any other country in the world.
Chenin blanc handles the South African heat and climate well. It absorbs the warm, dry conditions to express a richer, apricot and honeycomb flavour in the wine compared to what you might expect from the Loire. The taste of SA Chenins are also driven by the complexity of the country’s ancient soils* and characteristically have lower acidity and pithy characteristics. These traits become more noteworthy as the vines age, hence the importance of officially recognising ‘Old Vines’ aged 35 years or older in the Cape.
*Created by the corrosion of extremely old geological formations that have not since been covered by younger soil material of glacial or alluvial epochs.
How underrated has become rated
From hardly known to world-class – that’s the extent of the Chenin Blanc renaissance we have seen in South Africa over the last twenty years.
As winemakers search for purity and site identity in their wine, Chenin Blanc has come up on top. As a variety, it thinks nothing of the harsh heat and dry growing conditions of South Africa. Whether touched with a little sunburn or heavily shaded, it still manages to maintain its integrity and show off the inner roots of where it comes from.
In the cellar, the wines are happiest and most alive when “left alone”; preferring more neutral attention, such as old oak or aging in concrete or Clay pots. This is because the grape itself provides all that is necessary to create a flavourful and expressive wine.
The wines tend to show stone fruit and citrus, as well as soft honey comb on the aromatics with a lovely pithy-textured mouthfeel driven by succulent fruit, minerality, chalkiness and finishing with soft acidity.
- Discover the rich and intense MARK. Chenin Blanc 2019 by Mark Le Roux (£28)
OVP (Old Vine Project)
An incredible initiative set up in South Africa to preserve and develop old vines, the Old Vine Project advocates a philosophy of “plant to grow old”. Any vineyard older than 35 years of age qualifies for OVP status, allowing the related wine to carry the Certified Heritage Vineyard label.
The initiative aims to raise awareness of the superior quality of wine that can be created from old vines. Thus, justifying the premium price required to protect such vines and prevent growers from replacing them with more commercially lucrative crops, as has been seen extensively in the past.
Chenin Blanc is the leading variety in the old vine category by a large margin. Old vines are proven to provide a higher quality wine which, due to its large root system, allows the wine to express the sense of site more clearly. These wines are less about the fruitiness but more about the mineral, stone elements and the texture, flavour on the palate.
- Discover the textured and complex Waterford Estate, Old Vine Project Chenin Blanc 2018 (£33.90)
Chenin’s future in SA
This grape is most definitely putting a strong foot forward in the South African wine industry. I currently feel that some of the most exciting wines are Chenins, most likely due to the head start of the old vines. Through initiatives like the OVP, it’s leading the way for more sustainable and proactive vineyard farming ways.
For me, there is nothing not to love about South African Chenin. It simply is the guiding hand in the South African wine industry, showing what can be achieved.
Taste for yourself with our range of premium South African Chenin Blancs.
RAKQ champions premium South African wine in the UK. Established in 2020 by South African expat and wine aficionado Sebastian Rezek, the company exclusively imports and sells high quality wine from South Africa.
About Mark Le Roux
Mark Le Roux is the Head Winemaker for Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch and also makes wine under his own brand MARK. He has worked as a winemaker in South Africa for over 15 years and was named Tim Atkin’s Young Winemaker of the Year in 2017.