Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Anne Krebiehl: A new dawn for South African Chenin Blanc?

Published:  22 May, 2013

Leading South African Chenin Blanc producer Kleine Zalze of Stellenbosch convened a "Chenin Blanc Style Council" over dinner at the Orrery last week.

Winemaker Johan Joubert, thoughtful and softly spoken, confessed that it is his aim to "work out the identity of Chenin Blanc in South Africa", especially now that the once-leading white grape of South Africa is in the Cinderella camp.

While South Africa has been forging ahead with cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays, and showcasing expressive Rhône varietal blends, Chenin Blanc, or "Steen", has been relegated to workhorse status.

According to WOSA figures, Chenin Blanc still represented 32% of total the total vineyard hectarage in 1990, for 2011 this has shrunk to 18%. What is more, South Africa keeps grubbing up its low-yielding bush vines which give the country some of its most vivid Chenin Blancs. Creating complex, premium styles is tantamount for Joubert as the continuing existence of low-yielding bush vines depends on them. Dry-farmed old bush vines produce small bunches of 60g-100g whereas trellised vines give bigger bunches of up to 240g, explains Joubert, and emphasises: "It is important to make it financially viable for producers to give personality to the wines."

According to Joubert, who has been with Kleine Zalze since 2003, three distinct styles of Chenin Blanc currently exist in South Africa: "fresh and fruity", "rich and ripe" and "rich, ripe and oaked". His aim is to depart from these with a new, slender, premium style.

To chart this progress, a vertical of Kleine Zalze's Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc covering the vintages 2003 to 2008, made in the "rich, ripe and oaked" style, is shown first: the grapes were exclusively sourced from low-yielding bush vines of which up to 25% were botrytised. After 24 hours' skin contact, they underwent a very cool fermentation which finished off in French oak barrels, 30% of which were new. This was followed by extensive lees contact while a quarter of the wine underwent malo-lactic fermentation. This resulted in deeply golden, dense and layered wines of astonishing freshness and longevity. While alcohol levels ranged here from 14.2%-15.3%, none of the wines seemed hot, helped by the textured mid-palate and an average of about 5g/l of residual sugar.

That these wines are of premium quality and made for the table is beyond doubt, but their developed flavour profile makes them a hand-sell - however, they offer great value: The 2011 vintage of the Vineyard Selection has an RRP of just £9.99.

As the theme of the evening was stylistic progression, Joubert remarked correctly that while "botrytis gives complexity but not necessarily identity", and introduced the next level and style of wine: the Cellar Selection. Also made from dry-farmed bush vine fruit but with a more shaded leaf canopy and harvested earlier, the Cellar Selection is a much tighter wine (rrp £8.49), pale, concentrated and structured. While it also enjoys 24 hours' skin contact, there is a maximum of 5% botrytis and a barely perceptible residual sugar of just 3.5g/l. Here, Joubert showcases complexity while moving away from the traditional "rich and ripe" style, especially after finding most of the "fresh and fruity" style Chenin Blancs pilloried as "commercial and one-dimensional".

The culmination of Joubert's work so far is the Family Reserve. This new wine will be launched in South Africa in June and is not yet available in the UK. "This is the Chenin of the decade to come," says Joubert, "it is Chenin without a crutch." Also made from dry-farmed bush vine fruit, this is a very slender, steely and immensely concentrated Chenin Blanc. It is a selection of small, elevated parcels of vineyard from three distinct soil types, not further than 10km from the coast and without a trace of botrytis. Joubert believes that granite provides freshness, while duplex contributes structure and oakleaf (shale-derived) soils provide length.

Joubert does not want to resort to clichés when talking about this wine, and avoids the terms "terroir" and "minerality" carefully. The fact that the wine spent 12 months in oak is barely perceptible. Only 6,000 bottles were made in the 2012 maiden vintage but for Joubert this is a departure rather than an arrival. His aim is to make three different Chenin Blancs representing the individual soil types. He hope that such individual wines will become the new calling cards of South African Chenin Blanc and encourage many more winemakers with precious old bush vines to follow in his footsteps. Having tasted the Family Reserve, I think he is on to something...