Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s most widely cultivated vine, being about a fifth of all plantings since the beginning of the 21st century. It has been in South Africa for a number of centuries, and may have been introduced as early as the 17th century, when Jan Van Riebeek set up a vineyard in the country. The wine, also known by the South African name of Steen, was for many years regarded as unique to South Africa, and it was only in the 1960s that experts were able to connect the Steen plants to Chenin Blanc, and give the correct name to this vine.
Chenin Blanc has loomed large in the history of wine making in South Africa, being one of the biggest single varietal wines produced during the 1960s and 1970s. After the end of Apartheid, Chenin Blanc cultivation was exposed to the new advances of Europe and America, and producers concentrated on trying to make a very dry, crisp white wine which had no significant flavour, satisfying the domestic market’s demand for white table wines. However, towards the end of the 1990s, experts in wine making began to look at traditional locations for Chenin Blanc cultivation, and isolated a number of old vines which could be used to create more sophisticated, flavoursome wines. This has allowed the old idea of Chenin Blanc, which was as a cheap, rather dry wine, to fade, being replaced by modern Chenin Blanc as a exciting and tasteful wine virtually unique in the New World.
Perhaps the thing which is most prized about the Chenin Blanc grape is its ability to take on the flavours of its soil and climate without becoming overwhelmed by these tastes. In colder climates the Chenin is likely to produce a wine which has a high acid content, but that is much sweeter. Previous attempts to bring in early harvests, and treat the wine to chaptalization (the process of adding sugar to unfermented grape must in order to increase the alcohol content after fermentation), as in France, have not been successful, and so later grapes which take longer to mature, and thus have greater sugar and alcohol content, have been preferred. In some cases, the wine is left to develop a type of rot which produces a greater amount of sweetness, in order to create Chenin Blanc dessert wines.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of Chenin Blanc is Ken Forrester. The wine producer is very much in love with white wine, having been the producer of the FMC, and named ‘Mr Chenin Blanc‘ by wine experts. Forrester has been dedicated to bringing the Chenin back to life, and giving it a truer, crisper flavour. By carefully selecting his Chenin Blanc, he has produced a vintage product which is probably one of the best Chenin Blanc wines in the World, and is certainly so in the New World. Adding Oak flavours to the Chenin has greatly added to its complexity, and the tradition of drinking it quickly as a table wine needs to be abandoned in order to allow it to fully mature inside the bottle, adding further character to this wine.