Tuesday, October 17, 2017

South African wineries juice up their Chenin Blanc into white blends

Andrea Mullineux
Chenin Blanc is having a moment with New York sommeliers. However, in countries where it never fell out of fashion -- South Africa, where it's the most-planted wine grape, and England, where they drink a lot of what South Africa grows -- people are a little bored with Chenin Blanc.

Even if you love Chenin Blanc, it's easy to see how that can happen. South Africa excels at making cheap, clean, easy to drink Chenin Blanc. No one disputes that high-end Chenin Blanc can be interesting, but for most people it's a wine you drink when you want something simple.

One thing that surprised me when I visited South Africa two years ago was how many producers are beefing up their Chenin with oak treatments, just to do something different. It's not the U.S., where a decision to order Chenin is a conscious and even trendy choice for its light body and food friendliness. Winemakers in South Africa want their Chenin Blanc to be challenging. They want complexity. They want body. Sometimes they want it to be something that by nature it's not.

I was offered the opportunity to taste some premium South African white blends. It's an obscure category -- in fact, it's about the most obscure category I can think of, as I didn't realize it existed before I got the email. Naturally I said "sure!"

Chenin Blanc: the elephant in the white blend
I got three wines from three top South African producers that retail in the U.S. for between $25 and $40. What the three wines share, other than the fact that they're delicious, is that Chenin Blanc is the main component in each blend. One of the wines has so much of the main variety that it could be called Chenin Blanc under U.S. label laws; another is just 1% short. 

Each producer also makes at least one significantly more expensive single-variety Chenin Blanc, which shows that they don't actually need to blend in Semillon or Viognier to give complexity or to allow them to charge more money. Instead, these are Chenin-based wines for when you're a little bored with Chenin.

Mullineux Swartland Old Vines white 2015 (14% alcohol)
This wine is made by San Francisco native Andrea Mullineux. It's very juicy up front, which is nice because the structure comes in immediately afterward. It starts with hedonistic textural pleasure and finishes more serious. The aroma is of honeycomb with juicy lemon, and there's a musty room note that's not unpleasant: imagine the home office of a favorite older uncle. It's 74% Chenin Blanc with Clairette Blanche, Viognier, Semillon and Grenache Blanc. Delicious and interesting. 93 points. Buy it here.

Alheit Vineyards "Cartology" Western Cape Bush Vines Naturally Fermented 2015 (14%)
Apparently this wine is something of a big deal with the cognoscenti, and allocated, which I did not know when drinking it. It's certainly attention-getting, with a complex aroma that reminded me of an older Calvados. It's fresh in the mouth though, with juiciness and depth and flavors that seem to just keep changing. One complaint is that the alcohol is noticeable. It's 86% Chenin Blanc blended with Semillon, which makes me think that in addition to evolving in the glass it might also evolve in the cellar. 92 points. Buy it here.

Adi Badenhorst
A.A. Badenhorst Coastal Region White Blend 2014 (13.5%)
A lot goes into making this wine taste homogeneous, and I wonder if I didn't know what it was if I might have liked it more. It's very toasty and rich, with enough acidity to carry it, and if you are a fan of some of the richer, more oak-driven white Burgundies you will enjoy it. Of course, with the prices of fine white Burgundies these days, to get this wine for under $35 is good value. The grape mix explains why it's less like Chenin Blanc than the others: it's only 31% Chenin, blended with 8 other grapes (Grenache Blanc 17%, Roussanne 14%, Verdelho 12%, Clairette Blanche, Viognier,  Semillon, Marsanne and Palomino.) It's more white Rhone than Chenin, if you want to look at it that way, but still to me it tastes like white Burgundy. That makes it hard to rate so I give it 89 points. Buy it here.

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