South Africa produces much of the world’s white wine, including versatile chenin blanc. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

South African Chenin Blanc captivates as an alternative white wine

Country’s Coastal Region a primary source of the varietal into the future

My memories of chenin blanc go back to the early 1970s with releases from Inglenook and Charles Krug that were significant upgrades from the half gallon Burgundy and Chablis Wines that were most readily available. A resurgence of chenin blanc in California began with the establishment, in the mid-1980s, of the Clarksburg AVA near the Sacramento Delta. Soon, grapes were sourced to wineries within and outside the region. One fine example is the 2018 Aperture Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc ($30), sourced from old vines in Clarksburg that Wilfred Wong called “America’s best dry chenin blanc.”

Although the grape is grown in many parts of the world, the roots of chenin blanc lie in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley. James Suckling asks us to think of chenin blanc as “France’s answer to riesling” and the aromatics and minerality of wines from Anjou and nearby Vouvray are among the finest expressions of the grape. For those eager to explore new white wine alternatives, they are readily available at reasonable prices.

The grape’s true resurgence lies in South Africa. Although grown in several countries, two-thirds of the world’s chenin blanc originates from South Africa, where it was historically named steen and currently occupies nearly 20% of the vineyards. It is mostly grown in the coastal regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland of the Western Cape Province, each with distinctive terroir.

Chenin blanc is known for its versatility. With naturally high acidity, it is easily produced as a dry, sweet or sparkling wine, each with a range of nuanced flavors. While it is most commonly enjoyed young, releases from this region can age well for up to a decade. Chenin blanc can be what you want it to be.

The Coastal Region showcases crisp, dry chenin blanc, which is rapidly expanding its shelf space in U.S. markets. Writer and U.S. market manager for Wines of South Africa Jim Clarke recently led a tasting, through Zoom, and shared four distinct chenin blanc releases from major appellations throughout the region, including a family-owned estate that has continuously transformed itself for more than a Century.

Complex aromas define the sustainably-farmed 2019 Backsberg Chenin Blanc ($14) sourced from mountain vineyards south of Paarl. Over several decades, the Back family has practiced a minimalist approach to winemaking and relies on the soil and regional terroir to create aromatics and flavors. Intense characteristics of melon, stone and tropical fruits lead to a delightful mouthfeel that is both rounded and crisp. Lingering mineral notes highlight the finish.

After marrying Tania, a South African, Loire Valley winemaker Vincent Carême brought his talents to Swartland, and the 2019 Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc ($16) marks his seventh vintage in the region. The layered aromas and flavors were pleasurable, but the texture got my attention.

Wine Spectator magazine used descriptors like “seductive texture,” “spice and floral accents,” and “long inviting finish” when awarding Terre Brûlée a 90-point rating. With its moderate price, it would not be be surprising to see it on the magazine’s Most Exciting Wines of 2020 list.

Vincent and Tania Carême produce the award-winning Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc. (Courtesy Cape Classics)

Since 2000, Raats Family Wines, in the heart of Stellenbosch, has focused exclusively on cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Combining oaked and unoaked aging, the 2017 Raats “Old Vine” Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch ($28) had the best structure of those we tasted. I found inviting hints of citrus and spice throughout. With consistently high ratings, this wine is a definite value that can found on-line for under $20.

Since purchasing and restoring a 17th century homestead and vineyard in 1993, Ken Forrester has become a staple of wine production in the Stellenbosch region, notably for chenin blanc.

From 40-year-old vines throughout Stellenbosch, the 2018 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($18), oak barrel- fermented and aged on lees for nine months, is a full-bodied wine with spice and mineral elements enhancing the ripened fruit aromas. The range of flavors is balanced and seamlessly integrated within a lush texture. It would pair well with nearly anything but red meat.

Ken Forrester creates his wine from a restored a 17th century homestead and vineyard. (Courtesy photo)

Like malbec in Argentina or shiraz in Australia, chenin blanc has found a home in New World wine production. While its versatility makes it compatible to blend with other white varietals, pure, old vine releases from South Africa’s Coastal Region are our best source of dry chenin blanc today and into the future.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com.

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