Rich, extracted, full of fresh acidity, and rife with wild-honey, spice, and ginger notes, the Raats Family 2009 Chenin Blanc is powerful, elegant, and uniquely South African. Part of what makes Raats Chenin Blanc such a seducer is the lushness of grapes from 50- and 60-year-old untrellised bush vines, which produce lower yields and more concentrated clusters than their trellised counterparts. These grapes tend to be smaller and have thicker skins, resulting in the wine’s intense flavor and complex structure.
“You can tell a bush-vine Chenin by its texture,” says Adi Badenhorst, a winemaker in South Africa’s Swartland region. He describes bush-vine Chenin Blanc’s calling card as “an incredible sensation—it’s as if it fills your mouth to full capacity.”
The Chenin Blanc grape is native to France’s Loire Valley, where it is best known for its versatile role in white wines, ranging from sweet to bone-dry, from such appellations as Vouvray, Savennières, and Quarts de Chaume. The grape’s presence in South Africa—where it was formerly also known as Steen—dates to 1655, when Jan van Riebeeck, founder of the country’s first Dutch colony, introduced it to the Cape.
Today, 18 percent of all grapes under vine in South Africa are Chenin Blanc. The best examples come from older bush-vine vineyards, of which no more than 370 acres remain. These properties are scarce because farmers have been tearing out the low-yielding Chenin Blanc vines and replacing them with Chardonnay, Cabernet, and other more productive varietals. Consequently, the status of South Africa’s finest wines could change from rare to endangered.
“You look at these old Chenin vineyards, and they’re magical,” says Charles Banks, a former co-owner of the Napa Valley cult Cabernet producer Screaming Eagle and the founder of Terroir Capital, a California firm that invests in wine properties and boutique hotels throughout the world. “We have to make the world understand that ripping out these old vines is a true crime.”
Earlier this year, Banks completed his purchase of Mulderbosch Winery in South Africa’s Stellenbosch region, which produces some of the country’s finest white wines, most notably Sauvignon Blanc. Banks believes that South Africa offers the most cost-effective opportunity to produce world-class wines, specifically Chenin Blanc. He therefore has been refocusing Mulderbosch’s viticulture, placing greater emphasis on that grape. “When I first saw those old-vine Chenin blocks, they were singing to me. Where else in the world do you have an opportunity like this?” he says. “I truly believe Chenin Blanc is a noble variety, and South African Chenin in particular has such great complexity. In the U.S. we’ve been inundated with so much crappy Chenin that we’ve lost sight of what a beautiful wine it can be.”
Winemaker Bruwer Raats obsesses over soil, and expended much effort sourcing fruit from older, low-yielding vineyards in the areas of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville Hills, and Paardeberg. “I believe South Africa is the benchmark for Chenin Blanc [outside of France], and that the best soil for Chenin Blanc in the country is undoubtedly located in and around Stellenbosch,” Raats says, noting the region’s diverse soils. “The wonderful thing about Chenin is how it reflects terroir. It immediately shows you the difference. Chenin grown in sandstone soils is softer, rounder, with more white fruit, while decomposed granite will give you that acidity and minerality.”
The Stellenbosch region is where Ken Forrester produces his highly lauded The FMC (Forrester Meinert Chenin) from a single block of organically farmed bush vines that were planted in 1974. This wine—rich and exotic with tropical and spicy notes—represents what Forrester considers to be the ultimate expression of the grape. At $65 a bottle, it is also one of South Africa’s priciest Chenin Blancs.
Indeed, relative to other South African wines, the old-vine Chenin Blancs are expensive, and consumer perception ultimately may be the greatest challenge to their survival. Like Australia in the past, South Africa has aggressively marketed its value wines to the detriment of its premium ones. Many consumers in the United States and other markets associate South Africa with bargain wines and are therefore reluctant to pay higher prices for the country’s finest offerings, even though these wines deliver quality comparable to their European counterparts at a fraction of the cost. “South Africa does so well in [the United States] with their value wines,” says Banks. “But there is also great sophistication in many of these [premium] wines. I’d put South African Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc up against any in the New World—or anywhere.”
Banks is working with farmers from Stellenbosch to Swartland to purchase grapes from their older bush-vine vineyards in an effort to prevent these properties from being replanted. “When you look at all of the grand wineries here that are cutting corners in the vineyard, you wonder if we haven’t lost sight of what really matters,” he says. Banks believes that a successful operation is driven by exacting viticulture, not by impressive architecture: “The goal shouldn’t be to build the Taj Mahal. It should be to make great wine.”
Fortunately, a number of the country’s winemakers have their priorities straight, according to Banks. “There is a new generation making wine here—like Eben Sadie, Bruwer Raats, and Adi Badenhorst, to name a few,” he says. “They’re making wine in the vineyard and doing some really cool stuff. You can sense their momentum. These young guys working these old vines—they’re the future. Many of these bush vines would be torn out if not for this next generation.”
Badenhorst, who held the top winemaking post at Rustenberg, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay producer in Stellenbosch, was drawn to Swartland—South Africa’s Wild West of winemaking—by the prospect of making natural wines from older bush vines. “These vineyards are part of our heritage,” he says. “You have to look at these farmers and wonder why they’re pulling them up. And the answer is, they’re often producing at a loss. Our mission is to make truly magnificent wines, create a demand in the market, and then the guys will stop pulling these vineyards out.”
UNBEATABLE BLUSH-VINE CHENIN BLANCS
On arrival in Cape Town, South Africa, you will first be seduced by the air. Earthy, dusty, and wild,
with occasional hints of sweet incense, it is totally intoxicating. But if you really want to fall hard for this country,
try a glass of any of these Chenin Blancs or Chenin Blanc–based blends.
A.A. BADENHORST FAMILY WINES
Cousins Hein and Adi Badenhorst produce natural wines in a restored winery in the Swartland region that was last operational in the 1930s. The property’s Chenin Blanc bush vines average a little over 40 years in age.
Recommended: A. A. Badenhorst Family 2008 White Blend; a Chenin Blanc–based blend with Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Verdelho, and Chardonnay that yields gorgeous white-peach and pear flavors with hints of almond and a spicy finish. ($38) www.aabadenhorst.com
When former Bellingham winemaker Graham Weerts discovered a pocket of 40-year-old, low-yielding Chenin Blanc bush vines more than a decade ago, he began to make a limited amount of rich, concentrated, and full-bodied wines—now known as the Bernard Series—from this property.
Recommended: Bellingham 2010 Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc; pineapple and peach flavors with honeysuckle and spice. ($15) www.bellinghamwines.com
A boutique winery with a modest annual production of only 3,500 cases, De Trafford ferments its wines with natural yeasts and bottles most of them unfiltered.
Recommended: De Trafford 2008 Chenin Blanc; rich, concentrated stone-fruit flavors with hints of almond, honey, and spicy oak. ($30) www.detrafford.co.za
DeMorgenzon (Dutch for “the morning sun”) is so named because Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum’s high-altitude vineyards are in the part of the Stellenboschkloof valley first warmed by the rising sun. Consulting winemaker Teddy Hall, aka the Sultan of Chenin, crafts a benchmark old-vine Chenin Blanc from the estate’s sustainable vineyards.
Recommended: DeMorgenzon 2009 Chenin Blanc; honeysuckle, pineapple, and nutty flavors with lively acidity. ($30) www.demorgenzon.com
KEN FORRESTER VINEYARDS
Established in 1689 as Zandberg, Ken Forrester’s winery is situated on one of the oldest wine farms in the Cape. He produces three tiers of wine: the Petit budget offerings; the Ken Forrester range, which is grown on estate vineyards; and the premium Icon series, which includes The FMC.
Recommended: The FMC; rich and creamy, with vanilla and tropical-fruit notes and toasted oak on the finish. ($65) www.kenforresterwines.com
One of South Africa’s most reputable producers of Sauvignon Blanc, Mulderbosch also makes an excellent bush-vine Chenin Blanc. American investor Charles Banks recently purchased the winery, where he has begun placing a greater emphasis on Chenin Blanc.
Recommended: Mulderbosch 2009 Chenin Blanc; lemon, lime, and pineapple notes, with floral aromas. (The 2009 is no longer available; the 2010 is now on the market.) ($14) www.mulderbosch.co.za
RAATS FAMILY WINES
Winemaker Bruwer Raats focuses his efforts entirely on producing spectacular examples of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
Recommended: Raats Family 2009 Chenin Blanc; rich and extracted, with wild-honey, spice, and ginger notes, as well as fresh acidity. ($25) www.raats.co.za
Located in the Swartland region, Riebeek Cellars makes wines that range from value offerings to reserves. Riebeek recently replaced its Reserve-label wines, which it produced only in exceptional vintages, with its Kasteelberg-label wines.
Recommended: Riebeek 2009 Kasteelberg Chenin Blanc; rich and round, with melon and tropical-fruit aromas and stone-fruit flavors. ($10) www.riebeekcellars.com
Rudera, a boutique winery in the Stellenbosch region, produces Chenin Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon—mostly from low-yielding, older vines.
Recommended: Rudera 2009 De Tradisie Chenin Blanc; orange-blossom aromas accompanied by grapefruit and pineapple flavors. ($14) www.rudera.co.za
THE SADIE FAMILY WINES
At Eben Sadie’s small family winery in Swartland, he produces the fabled Columella, a southern Rhone blend; Palladius, a white blend; and a Chenin Blanc called Mrs. Kirsten, from South Africa’s oldest Chenin Blanc vineyard.
Recommended: The Sadie Family Wines 2008 Palladius; a beautifully complex white blend with notes of orange blossoms and white stone fruit, as well as gorgeous acidity. ($70) www.thesadiefamily.com