A perfectly innocent question sends Martin Brown down a rabbit hole of Renaissance humanism, trade-fair mullet-growing… and a new generation of South African winemakers producing some of the most thrilling wines in the world.
An old friend – one of the normal ones who don't geek out about fermented fruit juices all the time – queried my fondness for chenin blanc recently, remembering with a mild degree of panic that it was the wine of his uni days.
At first I took this to mean that he had read about it in the work of the great French humanist François Rabelais, but apparently not: these studies were conducted in a more practical capacity and, it turned out, were not remembered as a very pleasant experience.
'Can it be good?' he asked. Quite reasonably, too: lest seasoned wine sniffers scoff too readily, it's important to remember that the short answer is both a resounding yes and an equally resounding no.
Would you take medical advice from this man?
Physician, humanist, monk and scholar François Rabelais
Such are the perplexing, chameleonic qualities of this ancient grape that it makes wines capable of being sweet, dry, rubbish, brilliant and/or all points in between... like comedy, or Abba.
Top-class chenin doesn't get the recognition it deserves outside geekier circles in the UK precisely because, I suspect, it's so 'un-pin-downable'. This can make it a challenging grape to get to know, as it offers so many different prisms through which to think about it. Younger wines can remind you of orchard fruit, sherbet and candle wax, while older ones can give off aromas akin to antique furniture or wet wool.
And if there's one thing chenin has an amazing capacity for being it's, well, old. It has been grown for centuries, possibly even a millennium. And Rabelais did indeed write about it: in chapter XXV of his 16th-century comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel, for example, a character named Forgier endures 'a rude lash' (and not the kind synonymous with my old pal's university socialising) to the leg.
'But thanks to 'apply[ing] to [his] leg some fat chenin grapes... so handsomely dressed... he was quickly cured.'
Chris Alheit leading a staff tasting at The Wine Society
While I've enjoyed plenty of chenin, I can't vouch for the medicinal qualities of strapping the stuff to oneself. Chris Alheit, who along with his wife Suzaan lit a proverbial tinderbox for the 'new wave' of South Africa's chenin prowess, was indulging in a different kind of dubious self-care when he visited us in Stevenage during this year's heatwave: he was in the process of growing a mullet for the 'Cape Wine' trade fair ('Suzaan is not happy').
But there was only one wine we were going to pour him over lunch: an old Loire chenin blanc. Tasting Huet's 1988 Clos du Bourg Vouvray with one of the brightest young stars of the Cape's new-wave old-vine scene was an eye-opening experience. As our buyer for South Africa Jo Locke MW says of this new generation, 'they don't take themselves too seriously, but are extremely serious about wine.'
Marvelling at the work of an old master:
Huet Clos du Bourg 1988
The Alheits' chenin-based 'Cartology' turned international attention to the Cape's 'new wave' when it stormed onto the world stage earlier in the decade. And while it might sound obvious to say Chris loves his chenin blanc, it comes across in a way that, for all his expertise on the subject, has such a pure passion and infectious enthusiasm. When the time for the next wine came, Chris wasn't giving up his glass of Huet, saving it till the end and going back to it afterwards to see how it had continued to change and develop with air: a young craftsman marvelling at the work of an old master.
The Loire may have the edge on old chenin wines, but if you want to discover the wonders that can be worked with old chenin vines, you'll find there's no French monopoly. One of the most beautiful backstories of a wine I've heard in the past couple of years concerns an old-vine Argentine chenin made by Roberto de la Mota from a plot he'd cut his winemaking teeth on and had assumed had been ripped up in favour of malbec: not so, and thank goodness, as the wine is sensational.
And thanks to some intrepid Huguenots, chenin began being planted in South Africa not long after Rabelais published Gargantua. Today it's estimated to account for about one vine in every five across the country. It took a while for the dots to be joined up, however, with consensus being that the variety they'd been calling steen was of Germanic origin. A 1963 eureka moment at the University of Stellenbosch confirmed its identity as chenin, and in recent years a new generation of winemakers has turned its attention to the country's remarkable reserves of old vineyards.
'…they don't take themselves too seriously, but are extremely serious about wine.' A group of South Africa's new-wave luminaries (including mullet-adorned Chris Alheit, far left) at Cape Wine 2018.
This approach is not without its problems, as the drought-ridden 2017 vintage brought into especially sharp focus: farming such low-yielding precious vines is a precarious business, and I was amazed as Chris detailed how, for example, it looks like being curtains for his and Suzaan's 'Radio Lazarus' vineyard now – the source of one of my favourite wines in recent years.
Chenin Blanc in the Cape: Rabelais, Comedy, or Abba?
A map of the Alheits' vineyard sites'
Thankfully, however, Cartology is still going strong. The wine is a blend of both old-vine chenin blanc and semillon, and indeed many of South Africa's new-wave chenin stars will feature a range of varieties. But, as Jo confirmed, whether it's semillon adding texture (and boy does it do that in Cartology), viognier adding perfume, or roussanne adding weight, the aristocratic chenin blanc always seems to stand out: 'it provides breadth, it provides structure, but it also provides a wonderful distinctive flavour.'
The Alheits deserve every ounce of their repute, but they represent just the tip of the iceberg of what's going on here. Botanica's Mary Delany Collection Chenin from Citrusdal Mountain has also been making a splash in recent tastings here at Society HQ, showing off the dense, mealy character that old vines bring but complemented with a fresh salty tang that marks it out as one of the country's most exciting.
The brand new 'Trust Your Gut' from Lukas Van Loggerenberg combines three superb vineyards in one poised, precise yet gorgeously textured whole in a wine that celebrates the intuitive fun spirit of winemaking here as much as the superb source material. And while chenin is but one component of Thorne & Daughters' multi-varietal multi-regional 'Rocking Horse' white, it makes itself known in style, contributing saline freshness and breadth of texture to the wine's kaleidoscopic palate.
Each of these wines offers something a bit different, and special. Strap them to your wine rack, not your leg, and look forward to bottles that, in Jo's words, 'are not just wines but an experience to be treasured… with a tension and energy that comes from vines rooted deep in South Africa's ancient, complex soils'.
View South African Chenins