What is South African Chenin Blanc like?

“I didn’t know white wine could be like that.” – Anonymous Copper Crew drinker.

Well, let us tell you why South African Chenin Blanc can be like that.

South African Chenin Blanc

Apart from biltong, the bush and Table Mountain, few things are as South African as Chenin Blanc. Chenin is known as a chameleon grape because it is able to express aspects of the soil and environment that it is planted in. And, in Stellenbosch which is part of the broader Western Cape appellation of South Africa, the grape found a natural home.

Chenin Blanc vines from the Loire were first brought into South Africa 350 years ago by Dutch settlers, and the country now has over half of the world’s plantings.

Not quite what South Africa’s Chenin vines look like…
(Photo credit: https://social.hays.com/2018/01/03/people-manager-chameleon/)

But why has this one grape variety done so well there?

Chenin is a laidback, easy going grape. It produces quite a lot of juice from each grape (making it good value for money), not too temperamental in terms of climate and has a naturally high acidity.

All of these features made it perfect for the production of brandy and for many years that was the primary use of the grapes. If not used in brandy, the grapes were used to make a blended wine. It was a workhorse wine that didn’t have a reputation for quality or complexity. In fact, Afrikaans for brick is ‘Steen’ and that is also what Chenin Blanc is known as in South Africa. So, there we go, pretty damn functional…

Even more functional than Supreme’s $1000 brick
(Photo credit: https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/supreme-brick/)

But, in the 1990s, South African winemakers began to experiment with single varietal Chenin Blanc and that opinion began to changed.

Chenin Blanc’s nature as a chameleon grape made the re-invention of Chenin Blanc to a single-varietal wine in South Africa more straightforward, because the country has a variety of soil types, climates and altitudes that meant a range of styles could be made.

South Africa also has the highest proportion of old vines in the world. These vines produce higher quality grapes as they age, bringing down yields and offering much more concentration of flavours in the grapes to give the wine a more complex, intense character. Usually in South Africa this character is white fruits, like peaches, on the nose, some citrus flavours and a bit of minerality. It’s light and fresh, with a nice level of acidity.

And what about our Chenin?

Well, we are suckers for good wine, so our Chenin Blanc includes fruit from old vines (30 – 50 years old). Old vines also get Sam, our winemaker, pretty excited and bring out his hippy side: “I love working with the wisdom of these old vines. What’s really cool about them is they just have so much to teach us from a winemaking perspective – it’s like learning from your grandmother..”.  

Our Chenin Blanc is also sourced from probably the most well-suited area for the grape in South Africa.  Whilst Chenin Blanc is not too fussy about where its grown, the vines like lots of sun and some cool weather, and Stellenbosch has both of those things. Fortunately for us it’s also Sam’s backyard.

The reason Stellenbosch can combine plenty of sun and cool weather is because it has five hills with different aspects and importantly is just north of False Bay. This means that sea breezes can roll into the vineyards, cooling down the grapes to stop them getting over ripe, and keeps the wine fresh.

Beautiful Stellenbosch…one day we’ll get to check it out! (Photo credit https://www.venturists.net/stellenbosch-wine-farm-itineraries/)

Winemaking techniques used in our Chenin Blanc?

While a lot of Chenin’s character comes from the environment it is grown in, what happens in the cellar with our wine is still important.

For part of our Chenin Blanc, we use concrete eggs for the maturation. They’re pretty unusual looking things in the cellar, but do have an important purpose.

The Crew’s Chenin chilling out

As the wine ferments in the tank, it creates heat which causes convection currents and makes the wine to move around. Because of the shape of the egg, the wine moves more freely than in barrels or tanks, and this movement helps complex flavours to develop by stirring it through the lees. Okay, so lees. They’re the dead yeast cells that are left over after fermentation. We know that sounds a bit gross, but by stirring them through, the end wine is fuller-bodied and more complex. We really think that this is noticeable with our Chenin.

All of these things make our Chenin Blanc a perfect spring / summer wine. Nice and fresh, but with enough complexity and character to keep you coming back, to the wine (and our web shop), for more.

If you haven’t given it a try already, then what are you waiting for? Order some here, throw them in your back pocket and take the South African sunshine with you on a walk.

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