Chenin blanc
Chenin blanc
Image: 123RF / Rostislav Sedlacek

The story of Cape chenin blanc has been a rags-to-riches fairy tale that would have been deemed implausible — even by the standards of the genre — had anyone suggested it as recently as 1990. Until then, of the options open to the country’s wineries, chenin was the least respected by value, but the most important variety by volume.

About 30% of the national vineyard was planted to it. Everything from Grand Mousseux Vin Doux bubbly to almost all the wine destined for the booming brandy industry was made from it. It was the base of generic blanc de blanc blends and the heart of Nederburg’s famous Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest. It was used to fill flagons of Autumn Harvest Crackling and bocksbeutels of Grunberger Stein. It was the vinous equivalent of the good-time-that-was-had-by-all girl.

In a curious way, it became a beneficiary of the end of political isolation. As international buyers began to discover/rediscover SA wine, they were appalled to discover how much bland white wine was on offer and how little red wine we had to sell. The response of the growers was to uproot chenin vineyards on a vast scale, replacing them with merlot, cabernet and even pinotage. Something had to be done to arrest the swing of the pendulum.

Three people played a key role in bringing about this change: I claim the credit for initiating the process, the late Harold Eedes, publisher of Wine Magazine, drove the campaign, while Jannie Retief at KWV gave it his crucial stamp of approval. Most importantly, a generation of mainly young winemakers rose to the challenge: they looked long and hard at the Cinderella cultivar and saw that beneath its neglect lurked the belle of the ball.

Wine Magazine launched the Chenin Challenge in 1996. In its first few years it attracted 30-50 entries, mostly fresh pretty wines made by optimistic co-op winemakers, but also a dozen or so ambitious attempts to produce something more complex. Every year, the proportion of serious wines increased. By the turn of the millennium, there were a number of rising stars and a host of hopefuls in the wings.

At around this time Wendy and Hylton Applebaum acquired a derelict wine farm in the Stellenboschkloof called L’Emigre and resurrected its original name, De Morgenzon. Most of its vineyards were beyond redemption and had to be replanted. However, there was a small and ancient block of chenin that Kevin Watt, their consulting viticulturist, set out to save. Within two years, it yielded enough fruit for Teddy Hall, winner of several Chenin Challenges, to vinify the property’s first estate wine.

Not a single bottle shamed their creators, or the wine industry for which chenin is now the purest expression of a Cape identity.

The rest, as they say, is history. The 2005 DeMorgenzon burst onto the scene with a Platter five-star award — the first of many. DeMorgenzon and Cape chenin came of age at the same time: just as the work that had gone into the chenin renaissance was yielding a palpable result, a number of high-profile estates and brands stepped up to carry the message.

To celebrate 20 vintages at DeMorgenzon, the Appelbaums hosted a tasting of every one of the property’s vintages, and invited the four winemakers who had been responsible for producing them to talk about their vinous progeny. The occasion was a little like a multigenerational family gathering: the 2005 was still respectable, though fading, and reflected as much the hand of Hall as it did the fashion of a bygone era.

The later vintages — made by Carl van der Merwe, Adam Mason and now Alastair Rimmer — tracked the evolution of styles, the aesthetic vision of those who made the wines and two decades of summer weather in the Stellenboschkloof. Some of the best wines came from fruit harvested in the years of the catastrophic drought — living proof that old vines manage tough climatic conditions better than the youngsters.

Not a single bottle shamed their creators, or the wine industry for which chenin is now the purest expression of a Cape identity.

This article was originally published in the Business Day. 

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.