Tag Archives: Chenin Blanc

Southern delights

May and June saw me mad busy studying for my final WSET exam. To take time off, I popped in to a couple of tastings of South African wines. It was time well spent. We tend to associate South Africa with inexpensive supermarket gluggers but how far that is from the full truth!

First of all, there’s a lot of winemaking history here. Did you know about Constantia, for instance? One of the most prestigious dessert wines ever, with a spectacular history going back to the 17th century. Hardly known today but it’s on its way back. More about Constantia later.

The two flagship wines of South Africa are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. As most New World countries, South Africa also mainly produces varietal wines but this is of course a blanket statement and may not at all be true for certain producers or regions. Winemaking tendencies are changing, which means more restrained use of oak and allowing more room for vineyard expression, for example. But let’s look at the specifics.

CHENIN BLANC

One of the amazing things I learnt about Chenin Blanc is how multi-faceted this grape can be. Anything from light, fruity, easy-drinking refreshment to heavily oaked, aged, complex and rich. The styles are so varied no generalization can be made really. And even the most brilliant cost peanuts compared to Burgundy, although some of them easily compete with a rich and mature Chardonnay.

Rudera de Tradisie CB 2010

A fruit-driven example with sweet-and-sour freshness. Caramellized fruit, oak restrained, well-integrated alcohol. Great acidity and lots of flintiness, which I like. The wine rolls along your tongue as you enjoy a burst of apricot flavours. £16

Jean Daneel Signature CB 2003

One of my favourites at this tasting. First time round I found it way too oaky but as it aired it opened into something much more and the oak withdrew into the background. The wine shows much lees influence but this is well balanced by intense honeyed fruit and flinty minerality, plus fantastic acidity. This vintage is not available any longer so you’ll have to buy the 2011/2012 and wait a few years. £19-20

Beaumont Hope Marguerite CB 2012

A delightful, youthful, fresh wine, and the first in the tasting that I could easily identify as Chenin. Citrusy, green apple aromas on the nose, some oak and some sweet candy touch. The palate has more honeyed, apricot flavours and lovely acidity, paired with a lean body and medium alcohol – only 12.6%, very unusual for these warm-climate wines. £16-18

PINOTAGE

Pinotage is a modern grape. It was created in the 1920s in Stellenbosch by crossing the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut varieties. I guess the idea was to produce a hardy grape that would perform well (meaning high crops) in the warm South African vineyards. As we found out from Greg Sherwood MW, who introduced the wines to us, bush vines are not uncommon among the better producers, and some of them very old as well (meaning the vines, not the producers). Bush training is typically used in hot, dry areas where the grapes need protection from the heat of the sun. It’s a low-vigour training system, i.e. not very economical compared to other, higher-vigour systems, but with a high-yielding grape variety this may actually be good news for quality.

But to come back to the grape. Pinotage has a rather unseemly reputation for a pungent paint / solvent smell, but properly vinified examples do not display the unattractive aroma and can be rich, intense, interesting – and ageworthy. The wines listed below come from some of the top producers of Pinotage.

Kanonkop Pinotage 1999

A fruity and youthful wine, especially considering its age. The grapes came from bush-trained, 55-year-old vines. The fruit is a touch too jammy for my taste but some interesting leathery, smokey notes counterbalance the stewiness.

Simonsig Pinotage 2003

A wine of 14.8% ABV but well made enough for the alcohol not to show. Restrained with a smooth, soft palate. Coffee, smoke and red fruit dominate. Likeable.

Sumaridge Epitome 2009

A roughly 50-50 blend of Shiraz and Pinotage. A chewy, tannic wine with a savoury character. Coffee, mint, toast, and black cherrries. Loved this one.

Aaaaand the bonus: a 1966 Lanzerac Pinotage!

Light garnet, with quite a bit of sediment – understandably. It’s been sitting in that bottle for 48 years! Oxidized, medicinal nose, smokey. Lean body and acidity that is still great. Not much fruit to find here, but you get a strong herbal character and savoury mushroom notes instead. It surprises with an incredibly powerful, smoky (smoked ham, to be precise) finish.

Lanzerac 1966

Making James at Seahorse

When I first applied for a summer internship at Seahorse winery, proprietor-winemaker Ze’ev Dunie replied in his email: ‘but be prepared: this place is a jungle. Nothing in our vineyard is like you’ve learnt in books.’ I immediately knew he was my man. If nothing was the way I’d read in books, I’d feel at home – and I did. Ze’ev is a filmmaker-turned-winemaker who produces a wide range of wines, mainly from Mediterranean red grape varieties: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. He names his wines after his personal heroes: John Lennon, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Roman Polanski… His flagship wine, though, is the white called James (as in James Dean), made from Chenin Blanc, and it was in the production of this wine that I assisted last summer. This year I returned to Seahorse to taste the wine. It didn’t disappoint.

DSCF2114James 2012 (100% Chenin Blanc)

Pale lemon wine with a youthful, friendly nose driven by sweet, fresh fruit. Good acidity on the palate, coupled with stone fruit, perhaps some tropical hints as well. A clean, pleasurable, medium-bodied wine with a smooth palate and a fruity, mineral finish. There’s something romantic and lyrical about James. Delightful and refreshing in the summer – and very few people make Chenin Blanc in Israel, so this is a truly special treat!

And here is how James was made

We picked the grapes early in the morning and carefully selected, by hand, the bunches we wanted to use. The grapes were destemmed and crushed mechanically and transferred by a pump into a gentle pneumatic press. After the juice was pressed, we pumped it over into stainless steel tanks where it would be cooled and left to settle for a couple of days. Since the main feature of this wine is its youthful, fruity freshness, it is important that the lees make little impact – therefore the juice had to be as clear as possible when it was pumped over into the barrels where the fermentation was to take place. So the sediment at the bottom of the tanks was left alone. When the cool, clean juice was sitting in the barrels, we added yeast, and within 24 hours fermentation began. This is what Ze’ev calls the music in the cellar.

baby James - the freshly pressed juice

baby James – the freshly pressed juice

And it is indeed music to the ears of those who have worked on making the wine, as it is a sign that everything is going according to plan. Fermentation sometimes takes a lazy start and sometimes doesn’t begin at all. But last year we were lucky and all the barrels were making beautiful bubbling music. When fermentation is over, the wine is left to mature in the barrels at a low temperature so that malolactic fermentation doesn’t set in. (Malolactic is a second fermentation where malic acid in the juice is transformed into lactic acid; this process is desirable in most red wines and certain whites such as Chardonnay as it provides body, fatness, creaminess to the wine and adds layers of complexity to the simple fruit. In a wine like our James, however, all the above would have been undesirable, and so malo was to be avoided.) The wine is finally filtered before bottling, again to ensure no further fermentation.