Chenin Blanc largest SA wine cultivar, one of least known by SA winedrinkers!


The Chenin Blanc Association hosted the ‘Cape Chenin Unveiled’ seminar at the One&Only Cape Town yesterday, and its main focus was the presentation of a comprehensive three year research project on South African Chenin Blanc wines, a tasting of twelve Chenin Blancs, and a pairing of five dishes at Nobu with fifteen Chenin Blancs.  The research presentation by Dr Hélène Nieuwoudt of the Institute for Wine Biotechnology at the University of Stellenbosch highlighted that despite Chenin Blanc being South Africa’s largest cultivar at 19% of production, it is one of the least known and understood by wine drinkers.

Dr Nieuwoudt related that scientific research was conducted between 2010 and earlier this year, at three levels: at the chemistry level, analyses were done on grapes, fermentation, and maturation; at the sensory level, the sensory intrinsics, taste and smell were evaluated; and at the consumer level, the perceptions and psychology of wine-drinking were analysed.  The research project has been conducted in conjunction with Stellenbosch University, Consumer Check (in Norway, Italy, Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands), and Consumer Perception (in France and USA).  Chenin Blanc was one of the wine cultivars which was evaluated in the study.

The diversity of Chenin Blanc in its chemistry, sensory make-up and consumer perceptions led the researchers to conclude that Chenin Blanc suffers from a ‘confusion of style identity’, as to whether it is dry or off-dry. Seventy cellars making 170 wines were evaluated, and at the chemical level there was no obvious measurement of the chemistry of Chenin Blanc.  At the sensory level a database of descriptors was built up, and lemon, citrus, peach, pear, and apple were most often identified, and recorded in terms of number of mentions, but also their intensity.

Research conducted amongst 5261 consumers at the Johannesburg Wine Fair and Robertson Wine Fair found that Chenin Blanc has a ‘vague knowledge as a wine style’ amongst local consumers, with only 8% of all respondents interviewed knowing and understanding the cultivar. Chenin Blanc had a very low level of awareness amongst wine drinkers, which would result in a low likelihood of it being bought.  The research also showed that there is a confused segmentation of local Chenin Blancs, ranging from ‘fresh and fruity’ (and also less expensive) on one end of the spectrum, to the other end of the spectrum of ‘rich and ripe’, being the more expensive Chenin Blancs.  A spontaneous Liking score of 5,8 out of 10 increased to about 7 out of 10 when respondents were exposed to information about Chenin Blanc, showing that consumers need to be informed about Chenin Blanc, to improve their probability of buying it.  Dr Nieuwoudt said that consumers are becoming label readers in general, and suggested to Chenin Blanc producers that they evaluate how they are communicating the cultivar on their labels.

Ross Sleet summarised the research findings, and said that the Chenin Blanc Association had contributed financially to the research, to improve the ‘production of quality Chenin Blanc in South Africa.’  The Association wants to position Chenin Blanc as a ‘desirable drink‘, he added.  Whether ordered by the bottle or glass, Chenin Blanc is an excellent wine to pair with food. An ‘on-bottle device is being investigated to demonstrate the continuum of Chenin Blanc styles‘, said Sleet.

Jeff Grier, winemaker at Villiera, took the delegates through a wine tasting, segmented into ‘Fresh and Fruity’ and ‘Rich and Ripe‘ Chenin Blancs:

*   Fresh and Fruity: Perdeberg 2012, Slanghoek 2012, and Simonsig 2012 were the entry level Chenin Blancs, costing below R40, a price point which is excellent for younger drinkers.  These young drinkers will evolve into ‘Rich and Ripe’ drinkers over time.   Lutzville Diamond Collection 2011, Radford Dale Renaissance 2010, and Mulderbosch Small Change 2009 are lightly wooded, medium bodied, with minerality, and not too high in alcohol. The latter two wines cost around R200.

*   Rich and Ripe:   Spier 21 Gables 2010, Rudera Robusto 2009, and Rijk’s Reserve 2008 are wooded, while Remhoogte Honeybunch 2011, Graham Beck Bowed Head 2010, and Ken Forrester FMC 2010 are noble late harvest wines influenced by botrytis.  Generally these wines have more tropical fruit, and more yeast on the palate. The Rijk’s costs R170, the Ken Forrester FMC R325, and the other wines in this segment around R120.

Stellenbosch is associated with Chenin Blancs, and the majority of the wines selected for the tastings were from this region, reflecting that a large proportion of Chenin Blanc is made here, with low yields of 7 tons per hectare.  The Chenin Blanc Association was formed to collectively market the category, the ‘Fresh and Fruity’ Chenin Blanc brands being used to draw consumers into the category. Jeff warned that Chenin Blanc should not make a Chardonnay look-alike, given that international feedback reflects that our Chenin Blancs are excessively wooded. He recommended using bigger barrels, and coopers in Loire and Burgundy to help the ‘wooding’.

Ken Forrester is the Chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association, which is administered by Ina Smith.

At lunch at Nobu I was lucky to sit at what someone described as a ‘VIP table’, with Jeff Grier, Chenin Blanc Association founder and MW Irina von Holdt, Alan Mullins from Woolworths, wine writer Norman McFarlane, and Olivia Mitchell from garagiste Andy Mitchell in Greyton.  For each of the five courses, three Chenin Blancs were poured for pairing, the first 12 being the same Chenin Blancs we had tasted in the seminar. The Whitefish New-Style Sashimi with chives, ginger puree, garlic, and yuzu citrus soy sauce was paired with Perdeberg 2012, Slanghoek 2012, and Simonsig 2012.  The latter wine was found by our table to pair best.

This was followed by a Baby Spinach Salad with Lobster, a sprinkling of parmesan, and a drizzle of truffle oil and yuzu, which was paired with Lutzville 2011, Radford Dale Renaissance 2010, and Mulderbosch 2009.  The table found the Radford Dale to pair the best.  Shrimp Tempura Cut Roll was served with light soy, and was paired with Spier 21 Gables 2010, Rudera Robusto 2009, and Rijk’s Reserve 2008, the table choosing the Rudera as the most suitable Chenin Blanc to pair with the dish.  Irina von Holdt shared that Chenin Blanc is the ‘ultimate restaurant wine‘, she said, being so versatile.

Grilled salmon topped with a salmon skin crisp, served with brown rice salsa, with a light soy sauce, a jalapeno dressing, lemon juice and olive oil was paired with Remhoogte Honeybunch Reserve 2011, Graham Beck Bowed Head 2010, and Ken Forrester FMC 2010, the Graham Beck found at our table to pair best.  The dessert was excellent, being a Passion fruit Brûlée served with coconut ice cream, and was paired with Villiera Inspiration 2010, Kanu Kia-Ora Noble Late Harvest (NLH) 2008, and Joostenberg NLH 2005.  Jeff explained that the Villiera wine name came from a trip to France, which he and his team had won in a blending competition, where they tasted lots of Chenin Blanc and Noble Late Harvest, which was the inspiration for the creation of the Villiera.

The Nobu lunch demonstrated how well the spectrum of Chenin Blanc wines can be paired with foods, and will have gained Chenin Blanc producers a whole lot more fans.

Disclosure: We received a bottle of Villiera Chenin Blanc 2011.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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