This is what I learned at the recent South African wine seminars.
Chenin is 30% of South Africa’s white wine and the grape is grown on 18% of the country’s vineyards. In the rest of the world, this grape is known as Chenin Blanc; it makes great wines in the Loire region but has little respect elsewhere.
Because South Africans have been growing Chenin for 350 years, they’ve figured out where it grows best. They have also experimented enough to know how to make Chenin into a light, crisp wine (think the lightest Chablis crossed with the least aromatic Sauvignon Blanc you can image), a bigger-bodied version (think chardonnay) and a sweet dessert wine (think late harvest from northern France). What you choose depends on what you like – and what you’re eating.
Now that you’re thinking of buying it, you might want to know South African Chenins start around $12-$15. Some vintage Chenins, rare or dessert Chenins can go up to $25, $45 or even $65 a bottle.
Oh, yeah, not to forget the Pinotage. A lot of us have had bad Pinotage. Some of us have had good Pinotage. Good Pinotage involves low yields, letting the grapes achieve full phenolic ripeness on the vine – achievable in 8 out of 9 years in South Africa – and manipulating the grapes very gently to avoid getting the harsh tannins from the grapes’ thick skins into the wines. So we tasted a few and they weren’t tannic, they had OK flavors, and now I know what to look for next time…