Home > Legislation, Liquor Industry, Wine > Style or place: What is the future of South African Chenin?

Style or place: What is the future of South African Chenin?

On the eve of Cape Wine 2012, September 24 to be precise, the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA) held its annual conference at The One & Only at the V&A Waterfront.

I attended with much interest, as the program promised that the results of a three year research study conducted by the Institute for Wine Biotechnology would be revealed, and indeed it was.

The pre-cursor to the research feedback, was a panel discussion by Richard Kershaw MW, Frans Smit of Spier, Bruwer Raats of Raats family wines and Neil Grunewald of DGB which debated whether or not regionality is in any way expressed in South African Chenin. Each of the four panellists gave their views on the matter, and although each presenter focussed on different  variables  – soil, climate, elevation, proximity to the ocean, clonal material, etc. – the ultimate conclusion was that it’s far too early for us to start speaking about regional expression (call it terrior if you will), because of the great differences in soil, climate, elevation and aspect, sometimes in the same ward, never mind in a given wine region. Conclusion? All things being equal, it is not unusual for a diversity of styles – from fresh and fruity to rich and ripe, more about this later – to emerge from a single region.

A compounding factor is the propensity of South African winemakers to buy in grapes from other wards and even other regions and  bottle it as their own. An example is Andy Mitchell Wines Swartland Chenin Blanc, made at the cellar in Greyton but with fruit from a Swartland vineyard.

In a number of such instances, such a wine will be an intra-varietal blend, including fruit from the likes of Darling, Stellenbosch, Durbanville and Elim for example. This practice is perfectly legal of course, and it affords the winemaker with a good degree of latitude in assembling a wine of a particular style, and it is this aspect – style – which emerged as the principal driver of Chenin Blanc expression. If this were France,  making and marketing such a wine would be illegal. The AOC system in France is far too rigid to allow such practices.

Getting back to the massive diversity with which we must contend, what did emerge was the important consideration that it is perhaps time to revisit our demarcation system, to see whether it would be possible to demarcate more granularly than the current system allows for.

The Banhoek in Stellenbosch was cited as an example, whereby it has both a south and a north facing aspect, not to mention a good deal of diversity in soil type. To what level does one consider taking demarcation to more tightly define the characteristics of a specific area? Do we get as granular as Bordeaux for example, where depending upon which side of the pathway the vineyard is situated, it either is or isn’t a Grand Cru? Do we want our equivalent of the AOC – the demarcation system under control of SAWIS – to become as restrictive? Probably not in the legislative sense.

Having said that, it’s worthwhile taking a look at what’s happening in the Swartland, where a band of like-minded producers have set about defining criteria which, if adhered to, will result in wines of a particular style emerging from the region. Love them or hate them, the Swartland is known for oxidative style wines, which helps to define many of the wines that  cone out of the area.

But where does that leave the debate about Chenin and regionality? Nowhere, other than to say once more that style, with a degree of influence conferred by the region in which it is grown, defining the Chenin that emerges from a particular producer. Frans Smit made the point, that counter-intuitively, vineyards close to the ocean, because of longer ripening and hanging times often have greater fruit concentration and purity than hotter drier inland regions. A prime example of how location influences a wine beyond the style pursued by the winemaker.

Interestingly, the research feedback presented by Dr Helene Nieuwoudt, reveals that consumers are able to identify two broad style categories – fresh and fruity on the one hand and rich and ripe on the other. Aside from the parlous level of consumer knowledge about the varietal – Chenin is named around 7th or 8th when consumers are prompted to name grape varietals they know – the finer nuances of style (wooded or unwooded, residual sugar) appear to be poorly understood.

The CBA recently defined five styles for Chenin – fresh and fruity, rich and ripe unwooded, rich and ripe wooded, rich and ripe slightly sweet, noble late harvest, but that in and of itself requires a level of discrimination which appears to escape the average consumer according to Dr Nieuwoudt.

If anything, Chenin style should be defined on a continuum from fresh and fruity to rich and ripe. If such a continuum were to be presented visually on the bottle label, then it becomes easy for a winemaker to position their wine on that spectrum.

Chatting over lunch to Dr Winnie Bowman CWM, the intriguing possibility of another dimension emerged. She feels that as an adjunct to the style continuum, something similar to denote residual sugar simply – a sweetness spectrum – would play an important role in helping consumers make informed choices about which Chenin to buy.

And if you take that one step further, something similar to denote the level of oaking of a wine, would complete the picture.

Point is, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Three simple continua on the label, standardised for all CBA members, with a simple indicator on each to define the wine style in those three dimensions. What could be simpler?

If indeed our demarcation system is to evolve over time to more granularly define specific terroirs, then working with such a multi-dimensional but simple style identification system, might well be the bridge between now and then.

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