Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Seeking Chenin’s Serious Side

South Africa plants more Chenin Blanc than any other grape variety and production levels here are the highest in the world, yet she carries the stigma of unsophisticated bulk wine and many consumers overlook her true potential as an elegant gem. But Chenin Blanc’s struggle for recognition isn’t over yet and her unsung story is complete with champions like Ken Forrester set on changing the odds.

The humble Chenin Blanc grape is a curious character. Something like the quiet girl at the party, she has all the grace and sophistication one could want for – yet she fades into the background next to the glitz and glamour of her outspoken cousins Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A walk into an average wine shop confirms her small pool of friends – bottle after bottle, other wines greet you at the door and only if you make it past their bells and whistles, seeming to catcall to you from the shelves as you walk by, will you find poor little Chenin tucked away in some small corner – sometimes overlooked and mostly underappreciated.

There is of course a reason for this ugly-duckling status – until a few decades ago Chenin was used to produce the bottom-of-the-barrel for the down-and-nearly-outs of society. Her history in South Africa started out innocently enough – Chenin was among the very first vine clippings planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655 – but the winemakers of the day had a fairly poor knowledge of viticulture, allowing the vines to grow like weeds and produce generous harvests of grapes that had little similarity to the complex quality and concentrated characteristics of Chenin when yields are low. Adding insult to injury, basic winemaking materials like oak barrels and fining were not readily available in the Cape, meaning that Chenin Blanc wine was what today we call plonk – it might have even made that sound upon landing in one’s glass – but let’s leave that topic for another time. It was so unpleasant that the officers of the Dutch East India Company wouldn’t dare touch it and only the working classes would.

But in 1806 a funny thing happened – the British occupied the Cape. I say this was funny not in the hilarious sense, but in the ironic sense. At war with France, the English Empire was desperately cut-off from the trade of French wine and to substitute they began exporting Cape wine to the world. The demand was so great that Cape wine production increased by ten-fold and the British were soon pumping millions of litres of plonk to their unsuspecting kinsmen everywhere. This surely must have hastened efforts to kiss and make up with France. When a treaty was finally signed in the 1860’s the bottom fell out. Alas, the party was over and like a discarded mistress the Cape wine industry was left holding the bag.

Then a pivotal question presented itself – just what to do with all that wine? Eventually a decision was taken to distil it into brandy - a process that yields one litre of brandy for every five litres of wine. In a way Chenin Blanc’s versatility rescued the industry from bankruptcy but this didn’t do much for her reputation since the quality of brandy, known as “witblitz” or “firewater”, was even worse than plonk wine. After this Chenin’s fate was pretty much sealed and until a few years ago no one would give her a second look let alone believe in her potential for elegance.

But did you know that a South African Chenin Blanc, properly made today, rivals the finest examples in the world, even those from Loire Valley, France where the grape originated? And just like any good underdog story Chenin Blanc has her champions – her knights in shining armour – who fight to change her reputation from one of ill repute to one of true stature. People like Ken Forrester discovered her potential before most in the industry, and even started the Chenin Blanc Association as a way to both elevate quality and change perceptions.

Discovering “diamonds in the rough” is something of a pastime for Mr. Forrester. When he decided to move from Johannesburg to Stellenbosch he found a new home for his young family – not just any home, he bought a derelict structure through public auction that had been standing vacant for years. There was no roof, no electricity, and evidence of vandalism was all over the place - sounds like a real charmer to me. But what do I know? As it turns out, his instincts were spot on – this historic Cape Dutch homestead was built in 1694, part of a farm originally granted in 1689 and today this manor home has been restored to its original glory. Besides his passion for Chenin Blanc, Mr. Forrester considers Pinotage to be another unsung story and is intent on revealing its true potential as a wine with structure, one that can even be confused with classic Burgundy, if it is kept in the barrel and aged in the cellar longer before its release. He makes a case for a change in industry standards to better inform the consumer about the care that goes into developing a wine, to encourage both craftsmanship on the part of the industry, and informed appreciation by consumers. With vision like this it’s not hard to imagine his passion for Chenin Blanc paying off – and in fact, it is already starting.

Ken Forrester wines have been recognized globally and served at gala events, including Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday celebration. The democratic offering comes in three tiers – a value, estate, and premium range – so there is something for every occasion and every wallet. No matter which Chenin Blanc you choose, according to Wine Spectator the entire offering ranks upwards of 86-points– a nod that they are truly outstanding varietals. Best of all the 2009 Forrester Meinert Chenin (FMC) earned a 92-point rating – on par with some of the best that France can offer, albeit at a decidedly more welcoming price point.

With such a successful track record perhaps Ken Forrester has struck onto something significant – in a highly competitive global market why try to compete with the Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays of the world when they’re already surrounding us with their fame, calling to us from every aisle shouting “4-stars” this and “double-gold” that. At the end of the party, aren’t they just more of the same, like so many wilted flowers? When Chenin Blanc is so well suited to the South African climate and has the potential as a niche offering worldwide, why not set our own standard? Perhaps Chenin Blanc is our lady in waiting after all. Funny thing is, she’s been here all along. Funny not in the hilarious sense, but in the ironic sense. If only we would notice.

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