“What is your favourite wine?” – a question I am often asked, and always reluctant to answer as I am a firm believer that all varietals and styles of wine have their place, each suited for different occasions, meals, weather conditions and moods. However, with the weather cooling slightly as we head into winter I have found myself veering away from refreshing sparkling wine and steely Sauvignon Blanc and rather opting for Chenin Blanc with a tad of oak, more body, warmer, yet still refreshing.
Chenin Blanc is thought to originate from the Anjou region of France where it has been grown since the 9th century and known as Chenere. In the 15th century, vineyards of Chenin Blanc were planted in the Touraine region of the Loire where it was renamed to Chenin Blanc after Mont Chenin.
In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa and was tasked by the Dutch East India Company to setup a supply station to be utilized by sailors travelling along the spice route. One of his tasks was to plant vineyards to produce wine to ward off scurvy for the sailors passing through. In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck introduced the first wines to the Cape and early documentation refers to three varieties which were planted: Groendruif (Semillon), Fransdruif and Steen. Fransdruif is known as Listan in France (Palomino in Spain) and it is believed that the Dutch who settled in the Cape confused things and decoded “Listan” to “La Stan”, then “De Steen” and eventually Steen. In 1963, Professor CJ Orffer, who was the Head of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, realized that Steen was actually Chenin Blanc when he matched the leaves of the two together.
Chenin Blanc is a workhorse in South Africa and in the first half of the 20th century was mostly used in the production of Brandy. In the 1960’s it was largely used for a semi-sweet wine called Lieberstein, a blend of Steen and Clairette Blanche. It was sold in a 5 litre “jug” bottle and was at one point the bestselling wine in the world. Today there is more Chenin Blanc planted in South Africa than its home in the Loire Valley of France and over 18% of land under vine in South Africa is planted with Chenin Blanc.
We have a long history with Chenin Blanc in South Africa hence why we have a lot of old vines and in particular bush vines. 999 of the 3538 hectares of vines over 35 years of age in South Africa is Chenin Blanc – more than any other varietal, second place being Pinotage, constituting only 188 hectares over 35 years of age. One of the oldest known Chenin Blanc vineyards today is the Mev A. Kirsten vineyard which was planted in Stellenbosch in 1942. A lot of producers are now sourcing the grapes from these old vines and producing excellent quality Chenin Blanc.
One such wine we have recently listed is the Donkiesbaai “Steen” Chenin Blanc. Donkiesbaai was founded by Jean Engelbrecht who also owns Rust-en-Vrede in Stellenbosch. Donkiesbaai on the West Coast of South Africa has been the vacation home to the Engelbrecht family for four generations. Donkiesbaai directly translated from Afrikaans is Donkey’s Bay, hence the donkey on the label, and could be interpreted as a euphemism for the South African workhorse.
Jean founded Donkiesbaai and started producing a Chenin Blanc as he wanted to produce a white wine of his own to drink which isn’t just Sauvignon Blanc; but rather a wine which is a little more complex, true to the South African wine industry, and something which pairs better with the crayfish he enjoys catching and eating whilst on holiday on the West Coast. What could be better than enjoying a holiday at the beach enjoying freshly caught crayfish and harders (a type of mullet fish) on the braai with a cold, crisp glass of “Steen” in hand? Drinking the same wine at Londolozi whilst watching the sun set over the bushveld of course, but you get the idea…
The grapes for the Donkiesbaai “Steen” Chenin Blanc come from Piekenierskloof, inland off the West Coast on the Ceres Plateau. The vineyard which the grapes are harvested from was planted in 1979 – currently 38 years old – is unirrigated and only benefits from natural rainfall. Production on the vineyard is only around 8 tons per hectare, ensuring great quality fruit with an intense flavour. The 2016 vintage recently scored 91 points in Wine Spectator.
The wine shows tropical aromas of peaches, apricots and pineapple, supported by fresh lime and melon notes. Stone fruit and pineapple follow through on the palate with a rich, creamy mouthfeel (from part of the wine undergoing fermentation in old French oak) and an elegant, balanced finish. Barring crayfish and harders, it will pair perfectly with chicken kebabs, most creamy pasta dishes and our From the Sea option on Anna’s lunch menu consisting of grilled calamari tubes and tentacles, with garlic and lemon butter, parsnip & butternut chips, garden salad, and a touch of chili.
So with all of that, which wine is currently your favourite?