Among South African white wines, chenin blanc leads the way

To many wine drinkers, South African wines are a bit of a mystery. The country’s bottles don’t get a lot of shelf space in most stores or prominence on restaurant wine lists. All of which is a shame, because the quality of South African wines has never been better, and many of them offer tremendous value.

The industry has had some catching up to do. Although South Africa has a long history of wine production – a wine estate, Constantia, was established outside Cape Town in 1685 – recent history has been more difficult. During apartheid, much of the world boycotted South Africa and its products, and the wine industry went through a period of isolation and stagnation.

With the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, South African winemakers started traveling more, and international winemakers started visiting. This cross-pollination helped promote increased innovation and, in turn, increases in quality.

South Africa, “as a brand, is definitely stepping up to the plate,” says Debbie Thompson, cellar master at Simonsig in Stellenbosch.

“I think South Africa is punching well above its weight,” says Carl van der Merwe, chief executive and cellar master at DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch. “The industry has become a lot more professional.”

The rolling terrain of the Stellenbosch wine region. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Even as quality has been improving, total vineyard area has been decreasing over the past 10 years. Chenin blanc remains the most-planted wine grape, at about 42,000 acres, although that number has been declining. Sauvignon blanc (No. 4) is the only variety in the top five that has seen plantings increase, to more than 23,000 acres. (At No. 6, pinotage, a red variety, is also increasing; more on that in a few weeks.)

Chenin blanc, which used to be known locally as steen, is South Africa’s workhorse grape. It’s used for dry and sweet wines, as well as sparkling wines, sherry-type wines and distilled products. The grape is planted in many areas, so you’ll see bottlings with a range of appellations. More than a third of the country’s chenin blanc acreage is more than 20 years old, according to industry statistics, and those old vines are often the source of some of the better wines.

South African chenin blanc ranges from inexpensive bottlings that are fresh and easy to drink, to more expensive wines that are rich, fleshy and complex. There’s something for everyone.

At the more affordable end of the scale, there’s the 2018 Spier Chenin Blanc ($10), with its racy green apple, hint of fig and some fleshiness; the 2018 MAN Family Wines Chenin Blanc ($12), which is racy, almost tart, with flavors of apple, lemon and quince; and the 2018 A.A. Badenhorst “Secateurs” Chenin Blanc ($15), which is fresh and appley, with some nice weight and good tension. The 2018 Simonsig Chenin Blanc ($14) is round, fruity and easy to drink; there’s also a wooded bottling, Simonsig Chenin Avec Chene ($36), that’s richer and creamier.

A bit more expensive, but worth it, is the 2018 Delaire Graff Chenin Blanc ($25), made from dry-farmed bush vines; the wine is round, fresh and mouth-watering, with white fruit and a great core of acidity.

Reyneke Wines in Stellenbosch makes a modestly priced chenin, the 2018 Vinehugger White ($17), which is fresh yet fleshy, with lots of white fruit and a long finish. But the grape really shines in the 2018 Reyneke Chenin Blanc ($34), made from old vines. It’s delicious, with concentrated white fruit, a citrusy core and some creaminess.

There’s a similar lineup at L’Avenir, also in Stellenbosch. The 2018 L’Avenir “Provenance” Chenin Blanc ($19) has some structure and displays flavors of pink grapefruit, apple and apple peel. The winery also makes a stellar single-block chenin ($36) from old vines that’s rich and floral, with white fruit, dry honey and a stony note. It shows a great yin and yang of richness and raciness. (I tasted the 2017, which may be hard to find; the 2018 will arrive soon.)

The 2016 DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc ($40) is opulent yet very fresh, with white stone fruit, pear, golden apple and a long finish. The 2017 may be current in some markets. DeMorgenzon has something of a Rhone focus, but van der Merwe says that “chenin blanc is the wine that’s most associated” with the winery.

Although sauvignon blanc is increasingly popular throughout South African wine country, it’s long been a player in Constantia, just outside Cape Town, where the country’s first wine estate was established.

Klein Constantia, near Cape Town, is best known for sauvignon blanc and a dessert wine, Vin de Constance. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

“Sauvignon blanc makes itself here,” says Alan Wickstrom of Klein Constantia, which is part of the historic Constantia wine estate. “Red wines are hard work.” Klein Constantia is best known for sauvignon blanc, which accounts for most of its production, and a dessert wine called Vin de Constance.

Klein Constantia has several bottlings of sauvignon blanc, including the 2018 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($19), which offers pink grapefruit, green apple and just a hint of herbaceousness, and the 2017 “Clara” Sauvignon Blanc ($30), a delicious example that’s a little spicy and creamy, with lively stone fruit and a lemony undertone. The winery also makes a wine called Metis that’s a venture with Loire winemaker Pascal Jolivet.

Another Constantia winery, Buitenverwachting, markets its wines in the U.S. under names that are easier for Americans to pronounce: Bayten and Beyond. The 2018 Bayten Sauvignon Blanc ($15) is a little structured, with pink grapefruit and some herbaceousness, while the 2018 Beyond Sauvignon Blanc ($12) is fruitier and easy, with just a hint of residual sugar to balance the acidity. The 2018 Constantia Glen Sauvignon Blanc ($24) includes a splash of semillon for a wine with grapefruit, lime, lime peel and a touch of creaminess.

I also tasted a couple of very good sauvignon blancs during my visits to Stellenbosch wineries: the 2018 Delaire Graff Sauvignon Blanc ($19), with its pink grapefruit flavors and hints of grassiness, salinity and wet stone, and the 2018 DeMorgenzon DMZ Sauvignon Blanc ($18), which is very fragrant with passion fruit and a hint of salinity.

Other white grapes, like chardonnay, have their fans, and a number of wineries are experimenting with lesser-known grapes. At Stark-Condé in Stellenbosch, for example, there’s a white blend, the 2018 Field Blend ($26), that includes chenin blanc along with roussanne, verdelho and viognier; it’s fleshy, with creamy white stone fruit, green apple and nice tension.

Any discussion of South African whites wouldn’t be complete without mentioning méthode cap classique (MCC), a sparkling wine made in the traditional method, like Champagne. Simonsig, in Stellenbosch, was the first winery to produce an MCC wine, in 1971. Simonsig’s 2017 Kaapse Vonkel Brut ($20), a blend of mostly chardonnay and pinot noir, with a touch of pinot meunier, is very fresh and fine, with crisp citrus and apple, a mineral note and a hint of toastiness.

Although it can be hard to find a store with a good selection of South African wines, many are available through an online store called Cape Ardor. Click here to go to the website.

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