NEW YORK Chenin Blanc, the most widely planted grape in South Africa, is a varietal once considered by some to be "cheap and cheerful quaff," but it is now gaining an appreciation around the globe.
South African Chenin Blanc has found its way onto wine lists at some of the world’s top restaurants, including Michelin starred restaurants in New York and in Hong Kong.
“It’s a great variety. It’s very versatile,” said South African vintner Ken Forrester. “It can be anything from your Paul Masson jug wine all the way up to the Savennières of the Loire.”
The owner of Ken Forrester Wines in Stellenbosch, east of Cape Town, described Chenin Blanc as “the Madonna of white wine.” When young, it is floral and honeyed with touches of guava and pineapple, but when aged, it can gain a juicy complexity, he explained on a visit to New York.
South African vintners began growing Chenin Blanc in the 17th century. They have been pruning their production for more than 20 years, cutting the number of acres to 18 percent from 32 percent in 1990, according to the nonprofit trade group South African Wine Industry Statistics.
All the while, the vines that remained aged. Both moves are signals that quality – not quantity – is the goal. Pruning, or cutting back, on the yields means the grapes that remain have a more concentrated flavor, and older vines result in better grapes.
California-based Terroir Capital, an investment group founded by Charles Banks, the former co-owner of the cult $2,732 a bottle wine Screaming Eagle, bought South Africa's Mulderbosch Vineyards, also in Stellenbosch, a few years ago.
Banks' group owns several wineries, including one of California’s oldest boutique wineries, Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley. When he bought Mulderbosch Banks decided to focus on the vineyard's Chenin Blanc grapes.
He hired a new winemaker, Adam Mason, and invested in long-term contracts with other growers who had old vines in what Mason called the right spots.
“There is a level of quality and dimension and richness that you get from grapes grown in old vineyards,” he explained while visiting New York.
For Mason, an old-age vineyard is between 20 and 30 years.
"That’s a lot of time to be producing grapes in one spot,” he said.
The result has been a limited production of three different, single-vineyard Chenin Blancs, which are sold as a trio for $100.
“Just as an aside,” Mason said, “the Mulderbosch Chenin blend is a blend of all of these various sites.” The blend sells for an average of $13 a bottle.
At Stellenbosch Vineyards, Abraham de Villiers is also focusing on using more mature bush vines and French oak barrels to raise the quality of his winery’s Chenin Blanc.
(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)