“Chenin is lovely. And it does well in South Africa. This should be the most important take-home message. Buy it! It’s usually really great value for money.” – Wine author Jamie Goode
Chenin Blanc was among the first varieties planted by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1655 – yes, 1655! – at the very beginning of winegrowing in South Africa. That long history, rare for a “New World” wine region, has etched the grape deep into the country’s wine culture, but South Africa’s winning Chenin Blanc story is a combination of both old and new.
The dawn of a new democracy twenty years ago opened the world to South African wines – and South African wine to the world. As a result, Chenin Blanc has evolved from a nondescript, workhorse variety in South Africa to a white wine that can challenge Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for a spot on your table. As Lauren Buzzeo wrote in the Wine Enthusiast, “South African Chenin Blanc is having a moment of reinvention and reintroduction to the world, proving itself a noble variety capable of producing world-class wines. “
Chenin Blanc acreage in South Africa has shrunk from nearly a third of the nation’s vineyards in the mid-1980s to around half that now, but this is truly a case in which less is more: growers and winemakers have honed their attention to the vineyards that yield the freshest, most flavorful Chenin Blanc.
These vineyards are often made up of “bush wines,” as they’re known in South Africa (in California, they call them “head-trained” vines). With no wires to neatly array the shoots, leaves and fruit, these vines do their own thing, flopping about and looking a bit unruly. Bush vines can be a bit more challenging to harvest (as seen in the picture below), but they are worth the extra effort: Because the vines limit their own output, each berry is packed with maximum flavor. This is particularly true with older vineyards, and protea is fortunate to have just such vineyards for the protea Chenin Blanc – vineyards that date back more than a quarter century.
“Chenin Blanc came into my life via my experience in South Africa. When I heard about Chenin Blanc I thought I’d never had that and when I had it, I knew I’d found something fresh and exciting – so much so that I’ve now become a fan of Chenin Blanc. – Film legend Robert Redford
South African Chenin Blanc can be made in a wine range of styles, and no obvious trend has emerged. Some vintners emphasize bracing acidity; others use heavy oak-barrel influence to create a more luxurious wine.
At protea, the older bush vines and other vineyard sources provide concentrated fruit that delivers depth and lovely aromatics – “pear, citrus and honeysuckle characters” in the 2014 vintage, says winemaker Mark van Buren – to go along with crisp refreshment. In that sense, it captures the full potential of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc wine magic.