IN SOUTH AFRICA
SA Chenin Blanc back to its noble roots – brief summary
Jan Van Riebeeck (Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662) introduced the first vines to the Cape in 1655. Early documents refer to varieties: Groendruif (Semillon), Fransdruif and Steen. It seems that the origin of the names Fransdruif and Steen are intertwined.
Early opinion had it that Steen was of Germanic origin, supported by the evidence of a handwritten note, by Governor Simon van der Stel, on wine quality, that mentioned that wine made from “Steen druiven” was comparable to quality German Stein wines.
10 years ago the late Prof. Chris Orffer (Former head of the department of Viticulture and Oenology at University of Stellenbosch) gave me his personal notes on the history of SA Chenin Blanc. During Prof. Orffer’s doctoral studies from 1954 to 1956 at the University of California, (U.C. Davis), no emphasis was made of Chenin blanc. He however remembers he encountered the “strange” cultivar Chenin Blanc. Unfortunately time did not allow him to do some ampelographic research on Californian varieties. Then Prof. Orffer discovered, in Volume III of GALET (1962), the name "Franche" on page 1928. On the page was a tracing of a leaf that looked very similar to the leaves of vines he remembered from his childhood – Steen.
Prof. Offer had to ensure final and scientific evidence. That was done by importing shoots and then cultivating them with our local Steen under the same conditions. The wait was long, including quarantine time, but the long wait was over and at last in 1963 it could be recorded that Steen and Chenin Blanc is the same variety.
In his notes Prof. Orffer also mentions a research thesis at the University of Stellenbosch, by Jac van Rensburg (1930) on the first 100 years of South African Viticulture (1652 -1752). I spent some time reading the thesis and in his research Jac van Rensburg offers some very interesting observations. According to his research the first vines did arrive in the Cape on 22nd July 1655 on the ship Leeuwin. However there are no official records or documentation as to the provenance of these first cuttings. The next cuttings arrived on 11th March 1656 on board the Dordrecht, the records claim "uit Vranckryk" (from France), and a month later another batch of cuttings from France on board the ship Parel.
If we thus assert the claim from Governor Van Riebeeck's diaries that grapes were pressed on the 2nd February 1659, from grapes "van twee jaren hier geweest" (from two year old vines), the assumption therefore is that these first pressings were from the first grapes, from two year old vines, which must have arrived on the ships Dordrecht and Parel.
Jac mention’s two varieties, Steen and (Spaanse Druiven) Muscadel, and as Muscadel is a late ripener, these February pressings surely came from Chenin Blanc? Hence it may be a reasonable assumption that the first wine made here at the Cape of Good Hope some 355 years ago was from Chenin Blanc.
Putting South African Chenin Blanc up there where it belongs
In the early 1990s, a few passionate SA producers started taking Chenin Blanc very seriously. On a visit to South Africa in 1995, Masters of Wine were amazed at how many good Chenin Blanc wines were being produced here.
This interest stimulated growers and winemakers to take a fresh look at this reliable variety. This added impetus to the forming in 2000 of an organisation dedicated to the variety, the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA).
The association has an aim that is simply expressed - to ensure that South African Chenin Blanc takes its rightful place with the other great white wines of the world.
Due to the high natural acidity of Chenin Blanc a considerable volume in past was snatched up for brandy production. The past decade saw more judicious use of oak (often larger 300- and 400-litre barrels) and improved cellar practices, skin contact and use of native, wild fermentation.
Gradually as quality winemaking took hold it became apparent that the best Chenin Blanc sites had to benefit from an almost improbable location or site selection; what was ideally required was a site that offered “cool sunshine” and where a vineyard could benefit from elevation or cool breezes or a coastal influence.
South Africans started to isolate the very best Chenin Blanc vineyards.
The fact that we have such a library of old plantings has made a tremendous difference to quality, and more and more parcels of old vines are being sought out by smart younger winemakers, who are making incredible wines.
We have seen a rush of market-leading SA Chenin Blanc doing well in competitions around the world. For example the Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2013 was awarded “BEST WHITE WINE“ AT CONCOURS MONDIAL DE BRUXELLES.
At present South Africa has 17 890ha of Chenin vineyards, 18% of total plantings.
Updated by Ina Smith: Manager Chenin Blanc Association - August 2015