Drink Chenin Day: South African Sampler, Part I

18 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

As far as concocted wine holidays go, this one has a rather organic beginning. The first Drink Chenin Day, a global celebration of the wonderful and perennially underrated Chenin Blanc, was not self-created by a trade association or a PR firm, but was held in 2014 by a group of American sommeliers and winemakers. Their initiative was picked up by the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa, which has turned the third Friday of every June into an industry-backed festival of all things Chenin. This year’s Drink Chenin theme for the big day on June 18th (this Friday) is “Chenin & Sushi”, which makes a whole lot of sense, particularly if your Chenin Blanc is in sparkling form — there’s nothing like the bready, yeasty notes of bottle-aged traditional method bubbles playing off the umami funk inherent in wasabi-tinged soy sauce and raw fish. Add in vinegar (in the rice) and citrus (in the wine, like you’d squeeze over fish in the first place) and you have something mesmerizing. I am on board with wine holiday theme years, and hope to see this trend continued by the next grape on the Hallmark docket. World Lambrusco Day is June 21st…maybe steer clear of the sushi for that one.

Photo Credit: chenin.co.za.

True story: one of the first “name” wines that I ever bought when I first started studying wine was a Chenin Blanc. I bought a book that discussed the major wine grapes of the world and listed a pinnacle producer or two for each of them. I took an interest to the Chenin Blanc entry, which described the varietal’s generous texture yet incisive acidity, and summoned up my bravery to enter the closest true wine shop to my home at the time (Calgary’s incredible Metrovino) to look for the recommended landmark Chenin winery. I swallowed hard at the $40 price tag, but walked out with a bottle of the Loire Valley’s Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec. Fifteen years, thousands of bottles and a WSET education later, I write a wine blog that I don’t have time for on evenings and weekends. And I still love Chenin. That bottle pitched me into wine headfirst.

For Drink Chenin Day 2021, we have an array of South African offerings on display that are…largely not Chenin Blanc. However, *spoiler alert* those that are clearly stand out from the crowd, as this Southern Hemispheric nation has embraced this grape (long known as “Steen” there, though less so now) more than most other countries and has clearly reaped the rewards of that allegiance. South Africa has undergone a quality renaissance recently that has largely been tied to improved farming practices and the avoidance of pesky vine viruses, so it is absolutely worth another visit for those whose prior memories are half a decade old or more. Some of the most pleasant vinous surprises I’ve had over the past few years have hailed from this burgeoning wine nation…and that’s without diving too far into their Chenin supply. (Pro tip: try the Raats Dolomite Cab Franc.) Raising a large glass of Testalonga Chenin to you all this weekend! Find some raw fish!

2020 Spier Signature Collection Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Rose (~$15): We start with a quintet of offerings from Spier Wine Farm near Stellenbosch, which has been around making wine since 1692 but which now, under the stewardship of billionaire owner Richard Enthoven, has expanded to include a hotel, spa, sustainable farm, artisan studio and broad-ranging production facility. The first bottle is immediately interesting, because it goes without saying that most rose is not 60% white. I briefly wondered whether this pink wine was made like rose Champagne, by literally mixing red and white wines together, but no: this 60% Chardonnay/40% Pinot Noir blend was fermented together in stainless steel tanks, drained off the Pinot Noir’s dark-hued skins when the colour hit the selected pale salmon/coral colour. The resulting burnt orange, white Freezie, cantaloupe, pina colada and strawberry leaf aromatic profile calmly walks the line between white and red, and between generous and controlled. Broad and fleshy, with prickly, almost pointy acidity, this starts out on the more severe end of approachable but mellows with time, the initial bitter edge to the finish smoothing out with air. This holds for 3-4 days in the fridge with limited effort, which is an impressive hallmark for any wine on the shelf at $14.99. A solid effort, and highly enjoyable. 87- points

2020 Spier Signature Collection Chenin Blanc (~$15): Now for the star of this yearly international celebration. This particular Chenin was left unoaked but fermented with skins briefly and then matured on its lees for 3 months for textural purposes. Ultra-pale lemon in colour, this impressively complex offering melds Banana Runts, kiwi, starfruit and honeydew melon, a lingering cotton candy note briefly spurring the question of whether this is an airy, bubblegum sort of Chenin. Then you taste, and the powerful acid engine of this tremendous grape revs up, anchoring an impressive structural display with a firm hand. Thanks to its brief flirtation with skin contact, this simultaneously makes the mouth dry out and salivate at the same time, a strong citric presence and a lemon-zest bitter tweak on the chalky finish bringing the over-the-top aromatics firmly in line. Seriously impressive for this price point. 88 points

2018 Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc (~$33): Same grape, perhaps, but this is a totally different animal. Harvested from 35+ year-old vines planted within 15 kilometres of the Atlantic coast, then fermented and matured in 60% new oak for 14 months, this combines the extended flavour development from longer hang times with the extroverted friendliness of the barrel. Electric yellow Gatorade colour leads to a riotously complex nose, from skunky to rubbery to densely fruit-laden, a joyous combination of apple cobbler, lemon curd, baking spices, new elastic bands, flint, butterscotch pudding and salted caramel. Rich and round, ripe and oak-accented, the premium version of Spier’s Chenin flashes creamy vanilla and pistachio nuttiness around a sumptuous Key Lime and white peach core, coming off a little showy but undoubtedly delicious. On Drink Chenin Day, these two expressions of the same grape from the same producer highlight the potential variety inherent to the variety. 89+ points

2019 Spier Signature Collection Pinotage (~$16): Can’t have a South African Signature Collection without a Pinotage, I suppose. This man-made crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault likely qualifies as South Africa’s national red, and certainly is grown more here than anywhere else, with varying degrees of success. Spier certainly does not shy away from the grape’s savoury, herbal personality in this entry-level example. Sandpaper, moccasins, malted chocolate, dill pickle and jalapeño aromas stand guard over a core of dusty cherry and blackberry fruit. It starts sharp and a touch pitchy, equal parts dank and high-toned on the palate, char and roast beef meeting lime juice and grape Tang. Mild cleansing acid, sandy tannin and a slight hint of residual sugar hold off a mildly bitter finish. This absolutely keeps you coming back to the glass, and is a highly instructive case study of this polarizing grape. 87+ points

2019 Spier Signature Collection Merlot (~$16): From the unique to the ubiquitous, the outlandish to the anonymous. I very much enjoy a good Merlot, but the identity of this winemaking nation is certainly not tethered to this global varietal the same way. This is more subdued, more careful on the nose, a fruitcake, raspberry, rose petal and peppercorn concoction that ticks typicity boxes but could use a ramp-up in intensity. Thinner and choppier to taste, a full 1.5% ABV lower than the Pinotage at 13.0%, this is not as generous as Merlot is known to be, offering fairly limited red fruit and pen ink flavours before grippy tannin clamps down hard on the midpalate. A little more hang time or stricter yield limits would have done wonders. 85+ points

2018 Distell Inception Deep Layered Red (~$12): The next two bottles are probably best described as wines of discovery, or gateway wines. They’re the bottles that non-wine drinkers pick up in the supermarket (attracted, perhaps, but the killer label art on this particular offering), enjoy more than they thought they would, and get caught in the vast lifelong net of wine enjoyment. This Shiraz (65%), Petit Verdot (33%) and Mourvedre (2%) blend succeeds using similar methods as those that turned Apothic into a global phenomenon: namely, the retention of significant amounts of sugar in the final wine to enhance fruitiness and increase drinking pleasure. This one has over 21 g/L of residual sugar (similar levels to some German Kabinett Rieslings), which directly results in the sweet grape Kool-Aid, cream soda and strawberry Fruit Roll-Up flavours. The focus of the wine is solely on confectionary dark fruit, with limited tannin and quiet acid remaining firmly in the background. I got into wine in the mid-2000s (mid-aughts?) via Yellow Tail and Little Penguin, and others will get into wine via this — it tastes delicious. 83- points

2018 Distell Nederburg The Winemasters Cabernet Sauvignon (~$10): I can tell you without even trying this bottle that good $10 Cabernet Sauvignon is an impossible mission. Further, unlike the Inception above, Distell here does not opt to make use of extra sugar to lend sweetness and mask flavours, and it pays for it to some extent. An initial flash of sweet fruit is quickly clouded by bitterness, green pepper and peppercorn spice. Black cherry and earth are offset by underripe tomato leaf and hot pennies in a wine that does what it can with the limited resources and raw material at its disposal. For the extra $5 required to buy the Spier Signature Collection white above, Drink Chenin this weekend for a better sense of what South Africa is all about. 82+ points


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