Posted by: tomciocco | July 3, 2014

FROM THE BANKS OF THE LOIRE TO THE SOUTH AFRICAN COAST

It usually comes as a distinct surprise to most non-wine anoraks that South Africa is the first non-Eurasian locale to have a wine industry, and that it was begun by the Dutch, a people not typically associated with viticulture. South Africa’s long winemaking tradition began in 1659 in what is now the charming city of Cape Town. Precisely what grapes were planted and vinified in that year is a fact that has been lost to time, but considering that the planting of red varieties in South Africa only began in earnest in the 1970s, beginning initially with the oft-kicked around, all-South African hybrid grape (developed by a South African for South African in 1925) Pinotage which is a cross between Pinot Noir and the southern French variety Cinsault.

But even though the cultivation of red grapes has exploded since the 1990s, a full 18% of all the land under vine in the entire country is planted to just one non-red variety, the Loire’s great white, Chenin Blanc. Exactly when Chenin Blanc arrived in South Africa is still the subject of debate, but considering that it has been dubbed with an Afrikaans name – ‘Steen’ – it’s safe to say that Chenin’s arrival goes back a couple of centuries at least. And indeed, along with the much more recently introduced Sauvignon Blanc which in my opinion takes ‘place’ in South Africa’s viticultural steeplechase, Steen/Chenin Blanc thrives in South Africa like no other variety, and at its best can rival the Loire’s greatest Vouvrays and Montlouis’.

The fruit that composes this particular wine emanates from the Agter-Paarl region of the Western Cape from bush vine plants (low, untrellised vines favored in very hot and dry regions like this one), all of which are quite old. All vines produce more intensely-flavored fruit as they age, but this goes double for Steen. The wine is aged on its lees (the dead yeast cells) for up to four months which further enhances the wine’s depth and complexity, and to maintain a cleaner and fresher overall profile for the wine, all of the juice utilized is “free-run”, meaning that the grapes are not mechanically/artificially pressed, but rather in a sense, press themselves under their own weight.

Like lots of Chenin Blanc/Steen-based wines, the final product displays a touch of sweetness, but fear not, this extra touch of residual sugar comes off in the mouth as a richness which is always balanced by Steen’s typical searing levels of acidity. For me, Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s most distinctive white grape varieties, and it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call it absolutely unique, often displaying rich stone fruit flavors, an intense minerality, and in many cases, a pleasantly funkiness that serves as a second foil to the extra bit of sweetness.

Chenin Blanc wine, even the ones from its homeland in France’s Loire Valley, is not on many drinker’s radar, let alone the ones that come from South Africa, but that needs to change. So if you’re looking for a decisive departure from Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay or Riesling or Gruner Veltliner or Verdejo or Falanghina or ANYTHING white for that matter, grab yourself a bottle of Steen.

I matched this very gregarious wine with a first course of a salad of black-eyed peas, cucumbers, scallions, and avocado with a simple lime vinaigrette followed by a main course that sent a nod the way of South Africa’s large Indian population in the form of a yogurt chicken curry with prunes served over plain white Basmati rice.

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MAN Vintners South Africa W.O. Coastal Region Chenin Blanc 2011

Slightly greenish light, bright golden color. Arrestingly expressive nose of apricot, cantaloupe, quince, flint, buttered corn, egg custard, candied fennel and ground ginger. In the mouth the wine is fat and ever-so-slightly sweet but with a piercingly tart acidity with sweet and sour flavors of pineapple, yellow cherry nectar, white peach,  violet candies, an intense stoniness, and boiled peanuts. Whistle clean bitterish finish.

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