Chenin Blanc – the great white wine grape
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : So at the 15th Annual Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show Awards at the end of May there was one standout varietal that simply glowed. Thanks in part to the brilliant summer of 2015 and that was Chenin Blanc.
Once upon a time in South Africa, Chenin Blanc was only used in blending, that is until Ken Forrester and maybe a few friends got into the game. Took the Chenin Blanc along, took it by the scruff of its neck and pulled it out of the shadows.
Ken Forrester is sitting opposite me. I sat through the Trophy Wine Show and I looked and listened to the Chenin Blanc again and again and again. But you did do something special with Chenin Blanc, you did take it out of the shadows and you did take it out by the scruff of its neck.
Chenin Blanc – a noble grape
Ken Forrester: Jen, it could never have been my effort only. There’s obviously a vast suave of believers of people who are sensitive enough to understand Chenin Blanc’s in the lineage as a noble grape. Chenin Blanc produces some of the very greatest white wines in the world, in its home turf if you like, in Loire Valley.
It goes back to the ninth or tenth Century, the Cistercian monks were responsible, I believe for looking after Chenin Blanc and creating the basis of the Chenin Blanc plantings. Chenin Blanc was delivered here by van Riebeeck, planted in the early 1658, or 1656, 1657, in that time. It was always believed to be a great, great white wine grape.
It became used as the workhorse of the Cape wine industry because the industry took off in a different direction. The industry was looking to make bulk wine. Quality wasn’t their objective and I don’t mean that in any harsh way. It’s just that you’d set off to do something, you set off to run 100 miles, perhaps speed is not your objective, the distance is. For the wine industry, quality wasn’t the objective, volume was.
The more volume of alcohol they could produce was the objective. The alcohol was used to make wine, easy drinking, everyday wine. Or perhaps to distil into brandy, or perhaps to denature as the previous government did and sell to Hungary. So that Hungary could supply it to France, so France would supply us with Mirage aircraft. All that denatured spirit was part of the deal that allowed us to sell crayfish to France and buy fancy aircraft and weapons.
You know all of these things are intertwined in the old… there’s some lovely, lovely history involved and none of it was specifically qualitatively driven and Chenin Blanc became this Hermanus grape. You could have your holiday house in Hermanus and go to Hermanus for December and when you came back in January after the Hermanus holiday the Chenin Blanc was ready to harvest.
So it was the perfect Hermanus grape, it didn’t interfere with your holiday. It tended to want to get some rot if it got some rainfall, if it was in moist conditions. That was the only real difficulty but it produced a big crop. It was happy to yield 20 or 30 or 40 tons a hectare under the right circumstances. It had nice big bunches, big, heavy, thickset bunches. It produced a lot of fluid which could convert into a lot of wine or brandy or alcohol as it happened.
Then people came along, notably one of the guys that caught my attention was my Hilko Hegewisch at Boschendal back in the late eighties, maybe the early nineties. He started making a wooded Chenin Blanc at Boschendal, which I found intriguing.
Then after him I thought we could do some Chenin Blanc and look at some oak aging and went to France and went and worked in the Loire Valley. Martin Minot was my mentor/good friend and he was kind enough to come with and investigate this whole Chenin experience with me.
We spent some time with Bernard Germain at Chateau de Fere in the Loire Valley just outside Touaraine. We spent a couple of vintages there working with Chenin and seeing his regime. We met with other Chenin producers at the time, Nicolas Joly, Madame Tejesse, Pierre Soleil and a host of people that were famous in their own right for Chenin Blanc. It was just as soon as Chenin Blanc got into South Africa, it entered a space inside an envelope that nobody had heard about it and it didn’t shine, it was hidden away.
Establishing Chenin Blanc on the South African market
So we decided to try and popularise, if you like Chenin by making what we hoped would be high quality wine. By pricing it accordingly at the right sort of pricing. You know Ferrari’s don’t come cheap. The first Chenin that we brought to the market was a wood-aged, barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc which is today our old vine reserve. In fact it’s still with the same old vineyard at the heart of it, the vineyards planted in 1974. So it’s a veritable old vineyard and in those days making wine from that vineyard, barrel fermenting was completely shocking.
Nobody was barrel fermenting Chenin Blanc. We understood that it needed big barrels not smaller barrels that it needed most gentle oak if possible and perhaps not 100% barrel fermented. You had some wine in tank that you preserved the fruit in tank. You had the barrel component that gave you a very, very nice balance with fresh fruit as well as this barrel component and certainly not new oak.
New oak was really, I think, the kiss of death for Chenin, so I mean it was very much a learning curve and a process. It’s been an ongoing process 23 years later. 23 years later I’m still experimenting on how to produce a new wine. This year, which we brought to the market a new style, something which we’ve kind of tried to pioneer and look at doing something differently again. It’s an ongoing evolution, it’s an ongoing process.
A new style Chenin Blanc
JCW: Tell us about the new style that you’ve done.
KF: The new wine was really a call-back to the past. It’s how to look into the future by walking backwards, this is our situation. But looking at the trend where people are more and more concerned about organics, about natural, about additives, about what’s in the food that we eat, what’s in the wine that we ingest. There was a recent study done in France and no aspersions to France, but the study took place in France, where over 90% of the wines that they tested showed residue of pesticides.
Now how much pesticide do you want to drink? You know it’s a mute question. Natural wines, and if you’re looking at organics in vineyards and we’ve found our vineyards here since 2002 organically. The vineyard that I have sourced for this particular project hasn’t been organic for that long.
They’ve now farmed, they’ve been in conversion, they’re looking at converting to full organic, they’re sustainable. Which is the path between and certainly not spraying anything like the volumes that start to make a difference. So good clean fruit, old vineyard planted in 1965.
The idea was to do nothing to the grapes apart from manage the fermentation, drain the fermentation, clarify the wine in a natural fashion without having to filter. No additives of any sort and then finally bottle the wine, clear and bright with no cloudiness. I don’t mind if the winemaker wastes 30% of his produce to give me just the cream off the top. If it’s clear I’ll pay for that but I want it clear, the Dirty Little Secret.
JCW: Ah, the famous dirty secret, dirty little secret. Tell us about it.
The Dirty Little Secret
KF: Completely natural processes all the way to where we started off with 11 barrels. We let it go through and ferment. It goes through fermentation quite naturally. You don’t have to do anything about that, the yeasts are there.
It bubbles away merrily in the cellar, stops fermenting, good it’s finished fermentation or has it? We hope so. We can’t do anything to stop it, we can’t add big sulphur amounts to block it, to neutralise it. Can’t run it through a filter to capture all of the yeast cells and take them out because the filtration is a no-no. It’s not natural.
So you leave it on its lees in the barrels and it goes into malolactic fermentation, yippee, whoops, here we go. Three barrels immediately turn into some of the loveliest white wine vinegar you’ve never tasted. So we had 11 barrels, we’re down to eight. People, hang onto that thought.
We now have eight barrels and we carefully rack, we draw the juice off out of the barrels. We’re careful not to draw the bottom 50mm, 5cm, 10cm perhaps because that stuff at the bottom’s all the murky, settled stuff. If you draw that into the juice it all gets cloudy again.
So you very carefully siphon off the top of the barrel and all the stuff you’ve got left you join into one barrel. You had eight, you’ve now got seven. Your seven clear barrels now settle for another month or six weeks. Then you draw all that liquid off the top again and you put all of your dirty barrels. You now have six.
Then you finally get to bottling five barrels because that’s what’s clear. You haven’t filtered it, you haven’t crushed it through a filter, you haven’t broken it apart. You have natural wine and you started off with 11, you bottle five barrels.
That’s what it is, that’s what you finally get out of it and the wine is brilliantly bright, it’s star bright and it has a lovely glow in it, almost the way a diamond glows beyond the zirconia. It has that additional lustre within the wine and the taste is; I think delicious, it’s elegant, it’s light. It’s not a big blockbuster, knock your head off kind of wine. You almost wonder where it is initially and then it comes to you.
It’s almost like a cat where you could call a dog and it’ll run up wagging its tail and slobbering all over you. You call a cat, it literally might look up and go are you sure you’re speaking to me? It’s that sort of wine. Then it’s the kind of wine that if you were to leave it in the bottle overnight, a half a bottle and get back to it the next day you’d be amazed at how much it had changed and opened up overnight. Because it is still so young and it’s just all about the natural process, isn’t it just.
JCW: Who thought about that title, “Dirty Little Secret” because it is bound to sell? I mean it’s guaranteed, isn’t it?
KF: It’s a play on words. You know it was a dirty, unfiltered wine and it was a statement that unfiltered wine doesn’t have to be dirty. If it wasn’t going to be dirty, well what was the secret, how did you clarify it if you didn’t filter it?
JCW: Is this what you thought about in the shower?
KF: Yes, that’s when you… yes, absolutely.
What makes it so special?
JCW: So this is the wine actually that everybody is talking about and it is a Chenin Blanc.
KF: Well, it’s a secret, I wouldn’t… you know a secret being the sort of thing you can only tell one person at a time. I can tell you it’s Chenin Blanc yes, but it’s from a Chenin Blanc vineyard. It’s grown up on a hillside in the Piekenierskloof area. It’s bush vines so the road direction no longer really matters.
It’s not hedge rows where they cast shadows. They’re little individual bushes so their shadow doesn’t fall onto the next bush. So the road direction is no longer absolutely critical. It’s been there since 1965, the vineyard of veritable age, Lovely, lovely old vineyard.
It’s tiny yields, hand-harvested, hand-picked, hand-selected fruit. Brought back, crushed, left on the skins and the stalks. Little alarm bell white wine left on skins and stalks, nobody does that. Skins perhaps, for how long, 16 hours, 36 hours, 48 hours, 14 days on the skins and the stalks, starting to extract that kind of stalky phenolic.
That kind of when you chew the edge of a pip, that tannic phenolic that you get on your palate. Drawing some of that because I needed that to support the wine to create the clarity because that’s all protein. The stalk gives me that protein naturally without having to add and then finally letting it go through ferment and we called it Vintage 1.
JCW: I see, yes.
KF: There’s a hint on the cork. The top of the cork tells you it’s 2015. It’s certified and it’s guaranteed and it’s got all the legislation to back it but on the label it’s called Vintage 1. Vintage 2, I have to tell you, is a completely different sister. Apparently a sister from the same mother but I’ve got to tell you this is a tiger, it’s a little… quite different to this lady, quite, quite different.
JCW: So is this your passion at the moment because it is very exciting nurturing something like this along that is totally, totally new?
KF: It’s a massive challenge, you know, it’s about landing it successfully. They say flying, no matter how far you fly, it’s only the moment of take-off and landing that are a terror. Yes, the terror is in landing it and getting it right, getting it down in front of people. It’s very much a passion in trying to say, good, okay hands off, do nothing at all. What does the vineyard taste like?
No additives, no bending the flavours, let’s add a little bit of acid to get a bit more structure, let’s hone it with a bit of this to give it, can’t do anything to it. What does the vineyard taste like? Bare, naked, raw juice, that’s what it is.
JCW: It’s exciting.
KF: Huge, huge.
JCW: It’s Chenin Blanc.
KF: It’s Chenin Blanc.
JCW: It’s Ken Forrester.
KF: Dirty Little Secret.
JCW: Dirty Little Secret, Ken thank you. So download the Old Mutual app from your app store to get your favourite podcasts and it’s also the best place to listen to our exclusive popup event stations.