Since it first came to light in France about a thousand years ago, Chenin Blanc has been known as a major white grape of the Loire Valley. Ten centuries later, however, it is South Africa that is this versatile grape’s largest producer, accounting for about 20 percent of its vineyards, about twice as many as in the Loire. It’s not that the country suddenly adopted Chenin Blanc; it was introduced into South Africa in the late 1600s. But it spent most of its years there as the country’s workhorse, a grape that blended easily with other grapes in an array of styles. And until recently, it was known there as Steen. Today, South Africa has rediscovered it, the best examples now appearing unblended, bottled as a 100 percent Chenin Blanc, labeled under its proper name (occasionally with Steen added) and offering a vibrant, opulent wine.
About 20 years ago, Mulderbosch Vineyards, one of South Africa’s finest wineries, was among the first to take Chenin Blanc seriously as a grape variety to stand on its own. Now it has introduced three Chenin Blancs, each made from the grapes of a different single vineyard and packaged together as the Chenin Blanc Single Vineyard Series. Tasting them together, one can discern subtle nuances among them, each differing slightly from the others in color, aroma, intensity and depth of flavor. Each expresses its particular vineyard, and all express the refreshing acidity of the grape; the vibrancy; creamy mouth feel; lush citrus fruit, apple, pear and mango flavors; and rich aromas.
While the three wines present as a single package ($99), Mulderbosch also offers individual bottles of wine made of the grape from other vineyards under the label Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout, prices ranging from $13 to $18. It begins with a forward aroma of lemon and lime that carries into the tropical fruits in the taste and a striking acidity: a refreshing wine.
Other South African wineries have also rediscovered Chenin Blanc. Among the most flavorful ones I’ve tasted are Ken Forrester, Fairview, Spice Route, Franschhoek La Cotte Mill, Simonsig and Raats Family. Prices range from $15 to $39.
Chenin Blanc works well with many foods, particularly with sushi, poultry, seafood and spicy foods.
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