Top 10 Chenin Blanc

By Jamie Goode | 4 October 2016

So, for the third year, I have been involved in judging the Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc competition. Judging took place over two days in July. The results are out and make interesting reading. It’s always fun to see which wines made the grade, because the tasting is done totally blind, and we have no idea even which wines entered. In particular, there was one wine which some of the members of the judging panel were keen on, but which I didn’t think was good enough to make the Top 10. So I was really looking forward to finding out which one it was.

 

The Top 10 was once again chaired by Christian Eedes. ‘In its current incarnation it’s three years old,’ says Eedes, ‘but it dates all the way back to 1986 when Wine magazine launched it along with Michael Fridjhon. There was a feeling that we had this resource which was underutilized, and if we didn’t act and do something to uplift the image of the variety, then there wouldn’t be any left.’ He continues: ‘we have come a long way since then. Chenin is now well established as South Africa’s signature grape.’ 

 

But judging isn’t all that easy. It’s hard to taste 124 of wines of different styles and select just 10. ‘The challenge of judging the category is that it is so good across the board and manifests itself in so many different styles that choosing which style should predominate is tricky,’ says Eedes. Cathy van Zyl, who has been judging for the last two years, agrees about the quality issue. ‘As a staunch Chenin Blanc supporter I look forward to judging every year, but even in the two years I have been judging I have seen a huge leap in quality of the wines that have been submitted.’ This makes differentiating the very best quite difficult, although not unpleasant. ‘Chenin is great fun to judge,’ says Eedes, ‘because just about all the wines have a certain minimum quality, and you are not ploughing through loads of dross.’

 

This year, one of the judges was Tinashe Nyamudoka, sommelier from Cape Town’s famous Test Kitchen restaurant. ‘There has been a dynamic range of styles, from tutti frutti to the oxidative styles,’ notes Nyamudoka. He’s a fan of the more oxidative styles. ‘I think these should get more of a look-in. In today’s restaurant scene they work well with food.’ He adds, “I work with them at top class restaurants, and I think they deserve more attention than they are getting at the moment.’ Some of the judges penalize these more oxidative styles, which is a shame.

 

One of the disputes we had was about the more simple, fruity, early drinking styles. We want to treat all the styles fairly and not just reward the biggest, most flavour-full styles. But one of the discussions is whether a simple, fruity unoaked style could actually be a top 10 wine. Are some of these wines a bit too simple? If you give one of the top 10 berths to a simple, unoaked wine then you are potentially kicking out a more serious wine made from low-yielding old vines grown in a good terroir.

 

I recently had the chance to taste through the ten winners from 2016, and these are my impressions. Overall, I think we did a good job. We certainly spent a lot of time deliberating on the wines, and no hasty decisions were made. There are a few famous names missing, but that may be because not everyone enters the competition: some producers sell out quickly and so see no need for this sort of extra promotion. It would be nice to see more of these wines in next years competition, and I’m hoping to be invited to judge once again!

 

Allée Bleue Chenin Blanc 2015

93% Chenin Blanc, 7% Viognier from Franschhoek and Walker Bay vineyards. Matured in 400-litre French oak barrels, 20% new. A simple, fruity, fresh style. Rounded and attractive with some richness and a touch of sweetness.

 

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2015

From Agter-Paarl, Bottelary and Durbanville vineyards, with an average age of 45 years. Matured for 12 months in French oak, 50% new. This always seems to do well in competitions: it’s rich and bold, but not unbalanced, with a lovely spiciness. Complex with some tight fruit and nice freshness.

 

Boschendal Sommelier Selection Chenin Blanc 2015

From old Agter Paarl, Bottelary and Somerset West vineyards. Largely unwooded, 15% fermented in oak. Lively, fruity and rounded. Fresh and very attractive.

 

DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015

From Stellenbosch vines planted in 1972. Matured for 11 months in French oak, 25% new. A star. Just beautiful intensity and balance here, and it will age beautifully. One of the very best of all.

 

Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2015

From three different wards of Stellenbosch, vineyards approximately 35 years in age. Matured for eight months in old 400-litre French oak barrels. Fresh with a bit of green grassy character. Lively and focused with a touch of mandarin.

 

Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2015

From Stellenbosch vineyards ranging from 25 to 40 years old. Matured for six months in old 400-litre French oak barrels. Very rounded with bright apple, citrus and pear fruit. Good acidity and complexity here.

 

Leopard’s Leap Culinaria Collection Chenin Blanc 2015

From Voor-Paardeberg vineyards with an average age of 20 years. Matured in 500-litre French oak barrels, none new. Fresh, fruity and bright, this is made in a clean style, and it’s fruity and appealing.

 

Perdeberg The Dry Land Collection Barrel Fermented 2015

From two vineyards in the Agter Paarl area, one 26 years old and the other 32. Matured for 10 months in 500-litre French oak barrels, 20% new. Pear, ripe apples and some citrus pith here. Nice complexity. Impressive.

 

Rijk’s Private Cellar Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2013

WO Tulbagh. Grapes from 17-year-old trellised vines and seven-year-old bush vines. 20% fermented in tank, 80% fermented and matured for 11 months in 300-litre French and Hungarian oak, 40% of which was new. Lovely complexity here: rounded and rich with ripe apple and pear fruit.

 

Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2015

From Tygerberg vineyards with an average age of 43 years. Matured for 14 months in a combination of 300-, 400-, 500- and 2 500-litre French oak barrels, 60% new. Lively and sweetly fruited with exotic ripe apple, pear and citrus fruit. A rich style.

 

 

 

 

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