South African Chenin Blanc: a top 11

By Jamie Goode | 30 October 2017

Grape bunches at Nederburg

Recently I took part as one of the three judges in a tasting of Chenin Blanc wines from around the world for The World of Fine Wine. This is a high-end wine magazine that's aiming to cover the world's best wines, and in each issue they have reports on a number of focused tastings, and this was one of them.


The good thing about these tastings is that rather than simply produce a group average score (they do this too), they give the scores of each of the three judges. This is interesting because it lets you see where the experienced judges disagree. For me, one of the most interesting things about fine wine is that even experts come to different conclusions, sometimes. In some cases this could be because even the best tasters have off-moments. Tasting blind is tricky and sometimes you just get a wine wrong. But in other cases, experts genuinely disagree. Wine is complex, and even if we try hard, our personal tastes can get in the way when we try to reach a consensus.


In this case, my two tasting companions were Andrew Jefford (he's one of my favourite wine writers) and Victoria Daskal (who works for the magazine). We tasted through the wines in silence and had to input our notes into a computer, giving a score and a tasting note. After we finished we were given a crib sheet, but – of course – we weren't able to go back and change our verdicts.


Later that day I presented the same wines to a group of students at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust headquarters in London, this time sighted. This was nice because it gave me a chance to look at the wines again in a fresh context.


The tasting involved Chenin Blanc wines from France, South Africa, the USA, New Zealand and Argentina, and it was really eye opening. I was particularly interested in how the South African wines would perform in this blind tasting context, rubbing shoulders with some famous classics.


And overall, I was amazed by how well the South African wines showed in the blind tasting, but when their names were revealed it was perhaps no surprise. So I selected a top 11 (cutting it to 10 was too hard, and 11 is a full soccer/cricket team), with a hat tip to the Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc competition that I judged in for three years from 2014-16. The advantage that this World of Fine Wine tasting had is that many of the famous South African Chenins that weren't entered into the Standard Bank Top 10 were present here.


Of course, South African Chenin has its own identity and it isn't trying to copy the Loire. But it's good to see the wines showing well in a strong peer group like this. They're different to the Loire examples, but they have a similar level of complexity and interest.


Sadie Family Skurfberg Chenin Blanc 2016 Olifantsrivier, South Africa
Eben Sadie is making some incredible wines these days, and his single-vineyard Chenins are really fine, even from the drought vintage of 2016. This is finely spiced with complex crystalline fruits. Pears, lemons. Just beautiful.


Sadie Family Mev Kirsten 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Very detailed and rich with nice pear, apple and peach fruit, but also lovely freshness.


Swerwer Chenin Blanc 2016 Swartland, South Africa
This was a new wine for me. There's a subtle green edge here. Lively and fruity with some fresh pear and pithy citrus notes.


De Morgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2016 Stellenbosch, South Africa
De Morgenzen are doing really well, and their Reserve Chenin always does brilliantly in blind tasting competitions. This is a complete wine: complex and spicy with herbs and minerals under lovely ripe fruit.


Hoë-Steen Chenin Blanc 2016 Swartland, South Africa
The top Chenin from David and Nadia Sadie, who are doing some incredible work these days. This is rounded, detailed and spicy. Very fine and pure with great acidity, and complex pear and spice notes.


Ken Forrester Dirty Little Secret Chenin Blanc 2015 Piekenierskloof, South Africa
Ken's new cult Chenin is naturally made and it's thrilling. There's some sweetness and depth to this wine which is smooth, rich and harmonious with some baked apple and citrus fruit. Textured and complex.


Botanica Chenin Blanc 2014 Citrusdal Mountain, South Africa
Another wine that deserves its celebrity status. This is really complex: detailed but with lovely citrus, pear and ripe apple fruit. So fine.


AA Badenhorst Dassiekop Steen 2015 Swartland, South Africa
Adi Badenhorst is on top form, and for me this is his best wine. Finely textured with lovely pear, peach and spice. Very pure and detailed.


Alheit Vineyards Radio Lazarus 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Chris Alheit can do nothing wrong it seems. His single site wines are really thrilling. Fresh, supple, linear and juicy with a strong mineral core. So pure and direct.


Alheit Vineyards Magnetic North Mountain Mastock 2016 Citrusdal Mountain, South Africa
Very intense, mineral and fine with a lovely linear personality.


Mullineux Granite Chenin Blanc Old Vines 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Chris and Andrea Mullineux are turning out some incredible wines, not least this really expressive Chenin Blanc from granite soils. Compact, fine and mineral with direct, fresh fruit. Subtle and pure. 

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