The Chenin Blanc grape has over the past two decades become synonymous with the top wine offerings from South Africa, the country not only having the most extensive plantings of this variety in the world, but also through the fact of Chenin Blanc being interwoven with the history of winemaking at the Cape.
It is assumed that when the first wine grapes were pressed at the southern point of Africa in 1659, Chenin Blanc was – along with various Muscat varieties – part of those initial vinous offerings. And from those early beginnings of the country’s wine industry, Chenin Blanc has played a major role in the history of Cape wine, the variety today still the country’s most widely planted wine grape.
“Chenin Blanc is an integral part of the legacy of Cape wine,” says Carina Gous, GM of Kleine Zalze Wines in Stellenbosch. “Not only for its being planted throughout the Cape winelands, but also due to the fact that – despite its origins in the Loire region of France – South Africa is today seen as the leading producer of quality Chenin Blanc wines. These are made in a diversity of styles reflecting the individual features of the diverse terroir found in the Cape and have become a calling-card for South African wine.”
Being one of the country’s oldest wine-grape varieties has allowed Chenin Blanc to bring another intriguing aspect to the brand that is South African Wine besides its riveting flavour spectrum ranging from lean, mineral-led wines to oak-matured golden beauties of enormous depth and complexity: This is in allowing Cape wineries access to old Chenin Blanc vines, the fruit of which adds further gravitas and distinction to the wines made from it.
In South Africa, the official Old Vine Project certifies vineyards of 35 years and older as Heritage Vines, with over half of the country’s 4 292ha of official Old Vines being Chenin Blanc and underscoring the variety’s inextricable link to the history of the Cape wine industry. Some 558ha of Old Vine Chenin Blanc is found in Stellenbosch, a factor that has contributed to the region’s status as the country’s foremost appellation.
“As a leading winery in Stellenbosch, with a profound focus on Chenin Blanc wines, Kleine Zalze values the tradition of the Old Vine Chein Blanc offering and has made this an important part of our Chenin Blanc portfolio,” says Gous. “In fact, of the 558ha Old Vine Chenin Blanc found in Stellenbosch, Kleine Zalze manages 95ha of these historical vineyards, making us the largest producer of Stellenbosch Heritage Vineyard Chenin Blanc in the country.”
These Kleine Zalze vineyards of 35 years and older are mainly planted on granite soils in the Stellenbosch sub-regions of Faure, Bottelary and Devon Valley. Most, too, are unirrigated bush-vines, hardy old plants that have over decades perfected the expression of their distinctive terroir in grapes used to make wines for Kleine Zalze’s Chenin Blanc portfolio.
According to RJ Botha, Kleine Zalze cellarmaster who, along with his team, has the privilege of working with these vinous treasures, old vine grapes add an ‘X-factor’ to their Chenin Blanc wines.
“There are two ways of recognising the allure of Old Vine Chenin Blanc,” says Botha. “On the one side, there is the attraction of each vineyard having a story to tell. These are of old, gnarled vineyards growing on tough granite soils that have for over three decades been exposed to stormy winters, breezy spring seasons and sun-drenched summers. Through age, they have become a part of the soils and their environment, able to truly express the world in which they have lived – which we on the outside call terroir. These are vineyards commanding respect.”
This brings Botha to the second beguiling factor of Old Vine Chenin Blanc: and that is, when it comes to working with the grapes in the cellar, the character of the grapes deserves the respect they command.
“Old Vine Chenin Blanc vineyards express the varietal character and terroir more vividly than younger vines do; it’s as simple as that,” says Botha. “You see it in the tight bunches of small berries. The juice spreads its intoxicating aroma through the cellar at harvest time. And the balance between sugar and acid is tense, almost electric, leading to wines of multi-layered complexity.”
Studies done by the Old Vine Project show that wines from old vineyards have discernible differences to those from younger wines, mainly in terms of concentration, texture and length.
“No-one says old vines make better wines, but that the wines have an own personality and individual finger-print, this is non-negotiable,” says Botha.
Kleine Zalze’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc finds its way into three wines in the portfolio. The critically acclaimed Family Reserve Chenin Blanc as well as the Vineyard Selection are led by old vine fruit. And the Chenin Blancs in Kleine Zalze’s irreverent experimental range of Project Z wines rely on grapes from these mature vineyards. There is, too, bottle-fermented Old Vine Chenin Blanc Cap Classique currently lying on lees that will in due course be added to the Kleine Zalze range.
“The tradition of Old Vine Chenin Blanc at Kleine Zalze is carried through to vinification,” says Botha. “Maturation in French oak casks as well as in terracotta amphora amplifies the gravitas of the wines from these majestic vineyards and further underscores our respect for making wines from these heritage vineyards and contributing to South Africa’s wine legacy.”