South Africa’s bigger wine companies have access to the best vineyards and should therefore be making the best wines in the country. Jeanri-Tine van Zyl and fellow wine writers argued the point with a tasting of two local trump cards.
Few wine varieties are exempt from the burden of their historical narrative. However Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are two varieties in South Africa that are particularly shackled by their history, and yet both are categories of particular significance to the local wine industry. Some wine critics take great pleasure in dragging Chenin Blanc and Pinotage’s history into the conversation during tastings where these grapes are subjected to the scrutiny of trained palates.
Winemakers have in response risen to the challenge, determined to defy the odds stacked against these varieties. Are wine consumers reaping the rewards as a result? In this battle for a better narrative are we seeing these once average varieties becoming wines of distinction?
In an attempt to find an answer a comparative tasting, involving flagship Chenin Blanc and Pinotage from four of South Africa’s larger wine producers, namely KWV, Spier, Bellingham and Distell (Fleur du Cap), was conducted to determine how these wine houses – which have access to some of the best vineyard sites in the country – are influencing the narrative of these two varieties.
Besides the author, the tasting and scoring were conducted by fellow wine writers and critics Christian Eedes and Samarie Smith and Singita group wine buyer Francois Rautenbach. Winemakers from each of the respective wine cellars were also present, but excluded from final scoring. These were Johann Fourie for KWV, Frans Smit for Spier and Mario Damon for Bellingham.
Opening the tasting, Spier cellarmaster Frans Smit quipped “It’s easier to make 4 000 litres of high-quality wine than it is to make 40 000 litres.” Smaller wine producers have the benefit of boutique offerings – they can find an old vineyard block and produce something unique and thought-provoking, whereas bigger wine companies are dictated to by a market that expects exceptional value year in and year out, which is much more difficult and makes the wines produced by these bigwigs a feat of note.
The most recent offerings of flagship Chenin Blanc and Pinotage from each of these producers were included in the blind tasting. The line-up consisted of the following Chenin Blancs: KWV The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2014, Spier 21 Gables Chenin Blanc 2014, Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Chenin Blanc 2014 and Bellingham The Bernard Series Chenin Blanc 2015. The Pinotage line-up consisted of KWV The Mentors Pinotage 2013, Spier 21 Gables Pinotage 2013, Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Pinotage 2014 and Bellingham The Bernard Series Pinotage 2014.
These wines are all made on a small scale at the respective cellars (rounded to a mere 5 000 litres in the case of KWV The Mentors), and often these flagships determine the quality benchmark for the other brands produced by the same cellar.
The reputation of Chenin Blanc, South Africa’s most planted grape variety and famously referred to as the country’s workhorse grape due to its ability to morph into a wide variety of wine styles, is traditionally far removed from its equivalent in France, where it is held in high esteem. In South Africa bulk production and cheap pricing tarnished the image of Chenin Blanc – certainly in the mind of the consumer – with the result that most wine drinkers came to view Chenin Blanc as a cheap and cheerful drink best reserved for a Saturday braai.
However over the past 20 years Chenin Blanc’s narrative has changed dramatically. While some wine critics still can’t resist referencing the category’s history during critical assessments, it’s now almost done with a reverence typically reserved for the underdog. Two decades ago a line-up of Chenin Blanc would’ve elicited a great deal of criticism, but critics today support the Cinderella comparison touted by the Chenin Blanc Association and its members.
The four examples of Chenin Blanc tasted all demonstrated a remarkable consistency in quality, with even the most voluptuous wine showing a great deal of freshness. For KWV chief winemaker Johann Fourie this freshness in Chenin is in line with the “stylistic evolution of the variety, where winemakers are moving away from higher alcohol wines to more refined and integrated styles”. Although we all agreed the wines showed great refinement, Johann questioned the diversity in styles. “Using Vouvray as an example, does the stylistic variety of our Chenin Blanc count in our favour or against us?” he wondered. While consumers like to know what they’re buying stylistically, the overall feeling was that diversity, especially where vineyard-specific character comes into play, is not a bad thing as it simply adds to the intrigue.
Where Chenin Blanc was afforded its Cinderella moment, the shoe doesn’t seem to fit as comfortably for Pinotage. Associated burnt rubber flavours dented this variety’s reputation, and while winemakers have been applying some serious panel beating in the cellars, making recent vintages infinitely more palatable, the variety now seems to struggle with another kind of flaw: It has become the victim of safe winemaking, and as a result wines lack character and are, as Christian observed, “clinical”.
While the flight of flagship Pinotage from Fleur du Cap, KWV, Bellingham and Spier certainly did appear polished to a fault, the wines also showed plenty of structure, unblemished fruit, weighty palates and integrated acidity, which everyone agreed suggested that execution in the cellar had improved.
The conclusion was that Pinotage is no longer a joke (Merlot has claimed this space, someone proffered) and in the case of the flagships tasted, winemakers have certainly found a sweet spot from where experimentation with the grape will hopefully result in more eccentric wines with a sense of individuality.
Overall, the wines in the line-up were all scored 87 and higher – a clear indication that SA’s big wine producers are indeed producing Chenin Blanc and Pinotage worth seeking out from a quality perspective. However with evidently no problem in the quality department, the question was asked whether this message is clearly communicated in marketing strategies.
Francois says it boils down to that elusive term “storytelling”. In the tough, competitive wine industry the consumer needs to engage with brands on a level that’s about more than just quality – and with winemakers often being far removed from a wine’s narrative once it hits the marketing stream, this is a challenge over which they have little control.