Chenin Blanc’s reputation continues to rise in a way that even Covid-19 can’t seem to stop. Not only was a price approaching R5 000 per bottle achieved on a recent fine wine auction in South Africa for the FMC 2009 – a clear reflection of the variety’s collector appeal and its ability to age – but exporters already in the market before lockdown have been reporting anecdotally how internationally the grape has been increasingly captivating the wine-curious forced to stay at home.
The news comes as entries have just opened for this year’s Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge, with submissions accepted until Tuesday, 2 July.
Ken Forrester, chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA) that organises the annual challenge, highlighted how Chenin’s standing had continued to grow, with higher auction prices and growing consumer awareness only part of the story. In the 2020 edition of Platter’s South African Wine Guide there were significantly more Chenin wines than any other varietal or style accorded a five-star rating. Meanwhile, UK wine commentator Tim Atkin MW was calling it “South Africa’s greatest wine grape” and had continued to score many expressions of the varietal very generously in his annual South African Special Report.
“Reputationally, South African Chenin Blanc’s time has come. It garners widespread critical acclaim and people are prepared to pay more for it. This is supported by the well above inflation rate year-on-year rise we see in the average retail selling price of the Top 10 Challenge winners. Given Chenin’s success at home and abroad, by last year, the number of wine-growers cultivating the grape in South Africa had risen to almost 300. Of course, the severe and lasting impact of the now-lifted Covid-19 ban on export and domestic alcohol sales may alter that trajectory.”
Referring to Chenin exports, he added: “It may be true that the majority of wine purchasers have turned to their tried and trusted favourites during lockdown but also there have been encouraging numbers of wine lovers abroad who have used the time to expand their repertoires to the benefit of our Chenins. This is what some CBA members are telling us, based on their export sales. They say it’s been happening from North America to the UK, parts of Europe and now increasingly Asia, notably in Japan and Hong Kong.
“We’re also encountering mounting interest amongst international wine-growers and winemakers who tell us how keen they are to participate in the next international Chenin Blanc Summit, planned for next year in Cape Town. Apart from the Loire, as you would expect, given that this is the birthplace of the grape, we’ve had discussions with producers from the US, Argentine, Chile, Uruguay, Australia and even Israel. Chenin’s demonstrable resilience and ability to respond well in the face of climate change make it a very attractive option for them to consider.”
Speaking on behalf of the sponsors, Stephan van der Merwe, head of commercial banking at Standard Bank in the Western Cape, said assuming the summit would take place next year, it would provide an excellent showcase for the winners of this year’s Top 10 Challenge. “Nothing can be taken for granted in these times of Covid-19 but if the summit is able to go ahead as international travel opens up, imagine the level of exposure for the producers whose wines are chosen in this year’s line-up!”
This year marks the seventh of the competition that annually awards a cash prize to each of the producers of the top 10 Chenins selected. The stipulation is that the money – R25 000 per winning wine – goes towards a socially sustainable initiative involving wine-farm workers. To date R1,35 million has been spent on social upliftment programmes.
“The challenge is intended to honour the winning winemakers as much as the contribution of their wine-farm workers,” Van der Merwe said.
Entries should be delivered to Villiera in Stellenbosch between June 29 and the closing date of July 2. The winners will be announced on August 28.