CHENIN, AND THE GANG
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From the graveyards of forgotten vines, spectres are stirring. What do these ghosts of vineyards past have in common? Chenin, colombar, palomino, semillon and clairette blanche are the bricks and mortar South Africa’s brandy industry was built upon.
Sewn across the Cape Winelands these ubiquitous blending components were favoured for their neutrality and ability to produce high yields, and in the case of chenin, its fruitiness too.
There’s this generalised idea that co-ops are just in it for commercial gain and will sacrifice any vineyard at the altar of profit to get it. On the other side of it, independent producers are seen as lionised saints, pouring their lifeblood into the soils they tend. There is, of course, truth in both perceptions. But like any axiom, it’s a lot more complicated than that. In fact, many co-ops have acted as guardians to these old brandy vineyards, keeping them in the ground, against the advice of bean counters.
On such story is that of Johan Kruger’s Wellington Old Vines Chenin Blanc 2018: a bottled triumph of the Old Vines Project and Wellington Wines (co-op) banding together for a cause.
“I was contacted about this chenin vineyard on the Voorgroenberg Mountain that was about to be grubbed up,” shares Kruger. Planted in 1977 it needed to be connected to a quality producer, and quickly, or its fate was sealed; it simply was no longer viable to keep in the ground. Luckily, Kruger favours sites such as the Voorgroenberg; with its high altitude (400 meters above sea level), cooler slopes and granitic soils.
“When I got there, the block next to it was already barren.” This ominous foreshadowing bolted Kruger into action. Then and there he made a video appealing to Naked Wines, showing them the doomed vineyard. Naked Wines is an interesting story in itself, the online retailer calls their community of customers ‘Angels’; and how it works is that a winemaker pitches to them an idea for a wine, if they like it, they pay a stipend for the wine to get made, once it’s ready the company markets and distributes it.
So, Kruger sent his plea to the Angels. It was granted. The resulting wine saw him being crowned the Naked Wines UK Winemaker of the Year 2018 – it also currently holds five-stars in Platter’s.
“You can taste the vine’s gratitude in the final quality of the wine,” Kruger tells me, somewhat poetically. On the back of its success, production was increased in 2019, and the vineyard will be kept in the ground for the foreseeable future.
When talking about chenin, there are many such Lazarus moments. It’s easy to forget considering its popularity as a cultivar now, but chenin was long in the shadow of sauvignon and chardonnay. Dubbed the ‘Cinderella grape’ it has only been in the last 15 years or so that its image has transformed from the dreary workhorse varietal to a serious contender in the world of fine wines.
Its renaissance has a lot to do with the treasure trove of old vine chenin still rooted in our soils; the most up-to-date stats declare 1835,8 hectares of it – a number which represents more than half of all vineyards aged 35-years or older in South Africa.
The rest of the old brandy gang is also slowly starting to emerge into the light. Kruger – and a number of other talented winemakers, including trend-driver, Fairview – have taken a shine to old-vine palomino. Clairette blanche is hot on its heels, as are the rest, with more interesting tales to come.
The deeper we dig, the more reasons we find to keep chenin and the gang in the ground. Not only are these vineyards an invaluable source of scientific data, but they are the gatekeepers to our viticultural heritage – let’s not give up the ghost, just yet.