Wine consumers don't know much about chenin blanc. That's the result of a three-year, six-figure study into the white grape variety at Stellenbosch University.
“Among consumers, knowledge is extremely low. They do not know about chenin,” said the university's Helene Nieuwoudt as she revealed the results to the wine industry in Cape Town.
Chenin blanc accounts for one in five vines planted in South Africa and the country represents 53 percent of world plantings. The non-aromatic grape is also at home in the Loire Valley, in appellations such as Vouvray and Savennieres, producing wines with firm acidity and rich, mid-palate weight.
In South Africa, the industry has attempted to categorize the variety into different styles, from “fresh and fruity” to “rich, ripe and wooded,” with many other descriptors in between.
Following the publication of the Stellenbosch University results, Ross Sleet, marketing manager of Boschendal winery and a member of the Chenin Blanc Association, concluded: “The complexities of chenin blanc are lost to the consumer. We need to start at the base level, saying this is where chenin blanc starts and we can build from there.”
Ken Forrester, one of the leading chenin blanc producers in South Africa, supported this proposed simplification of the chenin blanc story. “What we see from the research is that in terms of public recognition, they [consumers] are adept at recognizing two different descriptors: fresh and fruity, and rich, ripe and wooded. But everything else in the middle was a muddle.”
Forrester stressed that it was important to go back to basics. “Chenin blanc is the brand, it is what we are taking it to the public. But we are doing ourselves a disservice by opening up the bonnet and getting under the hood, and discovering just how many transistors there are in the fuel management system." The public, he said, probably only wanted to know "that chenin blanc is a great wine to drink."
The different expressions of chenin blanc found in South Africa's various winemaking regions were also widely debated at the Cape Town conference. Niel Groenewald from leading producer DGB explained the range of fruit expression – from the jasmine flavors and fine acidity of the Durbanville region to the tarragon and white pear notes in wines from the Stellenbosch area. But fellow speaker Bruwer Raats of Raats Family Wines claimed that chenin blanc characters could not be “tied down” to regions.
"Does a Paarl district chenin taste distinctly different from a Stellenbosch or a Swartland district chenin?' asked Raats. “If I lined up fresh and fruity [chenin blancs] from four different regions in front of you, anybody would be hard pressed to say which district or region they are made from."
“I am not denying terroir but style is the driver at present for chenin blanc in South Africa,” said Raats. “We hope to get there one day, where we can say this is a chenin blanc from this ward [sub-region] and this is what it tastes like, but we are not there yet.”