Knowledgeable wine drinkers are on to Chenin Blanc. But not everyone appreciates this classic and versatile grape.
Overlooked for many years, it sadly never reached the popular status of grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But, while it has been “rediscovered” here in the U.S. by wine professionals and enthusiasts, Chenin Blanc has been at home in South Africa for decades.
Chenin Blanc is originally from the Loire Valley in France, but South Africa has the most plantings of Chenin Blanc outside of France. In fact, there are more plantings of Chenin Blanc in South Africa than the rest of the world combined, excluding France.
Chenin Blanc represents 18 percent of the plantings in South Africa and is the most popular white grape variety in the country. It has been the fastest growing South African varietal wine in the U.S., up 35.5 percent in exports by volume over the last five years, according to Wines of South Africa.
Chenin Blanc was first brought to South Africa in the 1600s and was known as “Steen.” A truly versatile wine grape, it can produce sparkling or still wine and dry or sweet wine. But it also had a reputation as a vigorous grape, which could produce high yields. It was used for years to add acidity to bulk wines, as a base for brandy and in the semisweet Lieberstein, a blend of Steen and Clairette Blanche that was sold in large bottles and was once the bestselling wine in the world.
One of the first wine producers in the Cape of South Africa to appreciate the potential of Chenin Blanc is Mulderbosch.
One of the first wine producers in the Cape of South Africa to appreciate the potential of Chenin Blanc is Mulderbosch. Mulderbosch is located in Stellenbosch, in the heart of the winelands of South Africa,30 minutes from Cape Town and approximately 15 kilometers from the ocean.
Mulderbosch was started by friends Dr. Larry Jacobs and Frederick Mulder in the late 1980s. Dr. Larry Jacobs explained that it was at “a very indulgent Christmas party (by that I mean, much good wine was consumed) both Fred and I decided that it may be nice to make the stuff instead of just drinking it – neither of us had any experience in the wine industry, other than being pretty dab hand at uncorking good wine. (But neither of us lacked imagination, determination and creative drive.)”
They began a series of adventure travel, looking at vineyard options available at the time.
“It was a pleasant enough exercise but neither of us actually really believed it would come to anything,” Jacobs said.
They first found a property in Stellenbosch but soon found that the sandy soils would not produce the style of wines they wanted to make. Then, in 1990, they found a property outside the town of Stellenbosch with the perfect slopes, soils and views. At that time, most farmers sold their grapes to the cooperative and only a handful of private producers were mindful of quality. Mulderbosch first planted Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, followed by Chenin Blanc and then red Bordeaux varieties.
At the time that they found the property and began to build the winery complex, Frederick Mulder was ill. Dr. Jacobs decided to honor Mulder, who died in 1991, and because they were located in Stellenbosch, the winery was named Mulderbosch.
The first wines were launched in 1993 which represented their joint legacy. By 1996, they were one of the first producers to ferment Chenin Blanc in barriques. “Chenin Blanc is not the step-child of the wine industry,” explained Chrianto Oosthuizen, General Manager at Mulderbosch. “Our focus is to produce good quality Chenin Blanc, wine with great texture and mouthfeel.” And that is what they are doing.
Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout 2017, Western Cape ($14)—30 percent of the wine spends eight months in two to three-year-old French oak barrels. The wine has upfront fruit aromas of pineapple, papaya and apple. On the palate, the acidity glides across the entire palate and the minerality comes through on the finish, as well as notes of tobacco leaf and bitters. The wine has bright, crisp acidity like a Sauvignon Blanc but there is a richer ripeness to the wine.
The Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc is produced from grapes from their own estate as well as fruit sourced from other vineyards. The grapes from these other vineyards have also been used to produce the “Special Release” Chenin Blancs. These three single vineyard block wines are whole bunch pressed and undergo natural fermentation in neutral oak foudre barrels, spending 10 months sur lees. These three wines showcase the diversity of Chenin Blanc.
Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc, A Block 2014 – The Vineyard Block A Chenin Blanc showcases the fruitiness of Chenin Blanc. The nose is bright with aromas of pineapple, apricot and citrus. On the palate, the wine is delicate with great full-mouth acidity and a long, mouth-watering finish.
Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc, S2 Block 2014 – The Vineyard S2 Chenin Blanc, which was grown in shale soils, shows more mineral and nutty notes on the nose. The finish is long and fresh.
Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Chenin Blanc, W Block 2014 – The Vineyard W Chenin Blanc comes from a granite soil vineyard closer to the ocean. This Chenin Blanc has a nose of pineapple, peaches and minerality. On the palate, the acidity is linear, and the salinity is noticeable on the finish.
Chenin Blanc’s diversity and beauty make it a white wine that should be sought out and the Mulderbosch wines are a great place to start.