Their earliest attempts at winemaking, in were described by one contemporary writer as having ‘revolting sourness’ and being ‘astringent – useful only for irritating the bowels!’ Yet, only 30 years later, the famous Constantia Estate was founded, which went on to produce marvellous dessert wines that were in demand across all the major royal courts of Europe – and were even ordered by Napoleon when in St Helena, presumably to make his exile more bearable.
The fortunes of Constantia – and South Africa’s wines, in general – declined in the 19th century and the arrival there of the phylloxera bug in 1886, decimating the vineyards, seemed like it might be the final straw. But, happily, it wasn’t, although rebuilding in the 20th century was very slow and mistakenly focussed on quantity rather than quality. As a result, South Africa’s wine industry was in a dreadful state when the country emerged following the apartheid years.
Fast forward little more than 2 decades and South Africa has turned round again. Attractive Chardonnays, intense Cabernet Sauvignons and the local speciality, Pinotage, all make this a country that wine lovers should take notice of. But, if I had to pick just one grape variety from there, you might be surprised to hear it would be Chenin Blanc. Originating in France’s Loire Valley, it was, for a long time, used as a workhorse variety in South Africa and remains the most planted grape across the country. Yes, there are still some poor and rather bland Chenins around, but, provided you ignore those at rock bottom prices, there are some excellent ones, too.
One definitely worth trying is from Morgenhof, a company that has survived the highs and lows since its beginnings in 1692, less than 40 years after South Africa’s first wines. Their bottling from the Simonsberg sub-region (Waitrose, £11.99) starts crisp and citrusy, before opening up with a lovely peachy richness and an almost oily texture (in a nice way!). All enhanced by some gentle smokiness from restrained use of oak and a long, long fresh finish. And, because Chenin remains unfashionable, it’s a real bargain at the price.