Tag Archives: Chenin Blanc

South Africa Rises Again

Standard

Of all the world’s wine producing countries, surely none has experienced as many highs and lows as South Africa.  Their earliest attempts at winemaking, in the 1650s, 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.   

Morgenhof CheninOne 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.

Advertisements

A Loire Surprise

Standard

Let me start by wishing you all a Happy and Peaceful 2018 and hope that the natural disasters that afflicted many in the wine world last year won’t be repeated.

As you might expect, my wife and I enjoyed some nice wines over the holiday period, but one white was a particular surprise (a pleasant one, I should add).  It came from the cool Loire region in northern France and I assumed, for that reason, it would be crisp, fresh and citrusy.  But Château de Fesles’ old vine Chenin Blanc ‘La Chapelle’ from Anjou (Majestic, £11.99) didn’t fit the pattern at all. 

Loire CheninAt 14% alcohol, it’s a big chunky mouthful.  And then there’s the fruit character: not the green apples and citrus of a northern climate but ripe pineapple and mango with a touch of orange at first and all wrapped up in tangy, spicy oak.

So what’s going on?  Part of the answer lies in the words on the label: ‘Vieilles Vignes’ (old vines), in this case mainly over 50 years.  As vines age, their root system expands and so they can pick up more moisture and nutrients from the soil.  At the same time, they tend to produce fewer bunches so all this extra goodness is concentrated into fewer grapes.  The result is more intense flavour which shows through on the finished wine.

But it’s not just that.  Often, grapes struggle to ripen in the cool Loire climate.  At Fesles, they hand-harvest very carefully choosing only the best and ripest grapes.  This may cut down on the amount of wine they make, but it ensures the quality.  They are also moving towards organic methods which the owners believe will further improve the wine.

In the winery, fermentation is in oak barrels followed by 6 months on the lees.  Interestingly, Fesles prefer 400 litre barrels to the more common 225 litre and shun new oak arguing that the use of larger barrels and older wood gives a more subtle oak character.

All this comes together to make a very classy full, rich white and a real bargain at the price.  Drink it with flavoursome white meat or poultry dishes and you, too, may be pleasantly surprised.

 

 

Down Mexico Way!

Standard

There has been so much in the papers recently about Mexico that, when I noticed a bottle of their wine on Marks & Spencer’s shelves, I decided to try it – especially as it had one of the most eye-catching labels I have seen for a long time featuring a stylised bird dating back to Aztec times.

2017-01-28-11-15-49

Mexico has been making wine for almost 500 years since the days of the earliest Spanish settlers, yet domestic consumption has always been patchy and so the wine industry has never really thrived there. This is a shame as much of the country has an ideal climate, similar to that found in parts of the Mediterranean.  Baja California, the long peninsula off America’s west coast that reaches out into the Pacific, is particularly well-suited.  Here, the cold currents and coastal fogs that make California’s Napa Valley such a premium wine region are also at work, moderating an area that would otherwise be far too hot to grow grapes for quality wine. 

The bottle I bought, Quetzal’s Chardonnay/Chenin Blanc blend (£6.75) comes from the northern part of this coastal strip – the Guadalupe Valley.  It’s a clean, fresh, quite aromatic white, ideal on its own as an aperitif or with seafood – the label suggests seared scallops and I wouldn’t disagree.  The wine has plenty of attractive tropical fruit flavours and the13% alcohol gives it some richness and body.  All in all, quite a bargain at less than £7 and a good example of the unusual and interesting bottles that are now regularly appearing on Marks & Spencer’s wine shelves.

I’m sorry that, if the much talked about wall gets built, my American readers may not be able to buy this, or, indeed, any other Mexican wine; on the evidence of this bottle, your loss is our gain!