23 June 2017

Bill Zacharkiw: South Africa’s chenin blanc renaissance

What do 17th-century Dutch trading ships, Protestants fleeing persecution in France and shark-infested waters have to do with wine? All three played a role in making South Africa the oldest wine-producing country outside of Europe.

Africa is not the first continent most people think of when it comes to wine production, but it has a rich and very long history of grape-growing. The first plantings date back to the mid-1600s, when the Cape of Good Hope was settled by the Dutch to act as a supply station for their boats as they travelled back and forth along the spice route between India and Europe.

Winemaking know-how followed soon after when Huguenots (French Protestants) settled in the region after Louis XIV ended legal recognition for their religion in 1685.

What made them decide the southern tip of the African continent would be propitious for wine grapes? The Cape of Good Hope is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The water is remarkably cold and full of life. Sharks love it because it is full of seals and fish. Grapes love it because these cold ocean currents create onshore winds that act as a massive air conditioner, cooling off coastal vineyards and bringing moisture.

When the first settlers arrived, they brought a number of classic European grape varieties. One of those grapes was called steen. Over time, it came to dominate South Africa, but it was mostly used for distillation for another Dutch invention: brandy. It wasn’t until 1963 that steen was actually identified as chenin blanc.

In 1990, chenin blanc represented 32 per cent of all grapes planted in South Africa. But familiarity can breed contempt, and by 2009 chenin blanc accounted for only 18 per cent.  I have just returned from my second tour of South Africa. My first trip was in 2011, and what made the biggest impression was that there was almost a reluctance by many winemakers to embrace a grape that was so much a part of the country’s heritage.

Nearly every grape-growing region in the country is full of old chenin blanc vines. Old vines are treasures, as they often produce the best-quality wines. But as one winemaker told me during that visit, “If you grew up hating peas, then it’s hard to like them when you get older.” In many ways, South Africans’ relationship with chenin blanc is comparable to the love/hate relationship many Chileans have with their signature grape, carménère.

Article taken from http://montrealgazette.com/life/food/bill-zacharkiw-south-africas-chenin-blanc-renaissance