Why bet the house on the underdog?
I never understood why, in South Africa, the ubiquitous Chenin Blanc grape is unappreciated by consumers and taken for granted by producers. Even more surprising is this grape’s knack for producing wines of great character, substance and individuality, despite its frequent neglect.
When Apartheid ended and the world opened up to South African wines, the country’s winemakers put great effort into producing and manipulating less well-adapted (to our geology and climate) but more fashionable varieties – such as Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – into “premium wines”, while mistreating the Cape’s most widely-planted and (according to us) best-adapted varietal. But why? Because, quite simply, these grapes grew everywhere and had been used for brandy distillation and bulk “jug” wine for generations. So there wasn’t much respect for this fabulous fruit – and certainly not as a so-called “premium wine” varietal.
Ever since my first vintage here in 1990, I have marveled at the way that those neglected old bush vines manage to churn out such wonderful-tasting fruit while receiving so little TLC. I became particularly enthused by Chenin from the Helderberg, where the vineyards overlooked the ocean and grew in the path of the cooling breezes, on soils of decomposed granite and clay. Here, a true sense of place permeated even the clumsiest winemaking efforts, and a natural balancing minerality pervaded the wines. The result: more character and individuality than anything else I’d encountered, red or white.
This realisation, along with the reality that Chenin was a non-entity in the fast-globalising wine world, gave me the confidence to base our new venture not only in the Helderberg, but also to build it around Chenin Blanc. Its very lack of commercial appeal and its low-caste status ignited in me a conviction that we were holding in our hands the most overlooked gem of not only the Cape wine world, but also the international wine industry. Outside of parts of the Loire Valley in France, who on earth (literally) took Chenin Blanc seriously?
So in the mid-’90s, we did. To start, we identified old bush vines in the best potential sites, and convinced mocking, head-shaking growers to stop uprooting their Chenin bush vines and start working them our way – and to accept a large premium for doing so. They really did think we were crazy.
Almost 20 years later, we now work with an amazing array of old bush vines – up to 50 years old! – to make five very different Helderberg Chenins. Three of these come from extremely distinctive, single-vineyard sites, and all five are tremendously faithful Helderberg bush-vine Chenins, with the hallmark mineral and complex character that shout of our mountainside vineyards, our soils and our beautiful ocean.
But the proof is in the perception. Wherever we ship our wines (currently around 30 countries across the globe), we bring something unique and unusual to our customers and consumers. And the best part? We’ve gained recognition for Chenin as a great varietal, a noble wine and a completely overlooked gem. Only an underdog can possibly yield such a contrast between perceptions and results. And how rewarding that has been for us.
As for the fruit itself, it has repaid our respect and love with the gratitude and generosity that only a neglected soul can possibly know how to give. Chenin forms the backbone of our winery and everything we do. It is, we believe, the true individual personality of the Cape’s winelands, and its greatest asset.
“Given the amazing diversity of terroirs in the Cape winelands, the versatility of the Chenin Blanc grape presents a fascinating realm to explore. Chenin Blanc provides an ideal medium through which to express the qualities of the land when allowed its individuality and when treated with respect. In the South African context, many of the oldest vineyards are planted to Chenin Blanc, which have naturally found their own balance and produce wines with increased character, depth and intrigue. It’s a generous variety in the sense that very little is needed to coax its personality out of the grapes and into the bottle.” – Jacques de Klerk, Head of viticulture and winemaking at Radford Dale.