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When it comes to Chenin Blanc, naturally does it
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Looking at the range of flavours and factors in the success of Chenin Blanc, Cathy Marston describes the background of these top-rated wines.

Who or what holds the key to Chenin success? That’s a question many people would like to have the answer to, with this noble French variety still making more wines than any other in SA. The Chenin Blanc Association is halfway through a study with Stellenbosch University that is uncovering various areas of concern and a few for celebration and contemplation. One of the issues the Stellenbosch University team will be investigating in the second half of their study is how the wide range of flavours that Chenin is capable of, are achieved from the same grape – is it clonal, is it terroir-driven, or is it perhaps the winemaking process?

According to Dr Hélène Nieuwoudt, who is in charge of the project, a particularly interesting area of research is the effects of natural yeasts versus inoculated yeasts and how or whether consumers perceive the difference. She and her team have identified some of the many different strains of yeast present on grapes and then tracked their proliferation and survival through a natural fermentation process. Eventually, the familiar Saccharomyces cerevisiae triumphs, as it is the yeast that copes best with high levels of ethanol, but along the way various different strains of yeast add additional flavours that do not survive if Saccharomyces cerevisiae is inoculated, as it just takes over from the start.

Dr Nieuwoudt’s research is based on three lines of enquiry – firstly, can consumers taste the difference between spontaneous and inoculated fermented wines? Secondly, does their perception of wines that have been naturally fermented change when they know what they are tasting? (Dr Nieuwoudt says her previous research shows that, ‘There is huge sentiment in consumers for beautiful stories. When they have understood all the history behind labelling a wine as coming from a “bush vine”, their perception of the wine changes in a positive fashion.’) And finally, what are the descriptors used by consumers to describe wines made by spontaneous fermentation? She is seeking to find a common thread of taste perceptions for spontaneously fermented Chenins that can be identified and then be used to help clarify labelling and marketing of Chenin in the future.

A large amount of the research so far is based on untrained consumers, and already the results have proved both useful and interesting to the team and the wine industry at large. From the list of top-rated wines in the line-up, it certainly seems as if trained palates are able to identify and appreciate differences between inoculated and spontaneously fermented Chenins, as this is the only link between all these four winning wines. ‘Natural’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘minimal intervention’, ‘hands-off’ – these are all buzzwords for food and wine trends around the world at the moment, and if the Chenin Blanc Association and Stellenbosch University can find a way of conveying them on the bottle, and getting the general consumer to understand the grape more, then maybe this would be the success key we’ve all been seeking.

Kanu KCB 2009 5 Stars- R85‘

KCB – yeah, that stands for “Killer Chenin Blanc!”’ quips Johan Grimbeek before hastily backtracking, saying that he was just kidding and officially it is Kanu Chenin Blanc. But the nickname sticks, particularly in and around the cellar where Johan and his team have been specialising in the production of three different styles of Chenin for many years now, with this version being regarded as the cellar’s flagship. It was Teddy Hall who established Kanu as a hotbed of top Chenin over a decade ago and Johan is happy to credit his own love of the variety to his time spent working alongside Teddy (Johan also makes a Chenin under his own label, Aeternitas, although demands from the day job have meant that the latest vintage is 2010). As Johan says, ‘It’s easy to get into the rhythm of Chenin when you work with Teddy!’

The KCB is Kanu’s wooded version with 100% of the wine being fermented in new oak. The grapes come from two separate blocks from the same grower. It’s a dryland vineyard with the vines being around 30 years old, and produces around eight tons per hectare. Johan always uses a natural ferment, which he believes adds more complexity and intrigue to the final wine, and after fermentation starts, the wine spends nine months in barrel in total – none of it undergoes malolactic fermentation during that time. The natural fermentation results in a fair amount of residual sugar – just under 12g/l for the 2009 – but this is balanced out by the high natural acidity of the wine, giving it a youthful freshness that appealed t the judges.

Johan believes he makes wines to keep and he is delighted that they have been able to hang onto this wine for three years to allow it to reach its full potential in bottle. He reckons on enjoying the KCB over the next five years, noting that they found a few pallets of the 2006 in the cellar recently that they sent on a special order to Canada where it is proving very popular and garnering lots of favourable reviews. Which is great news for Chenin Blanc-lovers and winemakers, who often have a permanent battle with people thinking that all white wine should be drunk young. ‘For us at Kanu, Chenin Blanc is the backbone of what we do and the biggest feature of our collection,’ says Johan. ‘The challenge is for people to understand what it is all about and to get them to enjoy the wine.’

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