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The Rise of the Chenin Blanc

Leopard’s Leap chenin blanc wine is fast becoming a firm favourite amongst wine lovers and this article published recently in the New York Times nicely summed up our region’s ability to produce great chenin blanc wines. Below in an extract from the article.

Ll_chenin_blanc_2006_2"If you love wines made from the chenin blanc grape as I do, you are grimly aware that your source for good bottles has been more or less restricted to one: the Loire Valley of France.

Should a disaster befall the vineyards of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine — an earthquake, perhaps, or a plague of chardonnay-loving vignerons — the world’s reservoir of Vouvray and Savennières could be wiped out. We’d be left to battle for the few good chenin blancs from California, or the already scarce bottles from Paumanok Vineyards on the East End of Long Island.

However farfetched this scenario may sound, all who hold chenin blanc dear should be soothed to learn how far the wines from South Africa have come in the last 20 years. Only South Africa can rival the Loire in its taste for chenin blanc.

In fact, South Africa has around twice as much chenin blanc planted as does the Loire, which in itself is small comfort. Australia has a lot of chenin blanc planted as well, for little discernable reason since just about all of it is made into bad bulk wine.

Likewise, most of the South African chenin blanc, occasionally known as steen, was historically blended into bad bulk wines or even used to make brandy. But, as with everything in South Africa, so much has changed. As the wine panel found in a recent tasting of 25 bottles, South Africa today is teeming with good chenin blancs, wines of freshness and character with prices that make them exceptional values…

The reason for chenin blanc’s versatility, as with riesling’s, is the grape’s remarkable acidity. Far from being a flaw, acidity gives a white wine structure, length and integrity, allowing it to exhibit its aromas and flavors without collapsing into a fatiguing puddle. A well-modulated acidity keeps a wine refreshing even if it is sweet. Too much acidity, though, can make a wine harsh and unpleasantly aggressive.

Aside from good viticulture and winemaking, to achieve proper acidity grapesneed to grow in a climate that allows a gradual, balanced ripening. Theprime South African wine region, which arches around Cape Town at the southern confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, might be theoretically too warm and humid for making fine wines. But during the long,southern summer, from November through April, a cold current flows up from the Antarctic, sending cooling breezes inland that ward off the heat.

The most surprising thing about the wines we tasted was their consistent good quality. Often, the wines from an emerging region like South Africa —which is indeed emerging even though wine has been produced there since the 17th century — can be all over the place as producers inexperienced with the export market struggle with an international audience."

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