The quality of South African Chenin has never been better, say the 2021 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge judges. Panel chair James Pietersen believes South Africa has set the benchmark for the grape globally and because of the healthy competitive spirit of innovation amongst local winemakers, the country remains the pre-eminent source of the most exciting and delicious expressions.
“Chenin may be a thriving category here but there’s no complacency. Amongst the 138 entries this year, this was apparent in the ongoing emergence of new growing regions, the greater application of skin contact, more natural fermentation and the use of a wide variety of fermentation and maturation vessels from amphorae to older and larger barrels, concrete eggs and tanks.
While Stellenbosch was the source of six of the winning wines, other areas represented were Worcester, Piekenierskloof, Swartland and Paarl.
In alphabetical order the 2021 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge winners are:
• Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc Limited Release 2020
• DeMorgenzon Reserve Chenin Blanc 2020
• Guardian Peak Donkiesbaai Steen 2020
• Ken Forrester Terre Noire Chenin Blanc 2020
• Kleine Zalze Wines Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc 2020
• Kleine Zalze Wines Family Reserve Chenin Blanc 2020
• Le Belle Rebelle Solitude Chenin Blanc 2020
• Lievland Vineyards Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2020
• Simonsig Wines Avec Chêne Wooded Chenin Blanc 2019
• Stellenrust Old Bushvine Chenin Blanc 2020
Pietersen said the already rigorous judging criteria were lifted a notch this year by including for the first time, critically acclaimed non-entrants as blind benchmarks. “As a panel, it is essential that we evaluate the submissions within the wider context of best in the field. I’m glad to say that even when matched against these non-entrants, we saw a healthy consistency in outcome.
“This speaks to an eagerness amongst competitors to keep on bettering their past efforts, continually lifting standards across the category. So, while the 2021 line-up included mostly repeat winners, there were newcomers in Guardian Peak, Le Belle Rebelle and Lievland. This has been the pattern of the results over the past years, irrespective of panel members or vintage.”
Stellenrust has featured eight times in the annual line-up. DeMorgenzon has appeared seven times, every year without interruption since 2015.
“Overall, we noticed a lighter touch in winemaking style this year, with less overt wooding and lower residual sugars. There were greater numbers of fresher, more youthful, salty and savoury wines, showing persistence and length. Those we finally chose are all wines of detail, refinement and complexity.”
Malu Lambert, one of the judges remarked on how local low latitudes make for strong light intensity, evident in the style of our wines. “We have a distinctive terroir of sunshine and light intensity.”
Ken Forrester, co-founder of the Chenin Blanc Association that is the driving force behind the annual Top Ten Challenge, pointed out that that perpetual appetite for exploration amongst Chenin producers was the reason South Africa recently approached the French winemaking fraternity to establish a joint genetic research project to identify naturally occurring desirable Chenin clones. “Natural mutations have occurred over time in local vineyards, and, also in France. The genomic study now underway is the first-ever clone identification research for Chenin. It’s hoped that what we learn will provide valuable insights into protecting heritage vines, building Chenin’s climate resilience and in advancing eco-sustainability amongst growers. Part of the study will be directed towards establishing a solid, scientific basis for promoting intra-varietal diversity within vineyards.”
Speaking on behalf of the sponsors, Stephan van der Merwe, head of commercial clients at Standard Bank in the Western Cape, highlighted the extent to which older vineyards predominated. “The majority of the top ten winners were harvested from vines aged at least 30 years. The most venerable vineyards were more than half-a century old. We know from the first phase of a UCT Graduate School of Business study that vine age can contribute significantly to wine quality and therefore wine price. This is already incentivising producers to preserve this heritage. We hope the learnings from the SA/French clonal collaboration study with encourage this still further.
“The international webinar to be hosted in November by the Chenin Blanc Association will offer yet another forum for the exchange of ideas and practice amongst Chenin specialists. That really bodes well for the future of the grape.”
He said webinar details would be announced soon.
This year marks the eighth of the competition that annually awards a cash prize to each of the producers of the top ten Chenins selected. “This is an important feature of the challenge,” Van der Merwe added. “It acknowledges the role of farm workers in making award-winning wines.”
A condition of the competition is that the money must be used towards enhancing the quality of life of farm workers and/or their communities.
Notes to the editor
This year’s judges are James Pietersen (panel chair), Wine Cellar’s MD and a regular judge in this and several other leading local wine competitions; winemaker Boela Gerber Cape Wine Master of Groot Constantia; sommelier Higgo Jacobs, who is also a senior judge at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and Decanter World Wine Awards and a past chairman of the South African Sommelier Association (SASA); Penny Setti, former sommelier at Chef’s Warehouse and now owner of Penny Noire wine bar; and newcomer to the panel, Malu Lambert, an award-winning wine writer and contributor to Platter’s South African Wine Guide and a selection of titles, including jancisrobinson.com, Decanter and The Buyer. This year’s associate judge is Amos Sobashe, who is currently hosting the tasting room and online tastings for Oldenburg Vineyards. He was previously sommelier at Quoin Rock.
Since the inception of the awards eight years ago, winners have prioritised projects focused on education, from early learning programmes right through to tertiary training. Not only have creches and after-care facilities for school children been established on some farms, but also libraries, computer rooms and other educational resources for learners, workers and communities. Some producers have donated their prize money to NGO Pebbles Project to support its suite of education, health, nutrition, community and protection programmes. These benefit hundreds of infants and youth in the Cape Winelands. Pebbles also extends social services to combat foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and alcohol abuse. Other winners have supported housing, sporting and other recreational initiatives.