“Many of the finest and (now) most admired South African wines are based on Chenin Blanc,” says influential UK critic Jancis Robinson MW. She also highlights the grape’s sound ageing potential, asserting in last month’s Financial Times article on Chenin that “with time it can hold its own with the finest white wines”.  

Her affirmation coincides with a recent feature on old-vine Chenins in another UK publication, Decanter, in which Christian Eedes calls these “arguably South Africa’s greatest vinous asset”.

Ken Forrester, co-founder and chair of the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA), says the validation comes just ahead of this year’s Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge that opens for entries on June 21. 

“It’s a great time for making Chenin. The grape continues to play a key role in building South Africa’s ever-rising reputation as a source of excellent, exciting and age-worthy wines. 

“Export sales values of packaged Chenins rose 21% year-on-year for the 12 months to April 2021. This was despite an export ban and the shipping logjams that followed, a performance that certainly demonstrates market-resilience. Chenin now accounts for 14% of total volumes exported. This is the biggest share of any category, with Sauvignon blanc following at 12%. 

“Domestically, for the first quarter of this year compared with 2020, Chenin’s biggest growth occurred in the price band of R90 to R99 a bottle. That tells you South Africans are also very much recognising its worth. 

“Collectively, this news should inspire local producers to enter the Challenge. There is so much to gain from being included in the top 10 line-up – the endorsement, the exposure and knowing that each winning wine attracts a cash prize of R25 000 to spend on a project to uplift or upskill your community of farm workers, in recognition of their contribution to your success.”

He stresses that since the inception of the challenge in 2014, the organisers have made it a condition of entry that all prize money must be spent this way. 

Forrester believes the positive attention accorded South African Chenin will also ensure the success of the global summit on the grape to be hosted by the CBA in November 2022. 

“Given the ongoing pandemic-induced uncertainty around global travel, we envisage holding the Chenin Blanc Summit next year, as a hybridised, phygital event. That’s a long time away, of course, so in November this year, we are planning an international Chenin congress as a webinar series. 

“Chenin’s capacity for producing outstanding wines, its heat- and drought-resistance and its stylistic versatility have placed it on the radar of a lot of winemakers around the world, so we hope to attract widespread interest.

“We are keen to provide a platform to communicate with the global Chenin community on recent developments within the category, focusing on topics such as market share, innovation and scientific research. 

“We’ll be generating international awareness digitally and via traditional media channels to reach producers, business partners, academics, researchers, trade, and selected sommeliers and consumers.” 

South Africa grows more Chenin than the rest of the world combined. It is the country’s most populous grape, accounting for 18,5% of the national vineyard that totals just over 92 000 hectares, with Breedekloof currently the biggest player, says Forrester. 

“Really encouraging is that across the board, we are witnessing the preservation of older vines, both for their vinous and income-earning potential. There is a rising number of vines between 16- and 20-years’ old, an indication that growers are keen to protect what has become an important South African legacy.” 

Speaking on behalf of the sponsors, Stephan van der Merwe, head of commercial clients at Standard Bank in the Western Cape, mentions a study underway by the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. 

In its initial phase, published in the International Journal of Wine Business Research, the research found that vine age could contribute significantly to wine price. “There is therefore every incentive for producers to preserve this heritage.”

Van der Merwe adds that both this year’s congress and next year’s summit promise to bring together some of the leading players in the international Chenin community. 

“To showcase South African prowess and innovation in this way is a major boost for an industry that has endured many setbacks, from climate extremes to altering market dynamics and the impact of the pandemic on trading and consumption.”

This year marks the eighth of the competition that annually awards a cash prize to each of the producers of the top 10 Chenins selected. “This is an important facet of the challenge,” Van der Merwe adds. 

“It highlights the role of farm workers in making award-winning wines. For a sense of the impact each R25 000 prize can make to people’s lives, it is well worth watching a short video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqtzGzHJutU.” 

Chenin entries should be delivered to Villiera in Stellenbosch between June 21 and the closing date of July 1. The winners will be announced at the end of August.

For more information, go to www.chenin.co.za or email Ina Smith on cheninblancasso@gmail.com