Taste the Swartland in its Chenin blanc wines

Written by Clifford Roberts; photography Johan Viljoen

Chenin blanc does so well in South Africa that it has in many respects become the country’s global calling card for quality wine. A significant part of this honour belongs to the Swartland, which is home to some 15% of these vineyards.

It is in this region just north of Cape Town that the variety is expressed in an array of styles – from Cap Classique to straw wine – in no small part due to the pioneering work of local winemakers and organisations such as the Swartland Independent Producers. And while the variety was first propagated on the Cape peninsula in the 17th century, Swartland has its own claims to the grape’s history on the continent.

Here stands the biggest collection of vines registered under the Old Vine Project, an initiative that promotes wine made from vineyards of 35 years or older. In fact, the very first wine certified under the OVP was a Swartland chenin. Today, the list includes numerous wines including Mullineux Old Vines White and Lammershoek The Mysteries White.

Swartland is also home AA Badenhorst’s Klip Kop Chenin Blanc, made from a vineyard planted in 1966; and, Piet Bok se Steen Bos Chenin Blanc, from a vineyard dating to 1986.

Many of these will be the feature at the Chenin Blanc International Congress, a unique global conference dedicated to the variety, taking place in Stellenbosch in November.

The prominent granite rock formation directly behind the cellar at Babylon’s Peak is a landmark in the Swartland. Babylon’s Peak Chenin blanc is a favourite amongst Swartland locals.

Yet, not all the action around the variety is focused on the past and for travellers exploring the region’s wines there are numerous and diverse Chenin blancs to discover. Among them are:

  • Allesverloren Chenin Blanc, made from vineyards growing on the Kasteelberg;
  • Olerasay 2°, a straw wine made from Chenin Blanc by Mullineux Family Wines;
  • Babylons Peak Chenin Blanc produced on the Paardeberg by fourth generation farmer and vintner Stephan Basson;
  • Leeuwenkuil Chenin Blanc, which is subject to natural fermentation and low sulphur; and
  • Navid & Nadia Chenin Blanc – a wine that highlights plantings ranging from 1968 until 1985. It’s a fascinating concept: the wine is made from seven vineyards, 14 pickings, different soils, different aspects, different vineyard ages, farmed by different people and different farmers. “This wine illustrates the Swartland, its people and its old vineyards,” the winery says.

The variety is also a mainstay of many interesting blends too.

Leeuwenkuil’s WO Swartland White Blend comprises 80% Chenin blanc with its maiden 2017 vintage rated by UK-based MW Tim Atkin as being the best value for money wine. The vintage also received Platter’s five stars.

Pieter Carstens, Cellar Master at Leeuwenkuil Vineyards, amongst the bush vine Chenin blanc vines near the Leeuwenkuil cellar.

The Nativo white blend, produced by Hughes Family Wines, made with minimum intervention and employing Chenin Blanc alongside Viognier as the drivers of this expression.

Billy Hughes of Nativo in his innovative underground cellar, situated 13km north of Malmesbury.

Rall White, a Chenin-based blend whose first vintage in 2008 earned winemaker Donovan Rall – based at Yellowwood Winery on the Riebeecksrivier Road – five stars in the Platter’s South African wine guide.

Donovan Rall pouring his wines at the annual Swartland Producer Street Party in November 2021 (the next Street Party will take place on 5 November 2022)

For all its versatility, Chenin blanc was once called the workhorse of South African wine. It was a trusty producer, providing passable bulk. But what may have been a blunt and practical instrument has been transformed today, crafted into an alluring gem, and the Swartland has certainly played a leading role in that evolution.

Visit the website of the Chenin Blanc Association to find out more about Chenin Blanc and the Chenin blanc International Congress taking place later this year.

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