Chenin blanc doesn’t have the following of some of its better-known white cousins, such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. The most famous wines come from France’s Loire Valley, where chenin blanc is the signature variety of Vouvray, Montlouis and Savennières, the top villages after which the wines are named. California grows chenin successfully in Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta. There’s even a winery (Paumanok) that produces a nice example of it on the North Fork of Long Island.
But there is no better source for good, inexpensive chenin blanc than South Africa, as I was reminded recently with a tasting of chenins from the Western Cape and Stellenbosch appellations offered by Cape Classics, a New York-based importer of South African wine.
Chenin blanc is to South Africa what chardonnay is to California. Also known as steen, it’s ubiquitous, accounting for almost 19 percent of the vineyard area, according to the 2009 edition of “Platter’s South African Wines.”
The best three of the wines I tasted are easy to drink, have pleasing tropical fruit and honey notes and are excellent with food. All are under $15. Though dry, they have a touch of residual sugar that makes them especially good matches for spicy dishes. This was reinforced when I tasted them with a takeout order of Indian chicken in a piquant sauce of tomatoes, red and green peppers and a variety of spices, including cloves and cardamom. They were refreshing wash-down wines.
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By contrast, the dish would have overpowered a bone-dry white such as sauvignon blanc and would have clashed with the oak that dominates so many inexpensive chardonnays. The chenins will also pair easily with Chinese and Thai food, and will go well with a variety of fish, shellfish and chicken dishes. So which wines should you look for?
Mulderbosch’s 2008 Chenin Blanc, with a suggested price of $14, is the most complex and refined of the three. Well balanced, with notes of lemon, vanilla and herbs and minerals on the finish, it’s 100 percent chenin blanc with a little late-harvest (sweet) chenin blended in. Thirty percent of the wine was aged in oak.
Indaba’s 2008 Chenin Blanc, $8, is the true bargain of the three and has grassy aromas not unlike those more typical of sauvignon blanc. It is, in fact, blended with 6 percent sauvignon, which gives it a noticeable zip. It has notes of orange rind, honey, vanilla and white pepper and a pleasing, long finish. Produced by Cape Classics and aged in stainless steel.
Kanu’s 2008 Chenin Blanc, $10, is from Mulderbosch’s sister winery and is what I called the “fun wine” of the bunch, with minerals, candied apple, a touch of bubble gum, herbs and a slightly spicy finish. A little late-harvest chenin is added to this one as well, along with 4 percent each of sauvignon blanc and viognier. A very small percentage of the wine received oak aging.
Are these profound wines that reveal a unique sense of place? Not exactly. For that I would turn to the Loire Valley and expect to pay quite a bit more. But these well-priced chenin blancs from South Africa are crafted into appealing, food-friendly wines that are all but effortless to drink for just about any occasion.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at email@example.com
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