A Toast to the Chenin Challenge 2023: South Africa’s Best Chenin with Ina Smith and Malu Lambert

On a Sunday morning in September, Linda and I enjoyed a delightful lunch at Saam restaurant in Amstelveen. Not only was it a great lunch, but it was also an exclusive event where we had the opportunity to sample the top Chenin Blanc wines from South Africa in 2023. Chenin Blanc is one of my favorite white wines from South Africa because it beautifully showcases the terroir and unique microclimates of different regions in the country.

Saam restaurant partnered with The Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa to host this event. Alongside Koen and Margot from Saam, we had the privilege of delving into the fascinating world of Chenin Blanc, guided by two experts in the field – Ina Smith and Malu Lambert. We not only savored a delicious lunch but also had the chance to taste all ten of the 2023 winners. It was a wonderful way to celebrate South Africa’s Heritage Day and pay tribute to the country’s Chenin Blanc, also known as the Heritage grape.

Linda and Jeroen

Introduction to the Chenin Challenge 2023

The Chenin Challenge 2023 is celebrating its 10th edition, and it stands out as the first international edition of this unique wine competition. Unlike other competitions, its main focus is to showcase and celebrate the finest Chenin Blanc wines exclusively from South Africa. Powered by Standard Bank and organized by the Chenin Blanc Association, this competition actively promotes the exceptional wines produced from Chenin Blanc vines by South African winemakers.

Each year, the Standard Bank Chenin Challenge brings together a diverse range of Chenin Blanc wines from various regions across South Africa. It serves as a platform for wine producers to demonstrate their skill and passion for this grape variety, which has become a cornerstone of South African winemaking. The Challenge goes beyond simply selecting the top Chenin Blanc; it aims to honor the diversity and versatility of this exceptional grape. In addition to being a competition, it also provides an opportunity for winemakers to connect and share their enthusiasm for winemaking. This fosters growth and facilitates the production of even better wines. It’s a concept that I have never heard of before in the wine world.

Malu Lambert and Ina Smith

Malu Lambert and Ina Smith

Who are Ina Smith and Malu Lambert?

Ina Smith and Malu Lambert are two well-known personalities in the South African wine scene. Both have dedicated their careers to understanding, promoting, and sharing the wonders of Chenin Blanc.

Ina Smith is the manager of the Chenin Blanc Association and has played a key role in elevating the reputation of South African Chenin Blanc, both locally and internationally. With her extensive knowledge of the grape and its characteristics, Ina has helped establish South African Chenin Blanc as a world-class wine varietal.

Malu Lambert, a renowned wine writer and WSET educator, is recognized for her insightful articles, reviews, and educational initiatives. Her passion for Chenin Blanc is evident in her work, and she was also one of the judges in the Chenin Blanc Challenge. Malu has made remarkable contributions to the wine industry, particularly in educating the public about the nuances of Chenin Blanc. It was a great experience meeting, talking, and learning from these two passionate wine personalities.

The history and significance of Chenin Blanc in South Africa

Chenin Blanc has a long and storied history in South Africa. It’s been cultivated in the country for over 350 years, making it one of the oldest wine grape varieties in the region. Over time, Chenin Blanc has become synonymous with South African winemaking, representing a significant portion of the country’s vineyard area.

Chenin Blanc’s significance to South Africa goes beyond numbers. The varietal has played a key role in defining the country’s wine identity. It’s helped shape South African winemaking traditions, influencing the styles and techniques adopted by generations of winemakers.

Moreover, Chenin Blanc has been a catalyst for innovation. Its versatility has allowed winemakers to experiment with different styles – from crisp, dry whites and rich, oaked versions to sparkling wines and dessert wines. This adaptability is part of what makes Chenin Blanc so special in the South African context.

The rise of Chenin Blanc in the global wine industry

While Chenin Blanc has long been a mainstay of South African winemaking, it’s only in recent years that it’s gained recognition in the global wine industry. This rise can be attributed to several factors, including improved winemaking techniques, increased marketing efforts, and a growing appreciation for the varietal’s unique qualities.

In the international arena, Chenin Blanc is now celebrated for its versatility, complexity, and ageing potential. It’s being recognized not just as a high-quality varietal, but as a vehicle for expressing terroir – the geographical and climatic conditions that shape a wine’s character.

This global recognition has further boosted the status of South African Chenin Blanc. As more consumers and critics discover the wonders of this varietal, South Africa is being acknowledged as one of the leading Chenin Blanc producers in the world.

What to Expect from the Top 10 Best Chenin Blanc 2023

The Standard Bank Chenin Challenge 2023 highlights the finest South African Chenin Blanc wines. Out of 144 entries from across the country, the top 10 wines showcase a diverse range of styles and expressions. What pleasantly surprised me was that the differences are not subtle but rather quite noticeable.

When tasting these Chenin Blancs, expect to be captivated by their aromatic complexity, featuring ripe fruit, floral notes, honey, and spice. On the palate, these wines will impress with their well-balanced acidity, sweetness, depth of flavor, and long-lasting finish.

However, it’s not just about the sensory experience. The top 10 Chenin Blancs also have stories to tell – about the vineyards they originate from, the skillful winemakers who crafted them, and the unique South African terroir they represent. These wines engage both your senses and your imagination.

Top 10 Chenin Blanc 2023

Top 10 Chenin Blanc 2023

Sampling South Africa’s Best Chenin Blanc: A Wine Tasting Experience

I was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to taste the top 10 Chenin Blancs from the Standard Bank Chenin Challenge 2023. This promised to be an unforgettable experience, allowing me to not only appreciate the best of Chenin Blanc but also explore the diversity of South Africa’s wine regions.

Just imagine savoring a Chenin Blanc from renowned areas like Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Durbanville. These wines are known for their vibrant acidity and nuanced minerality. Additionally, experiencing a wine from the hot, dry Swartland, which surprisingly comes from a cooler area due to its higher altitude, offers a fresh yet rich, full-bodied Chenin Blanc with intense fruit flavors.

Each sip took me on a journey, allowing me to explore the diverse landscapes of South Africa, appreciate the unique attributes of its terroir, and admire the creativity and skill of its winemakers. It truly was an exceptional adventure.

Some highlights from my tasting notes

The flight of the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge 2023 was served in two glasses at once:

  1. Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Cape Garden Chenin Blanc 2022
    Pleasantly rounded, fresh, vibrant, with a hint of fresh grass and gentle peach.
  2. Lievland Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2022
    Lots of vanilla and exotic fruit with fresh acidity.
  3. Stellenrust Stellenbosch Manor Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2022
    Presents acidity, apple, and pear with a hint of flint.
  4. Stellenrust Stellenbosch Manor Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2021
    Crushed stones, reduction, floral, flinty, exotic fruit.
    The wine is round with a soft, long aftertaste. It reminds me of a mature Riesling with a hint of petrol.
  5. Flagstone Paradigm Chenin Blanc Reserve 2020
    Forward with a dry and high acidity, notes of flinty, pear, and lime.
  6. Antonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Riebeeksrivier Chenin Blanc 2021
    This wine offers lots of exotic fruit flavors, ripe pear, and attractive fruity notes. It has multiple layers of flavor and a long aftertaste. Surprisingly, it remains fresh despite being from the hot area of Swartsland. The vines grow at higher altitudes, which creates a cooler environment for the grapes.
  7. Stellenrust B28 (Fairtrade) Chenin Blanc 2022
    Sharp and spicy with white pepper, ginger, and lemon pepper. It also has notes of apricot, green apple, and lime zest.
  8. Stellenrust Next Level Chenin Blanc 2022
    The vines were planted in 1964, which gives the wine a very concentrated, matured, and developed taste. It has a round, happy, waxy, vanilla, stone fruit, rich, and botrytis flavor profile.
  9. KWV The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2021
    Smoky, baked pear, vanilla, ripe fruit, clay, and steely flavors are complemented by crisp acidity.
  10. Alvi’s Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc 2022
    Elegant exotic fruit with a soft, long aftertaste. It provides a pleasant and relaxed vibe.

My key learning points

I learned a lot during this tasting. It was not only because of tasting the wines, but also listening to the stories of Ina and Malu. The winemaker of Stellenrust was also present and provided a lot of information. Here are some of the key points I learned:

  • There are many old Chenin Blanc vineyards due to its increased demand in the 60s when people wanted to drink more white wine.
  • The price they received for the grapes in the past wasn’t high enough to sustain their business. However, they didn’t have enough money to plant something else, which is why there are still many plots with old vines.
  • Older vines are similar to older adults. They have put in hard work and now enjoy peace in their surroundings. They have adapted to the terroir and acquired experience with the climate throughout the years. Their roots are strong and deep, and due to their maturity, they can produce grapes with deeper flavors. They have learned how to survive.
  • The different characteristics of Chenin Blanc wines come from various factors such as the terroir, older vines, climatic conditions in the growing season, and winemaking techniques used to balance acidity, sugar, and pH. These components can greatly influence the character of the wine.
  • In addition, using natural wild yeast and expressing the terroir are crucial. To capture the authentic essence of the vineyard and its surroundings, it is essential to utilize the yeast that naturally exists. This approach allows for a genuine expression of the terroir in the wine. Minimizing the use of artificial yeast is important as it greatly reduces the desired effect.
  • Chenin Blanc wines from South Africa offer a great price-quality ratio, providing superb quality at very affordable prices. Many of the wines in the top 10 are priced under €25, making them highly accessible.

Lunch after the tasting

Following the tasting, we enjoyed a fantastic braai-inspired lunch. Each course was expertly paired with either the top 10 wines recommended by Koen or your personal favorites.

We started with some amuses, followed by prawn and suurvyg tiger tomato. The dish was topped with grated salted struisvogelei (ostrich egg). The second course featured Corvina with eel and honeybush. Next, we were treated to a delicious dish of crunchy eggplant with ginger and sorghum. The main course consisted of veal with mieliemeal and peach, paired with a special wine brought by the winemaker of Stellenrust. The wine, a barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc magnum 2013 from 49-year-old vines, was truly extraordinary. It had a full-bodied, intense and elegant flavor that paired exceptionally well with the veal. Overall, it was an amazing experience.

The Unique Attributes of South African Chenin Blanc

What sets South African Chenin Blanc apart? Its uniqueness lies in its ability to reflect the diversity of the country’s terroir. Whether it’s grown in the cool coastal regions or the hot inland valleys, Chenin Blanc adapts to its surroundings, resulting in wines with distinct character and style.

South African Chenin Blanc is also distinguished by its balance. These wines manage to harmonize acidity and sweetness, fruitiness and minerality, freshness and complexity. This balance makes South African Chenin Blanc versatile and enjoyable, whether served as an aperitif, paired with food, or savored on its own.

Finally, South African Chenin Blanc is known for its aging potential. While enjoyable in their youth, these wines also have the capacity to evolve and develop over time. This aging ability adds another layer of intrigue to South African Chenin Blanc, making it a fascinating varietal for wine enthusiasts to discover and explore.

The Role of the Standard Bank Chenin Challenge in Promoting South African Chenin Blanc

The Standard Bank Chenin Challenge has played a significant role in promoting South African Chenin Blanc. By providing a platform for the best Chenin Blancs in the country, the Challenge has raised awareness of the quality, diversity, and potential of this varietal.

The Challenge also encourages innovation and excellence in Chenin Blanc production. It rewards wineries that push boundaries, experiment with new techniques, and strive to express the uniqueness of their terroir through their wines.

Furthermore, the Standard Bank Chenin Challenge contributes to the global recognition of South African Chenin Blanc. It attracts international judges, media, and wine lovers, helping to spread the word about the exceptional Chenin Blancs from South Africa.

Personal insights from Ina Smith and Malu Lambert on Chenin Blanc

Ina Smith and Malu Lambert are passionate advocates of Chenin Blanc. They have dedicated their careers to understanding, promoting, and sharing the beauty of this grape variety. Both believe that Chenin Blanc has the potential to represent South Africa on the global wine stage. They are currently writing a book about Chenin Blanc, scheduled for release in 2024, and are eagerly anticipating its publication.

According to Ina Smith, Chenin Blanc is considered the embodiment of South African winemaking. She believes this versatile grape can effectively showcase the diversity of the country’s terroir, reflecting the creativity and skill of its winemakers. In her opinion, there is no better varietal to demonstrate the excellence of South African wine.

On the other hand, Malu Lambert highly values Chenin Blanc for its complexity and aging potential. She is fascinated by the wide range of styles that can be produced from this grape variety, each offering a unique sensory experience. For Malu, Chenin Blanc is a wine that never fails to surprise and delight. I had a great conversation and thank you very much, Ina and Malu, for sharing your passion.

Conclusion: The Future of Chenin Blanc in South Africa

The Standard Bank Chenin Challenge 2023 has showcased the excellence and diversity of South African Chenin Blanc. The top 10 wines represent the pinnacle of South African winemaking, capturing the essence of the terroir.

Chenin Blanc’s rise in the global wine industry is a testament to its versatility, complexity, and ability to express terroir. South African Chenin Blanc has gained recognition for its exceptional quality and aging potential, establishing the country as a leading producer. Let’s raise a glass to celebrate its rich history, cultural significance, and bright future. Cheers! #drinkchenin

Thanks for organizing this event team Saam, Koen and Margot, Ina and Malu!

More information about Chenin Challenge: https://www.chenin.co.za/chenin-challenge

More information about Ina Smith and Chenin Blanc Association: https://www.chenin.co.za/

More information about Malu Lambert: https://malulambert.com/

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