The Chenin mystery, a wine of the week

Joelle Thomson’s weekly column is published on Fridays.

The decline of Chenin in New Zealand remains a mystery
11 June 2021

South African wines made headlines in one of the most respected newspapers in the world this year because of a relatively obscure grape variety, Chenin Blanc, which can hold its own with the finest white wines, wrote UK critic Jancis Robinson MW in the Financial Times last month. It will come as good news to South Africa’s winemakers whose industry has had it tough in the past 12 months due to three total bans on the sale of alcohol since the Covid pandemic began. It could also bode well for New Zealand winemakers looking for a segue from Sauvignon Blanc.

Wine of the week

18.5/20
2018 Astrolabe Wrekin Chenin Blanc $32

Another deliciously succulent Chenin Blanc from winemaker Simon Waghorn, who fermented this wine in a combination of oak and stainless steel to add complexity and roundness but retain fruit freshness. Wild yeasts were used in this wine’s fermentation which can accentuate a more diverse range of flavours in wines. This is all about fresh flavours of lemon with a hint of grapefruit, held together in a dry style with a medium body and great long finish, thanks to the acidity, which makes every mouthful taste zingy – and will also see this wine through to a ripe old age. Acid is a great preserver. A delicious Astrolabe Chenin, as always.

It’s always seemed unusual to me that Chenin Blanc produced in New Zealand tastes so fresh and ages so well but has declined in production over the past 20 years from 1041 hectares nationwide in 2001 to 79 hectares in 2010 to nothing mentioned today, which is code for unimportant and barely any left. The last time that New Zealand Winegrowers reported an actual figure was in 2016 when there were 24 hectares of it left. Today Chenin Blanc is lumped in with the ‘other varieties’ which total 395 grapes and include some unpromising interlopers as well as this great white.

Sad. It does make me sad because the quality of good Kiwi Chenin Blanc continues to rise, as a new wine from an old winery showed a group I was doing staff training with this week at Wellington’s biggest independent wine store, Regional Wines & Spirits.

One of the wines I showed the tasters (which was presented blind, alongside another dry white), was my wine of the week, above, the 2018 Astrolabe Wrekin Chenin Blanc, whose maker says that Chenin flourishes in the New Zealand climate. Winemaker Simon Waghorn makes this wine from grapes wine was grown on a clay slope on the Wrekin Vineyard in Marlborough’s Southern Valleys. This vineyard is in conversion to organic certification with BioGro New Zealand. All the grapes are hand picked, fermented with wild yeasts, partially in barrel, partially in stainless steel to retain fruit freshness. “I love Chenin Blanc because of its crisp acidity and ability to age…” says Waghorn.
I’ll echo those sentiments. If only we had more, sob sob. It really does seem a shame, especially when so many winemakers talk about finding an interesting alternative and dive deep down the pathway of even more obscure, harder to pronounce varieties such as Gruner Veltliner, Viognier and Arneis but won’t venture down a path with a proven track record of greatness, namely, Chenin Blanc. It’s not that those other whites will not do well in this country. Some will. Some won’t. But Chenin Blanc is one of the greatest whites in the world in terms of its vibrant personality and ability to age for decades and its natural tendency to produce relatively large crops. This means it is easier to make money from than, say, Viognier or Gewurztraminer, which are both tricky to grow and harder to pronounce, making both a challenge to sell. Chenin Blanc is easy to pronounce and even easier to understand because it is nearly always dry and rarely has new oak which keeps its price down. Despite the small volumes, there are many good and some outstanding ones in good vintages, such as Chenins from Forrest Estate, Mount Edward, Easthope Family Winemakers, Margrain Vineyard and, best known of all, The Millton Vineyard.

The quality is always high and the prices never are. The decline of Chenin in New Zealand remains a mystery.

Find out more about South African Chenin Blanc at www.chenin.co.za

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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