Listen all y’all it’s a Pinotage

Chenin Blanc might be the most planted grape in South Africa but the true “native” South African variety is Pinotage. Why? Because it was invented in South Africa, back in 1925, and because it is hardly ever planted outside of the country, making it quintessentially South African. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a great wine for barbecuing, a staple of the South African way of life.

Pinotage was invented, the correct word is bred, in the XXth century in order to try and solve a problem. South African winemakers wanted to plant some Pinot Noir.  A fine idea, except Pinot Noir is a temperamental, hard to grow, fragile grape. Results were not good. Enters Abraham Izak Perold, professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University (Stellenbosch is the premium wine growing region in the Cape). Mr Perold decided to tackle the Pinot Noir fragility by crossing it with Cinsault, another French grape, known for its robustness.

Mr. Perold, notice the hipster moustache

Mr. Perold, notice the hipster moustache

The idea was to keep some of the Pinot character while making the vines sturdied. The result was something completely new. Another happy accident if you want. Instead of blending characteristics from two French grapes, Perold ended up creating a new, distinct variety that had nothing to do with its parents.

Since Cinsault was called Hermitage in South Africa then, the portmanteau word Pinotage was created to describe this cross of Pinot and Hermitage. It is the signature South African grape, used in a lot of red blends but also to make varietal wines.

Pinotage grapes

Pinotage grapes

Pinotage has high acidity and strong tannins which gives it potential for ageing. Pinotage has somewhat of a bad reputation because it can easily develop unpleasant flavors, mostly acetone. Normal and more pleasant flavors include smoke, bramble fruits or even banana. It’s an earthy wine that goes well with grilled meat.

I only tasted some recently and I quite liked it, finding it very distinctive. I bought a couple bottles and I will try to form a more informed opinion.

Advertisements

So many puns, so little time

For the first time since starting this blog, I regret having decided to write in English. I like writing in English, I think it suits my style of writing and the way I think, but with today’s subject, it would have been a treat to write in French! See, I have a dirty secret, an addiction I can’t resist. I cannot stay away from a bad pun. It’s a disease, I can’t help it. Today I wanted to talk about Chenin, and this word is very close to the French word “chemin” (path, trail), tha possibilities where endless. But I write in English so you have managed to escape from “Tous les Chenins menent a Rome” or “Le petit Chenin qui sent la noisette” or even “Chacun sa route, chacun son Chenin”. God that would have been so great!

Chenin Blanc grapes

Chenin Blanc grapes

When it is not used for bad puns, Chenin Blanc is a white grape variety that, like many varieties, is originally from France but is now planted in many countries. The main characteristic of the variety is its high acidity. Because, or rather thanks to this acidity, Chenin Blanc can be a very versatile grape. It is actually versatile in two ways; first of all, it can grow in a wide variety of climates, from the cool Loire Valley in France to warmer climates like Australia. The climate and the soils will make for significant differences between Chenins from different regions.

The second aspect of this grape versatility is that it lends itself to a lot of different styles. Its high acidity can be used to enhance certain blends, but even in varietal wines the range of possibility is wide. Chenin can produce dry wines, off-dry wines and even sweet wines. It can be made into sparkling wine too. It lends itself well to noble rot, the use of lees or malolactic fermentations.  The same goes with use of wood. Chenin responds well to oak or even other woods but can also be made in a clean unoaked style. You can pretty much do whatever you want with Chenin in terms of styles and winemaking techniques. It should also be noted that this variety has a very long ageing potential, mostly due to, once again, its high acidity.  

Sparkling Vouvray

Sparkling Vouvray

Common aromas and flavors of Chenin depend on the style. Dry Chenins exhibit notes of reine-claude (greengage), pear, apple and honey. Off-dry or sweet styles can remind of peaches, marzipan or quince. And finally, Chenins from warmer climate have a lot more tropical fruit to them, like guava or pineapple.

The main region of production is the Central Loire Valley in France, a cool long river valley that flows into the Atlantic. Even within this region you can find a lot of different styles. The most famous AOC is Vouvray, near the city of Tours where Chenin Blanc is made into dry and sparkling wines during cool years and into off-dry or sweet wines in warmer years. Other Loire Valley AOCs for Chenin Blanc include Anjou (regional AOC), Montlouis (next to Vouvray), Savennieres (mostly dry), Coteaux du Layon (sweet).

Vines in Vouvray

Vines in Vouvray

The second home of Chenin Blanc is South Africa. There is twice as much Chenin Blanc planted in South Africa as there is in France; it is actually the most planted grape in South Africa where it is called Steen. South African Steen tends to favor an off-dry style with more tropical flavors than French Chenins. The main production area is Stellenbosch near the Cape.

So, to recap : versatile in climate and style, high acidity, Loire Valley and South Africa, good for making bad puns in French. Yep, we have Chenin Blanc covered!

The wine & food pairing challenge

A colleague of mine (at my normal, pay the bills job) recently learned that I was taking wine tasting classes and asked me for wine recommendations. I decided to make a game out of it and told her to send me a list of dishes and I would come up with a wine for each entry. The idea was to limit myself to wines I’ve tasted recently (and for some of them, wrote about). Here are the results. I’ll try to get feedback on how it worked out. What do you think? Also, feel free to give me some more dishes to match, it’s one area I’m trying to get better !

Veal MarsalaCostamolino Vermentino di Sargegna, Sardinia, Italy

Eggplant parmesan (red sauce) : Vignole Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy

Chicken Broccoli Ziti (white sauce) : Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Dry Riesling, Barossa Valley, Australia

Baked/broiled Salmon (with veggies)Raats Family Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Roasted Chicken : Nicky Pinot Noir, Hahn winery, Central Coast, California

Baked TurkeyPine Ridge Dijon Clones Chardonnay, Carneros, California

Curried/Thai Chicken : Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc & Viognier, Napa Valley, California

Beef Stew : Gnarly Dudes Barossa Valley Shiraz

Steak & mashed potatoesRib Shack Red, Western Cape, South Africa

Lamb chops : St Supery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California

Tasting Notes : Summer afternoon in a glass

Raats Family Chenin Blanc 2009

Region: Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa

Grape: 100% Chenin Blanc

Price: around $23 online

raats

I had a friend over last week and I decided to flex my cooking muscles with a jambalaya recipe, I love Cajun food and I always wondered about wine pairings for it. Basically the recipe calls for rice, ham, chicken sausage, green bell peppers, onions, green onions, celery, tomato sauce and spices. It turned out really well, but, as I was cooking I wondered which wine I should serve. On a hunch I decided to take out that Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It’s from Stellenbosch, the premium region within Western Cape and it’s made by the Raats family winery which has a good reputation (or so the Internet tells me). The grape is Chenin Blanc, a white variety which is widely used in South Africa (where it is known as Steen). My knowledge of the grape comes from wines made in the middle Loire Valley in France (Anjou and Touraine). Wines from Chenin Blanc can be dry, as the Raats is, but it can also be used to make sweet and/or sparkling wines such as Vouvray. It has a reputation of being a fairly versatile grape. So basically, I knew nothing going in

Eye: medium to deep lemon with hints of green (also, it might be the lousy lighting in my apartment…)

Nose: Clean, medium intensity, citrus fruit, green fruit (mostly pear) and white flowers aromas. I can’t possibly tell you which white flowers, sorry… I mean seriously, I don’t even know what most flowers smell like, I should get one of these “wine aroma” boxes. I also got hints of something heavier like honey.

Palate: dry, medium to high acidity, full body

All right, I’m still mad at South Africa for stealing the 1995 Rugby World Cup (Derek Bevan, you pathetic excuse of a human being) but that will not prevent me from enjoying this wine. It’s very balanced and structured. It opens with a fresh fruit quality (grapefruit and pear), then moves on to a fuller, heavier, fatter feel that almost gets sweet but not quite, and finally there is a mineral quality to the finish. All three phases: fruit, sweet, mineral, are thoroughly enjoyable. What struck me is the fullness of the body.

Food pairings: Turned out to be a pretty good choice to go with the jambalaya, it had enough body and acidity not to be overwhelmed by the rich dish. I felt that this wine could actually go with a lot of different dishes. The bottle recommends pairing it with oysters which sounds weird to me, I feel like it would be a disaster with that full body and almost fat quality, but maybe I should give it a try.

Overall opinion: Need to try more South African Chenin Blancs. As in the Loire Valley, they are made in a variety of styles and I was definitely impressed with this dry, structured, full-bodied example.  I’d compare this wine to a well spent vacation afternoon : you go to the beach, you take a nap, you go play some tennis, you watch the sunset,… a lot of things happen and they leave you contented.