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Sommelier Symposium Chenin Masterclass
Talking about Chenin: the importance of language in connecting people and crossing barriers

by Fiona McDonald

The language of Chenin Blanc

“If you just communicate, you can get by. But if you communicate skillfully, you can work miracles.” That’s a quote by Jim Rohn – and if anyone were to Google who Mr Rohn was, they’d discover him described as an American author, speaker and entrepreneur.

His books include The Power of Ambition, My Guide to Successful Living and Take Charge of Life, among others. He’s also the person who mentored Tony Robbins, the man who went on to become one of the world’s most globally recognised motivational speakers.

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a
guide to our communication with others.”


On 11 September 2023, a group of international sommeliers from nine different countries visited South Africa. The purpose of their visit was to get to know the country better, specifically its wines. The aim ultimately was for them to form their own opinions and hopefully take the message of South African wine to the restaurant tables and homes of their patrons, family and friends.


One evening was hosted at Klein Joostenberg by the Chenin Blanc Association. The theme was Talking About Chenin: the importance of language in connecting people and crossing barriers. Speakers included Ross Sleet of Rascallion Wines, Fiona McDonald, former Editor of WINE magazine, Nongcebo Langa of Delheim and Yolani Kosa of Ken Forrester Wines.


“As a category, Chenin Blanc is showing growth in all styles and at all price points,” Sleet said, pointing out to the gathering that the grape still represents a large portion of the national vineyard – 20% of all plantings. With his background in marketing, his message was a sales driven one – that purchases of Chenin Blanc are increasing – particularly in the price categories of between $12 and $24. “Consumers are buying Chenin: Kenya is showing sales 80% up on previous figures. Japan is up by 65%.”


McDonald briefly sketched the modern renaissance of Chenin Blanc, driven initially by Irina von Holdt and Ken Forrester as well as by WINE magazine’s annual competition. Of the 32 000 hectares of the variety planted worldwide, South Africa boasts the lion’s share at 51% with France accounting for 31.5%, Argentina 6.4%, USA 6%, India 1.4% and Australia 1.3%. With South Africa grabbing international headlines for its Old Vine Project, it was noted that 52% of the country’s venerable vines are all Chenin.


The grape variety’s versatility is what Delheim winemaker Nongcebo Langa spoke about. “It’s a delight to work with because it’s like a chameleon!” It’s a grape which responds individually to variances in terroir, climate and soils, consequently creating a wonderfully diverse range of expressions. South Africa, she said, was still in the process of identifying regionally distinct characteristics. Equating it to Bordeaux, which was renowned the world over, she said wine people immediately knew that a Pauillac would be different to one from St Estephe or St Julien, for example. The aim is to ultimately be able to have the same apply to Chenin from the Swartland – or even smaller areas within the Swartland – to equally individual areas of Stellenbosch; being able to comfortably identify a Bottelary example to a Helderberg wine.


The final word before the tasting of a variety of Chenins from different regions, belonged to Yolani Kosa. Kosa drew on his experience at the coal face: presenting tastings to visitors to Ken Forrester Vineyards. Kosa said being able to have patrons taste Chenin in sparkling form, still in Petit, Old Vine and FMC form and even sweet noble late harvest guise made them understand its chameleon-like abilities that Langa had referred to. Renowned television talk show host Oprah Winfrey said: “great communication begins with connection” – and one of the easiest ways to get the message across was in vernacular language.

One of the Association’s biggest achievements has been to translate the Chenin aroma wheel into isiZulu, isiXhosa and Shona. Kosa pointed out that while the European market might be well acquainted with elderflower, for example, to many a South African it didn’t create an instantly recognisable association. Presenting that visually in aroma wheel form, along with a description of a white flower – Izimbali Ezimhlope in isiZulu – made more sense and resonated more easily with a local audience. The plan, Sleet said in closing, is to extend the translation to a new phase and include Swahili and possibly Mandarin.

A tasting of wine from different regions followed:

Elgin (Vrede en Lust Kogelberg Chenin Blanc 2021),
Slanghoek (Opstal Chenin Blanc 2022),

Stellenbosch – Simonsberg (Delheim wild ferment Chenin Blanc 2021),

Stettyn (Stettyn Shackleton 2022),

Paarl (Zoetendal Chenin Blanc 2020),

Cape Town (Bellingham Chenin Blanc 2022),

Swartland (Rascallion The Devonian 2021),

Paardeberg (Perdeberg Endura 2021),

Stellenbosch (Kleine Zalze Project Z 2021),

Stellenbosch – Bottelary Hills (Stellenrust ArtiSons Mothership 2022),

Worcester (Alvi’s Drift albertus Viljoen 2021) and
Stellenbosch – Helderberg (Ken Forrester Vineyards The FMC 2022).

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

by Jeroen Vonk, wine enthusiast from Amstelveen, Netherlands |

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.

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Chenin Blanc has become the de facto gateway grape to the South African wine category, said Ina Smith, to coincide with the announcement of the 2023 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge winners. She is the driving force behind the annual competition, that marks its tenth anniversary this year.  


“Once dismissed as the ugly duckling of the vineyard, Cape Chenin has become a swan, distinguished for excellence, grace and the capacity to delight. What the competition does, is encourage and accelerate advances in quality and style. 


“As Cape Chenin’s reputation grows, it has become more than South Africa’s signature white. In many ways it’s becoming a flagbearer for all our wines. The positive response Chenin elicits often motivates international trade buyers and consumers to try other South African wines as well.” 


The annual challenge that this year drew 144 entries, is hosted by the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA). Since its inception in 2000, the organisation has focused on building stature, credibility, and support for Chenin across the stylistic spectrum. Its multi-targeted market initiatives have won over sommeliers, critics, and other influential taste makers worldwide.  


For many years Smith has worked alongside CBA co-founder and chair, Ken Forrester, an internationally recognised champion of Chenin. He was voted 2023 Man of the Year by The Drinks Business for his pivotal role in advancing the grape, as well as for “promoting his country’s wines at home and abroad with infectious enthusiasm and great generosity” and for the strong mentorship he extends to newcomers to the industry.   


Also, this year, Forrester earned the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award for his contribution to the South African wine industry and his 30-year advocacy of Chenin Blanc. 


Chair of the 2023 judging panel Higgo Jacobs said efforts to raise Cape Chenin’s profile and standing had elevated the variety to “benchmark” status “on the global stage”. 


Commenting on the winning wines, he said he and his co-judges were impressed by the increase this year “in concentration, fruit intensity and palate length” amongst the winners. He attributed this to greater vine maturity and ongoing improvements in viticulture, along with more ambitious pricing strategies amongst producers, as well as the competition itself, that incentivised innovation amongst producers.  


He also suggested that the ongoing collaboration between the local Chenin fraternity and French Chenin producers in the Loire could well be the inspiration for greater stylistic complexity and elegance evident in this year’s line-up. This was sometimes expressed in “tight, nervy wines that take time to unfold”.  


“It’s clear that the use of steel, concrete, new oak, older, and larger barrels, as well as amphorae for maturation, are contributing greater nuance and finesse to the winning wines,” he added. 


“Interestingly, for the first time, the majority (60%) of the winning wines were closed under screwcap, underscoring that closure type is no longer on its own an indicator of wine quality.” 


Standard Bank awards a cash prize to each of the producers of the ten best Chenins selected every year. A condition of the competition is that the money be used towards enhancing the quality of life of farm workers and/or their communities. 


Simone Cooper, Head of Business and Commercial Banking for Standard Bank South Africa, confirmed that to date, a sum of R2,35m had been directed towards a variety of farm-worker community projects, from education and youth development to housing and health. “Each prize is extended as an acknowledgement of the crucial role that farm workers have in growing and making award-winning wines.”  


Cooper added that, Standard Bank’s long-standing commitment to South Africa’s wine industry continued to drive and celebrate excellence and innovation at home and expansion abroad. “Our raft of energy and trade solutions, for example, have been critical in helping wine producers to respond effectively to energy constraints whilst also accessing global markets. Most recently, our partnership with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, has been very successful in helping the South African wine industry access the world’s largest domestic consumer market.” 


The Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge 2023 winners are (listed alphabetically):


  • Alvi’s Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc 2022 

  • Antonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Riebeeksrivier Chenin Blanc 2021 

  • Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Cape Garden Chenin Blanc 2022 

  • Flagstone Paradigm Chenin Blanc Reserve 2020 

  • KWV The Mentors Chenin Blanc 2021 

  • Lievland Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2022 

  • Stellenrust B28 (Fairtrade) Chenin Blanc 2022 

  • Stellenrust Next Level Chenin Blanc 2022 

  • Stellenrust Stellenbosch Manor Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2021 

  • Stellenrust Stellenbosch Manor Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc 2022  


Stellenrust, with a record four wines on the Top Ten list this year, has been a consistent winner, featuring nine times in the ten-year the history of the challenge. Antonij Rupert has appeared for the first time, whereas Alvi’s Drift, Durbanville Hills, KWV and Lievland are all repeat winners. 


Jacobs said the results showed a consistency in the application of the judging criteria, under a largely new panel of judges.  


The Old Vine Project has created the ‘Old Vines: Laying the Groundwork’ course which is designed to educate industry members across the entire value chain. Sommeliers, wine retailers, winemakers, viticulturists, sales and marketing personnel, media, and consumers, will all be able to delve into the old vine category of South Africa. They will be able to review old vine philosophies, hear from a range of industry legends across the wine industry about their areas of expertise and its relevance to the old vine category, what it brings to winemaking, food and wine pairing, tasting old vine wines, as well as selling them.
Learners who purchase the course will gain access to 10 modules, which will take the average learner approximately 20 hours to complete. The old vine category is amongst the fast-growing wine categories in South Africa and is widely considered to be the most innovative and dynamic wine category in the country. Brands associated with the Old Vine Project include some from the best known and lauded winemakers in the country. The close to 140 members have achieved phenomenal success in the category in recent years, extracting incredible texture, complexity, and flavours from their vineyards and wines. Wines that wish to carry the highly sought-after Certified Heritage Vineyards seal on their bottles, must come from vineyards that are 35 years and older.
The Old Vine Project believes that the category has to bring real financial reward to its members, and it has from the outset sought to enhance the viability of the South African wine industry by showing how increased retail prices for the old vine wines can lead to increased prices for farmers of old vine vineyards. 
The web-based platform includes a Learner Management System that tracks learners’ progress, and learners will receive a Certificate of Competence from the academy. Nadia Hefer, the OVP’s project consultant, and head of the development team for the academy, had this to say: 'The Old Vine Academy has been a labour of love for myself and the team over the last 12 months. We are extremely grateful to the Imvini Wethu partners in Germany whose support and funding enabled us to develop this groundbreaking project.'
'The Old Vine Academy will deliver insightful knowledge to learners, and I am grateful to my development team, in particular Cherese Sauer, members of the wine trade, media, and other commentators who feature on the course, for their time and contributions that helped us bring the course to life. My fellow Old Vine Project team members, Rosa Kruger and André Morgenthal, provided guidance and inspiration, bringing their many years of experience to bear in helping us to deliver the academy. This is the first step in showcasing the South African old vine category to the world on a focused educational platform,' concludes Nadia.
The course is available via the Old Vine Project website at a cost of R 1 250 per person. 

For more information, please contact: 
Nadia Hefer:
Tel: +27 (0) 82 889 2230 

SA Wine Trailblazer: Nongcebo Langa

“Chenin represents versatility and adaptability,” shares winemaker Nongcebo “Noni” Langa, winemaker at Delheim Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. “That parallels what I see within myself. I hope Chenin continues to break even more boundaries. We all come from different backgrounds and our aroma memory banks are made up of those origins.” Much like Chenin she muses: “We have adopted Chenin as our own, it is part of the South African wine industry’s DNA. Its site can be clearly expressed and that is exciting.”

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Simonsig's Langbult Steen release

Formerly known as Simonsig Chenin Avec Chêne, this single vineyard Chenin Blanc has been renamed Langbult Steen and given a refreshed look to commemorate this historic milestone in the wine’s evolution. Staying true to terroir, it takes its name from the vineyard site tended to by three generations of the Malan family.

“Langbult translates to ‘long hill’ and literally describes the vineyard’s layout,” says Michael Malan, Simonsig cellarmaster and third-generation winemaker. “The vines grow there in ancient, weathered shale soils and are robust and resilient. Time has made it one with the elements, and all of this is gloriously expressed through the fruit.” 

This wine is a testament to decades of hands-on experience, an intimate understanding of the land, and a long history with Chenin Blanc. This year marks the estate’s 55th consecutive vintage with this iconic cultivar. In fact, the first wine ever to be bottled under the Simonsig label by founder Frans Malan in 1968 was a Chenin Blanc – known and labelled as “Steen” at the time. 

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French neuroscientist, Gabriel Lepousez presented the recent advances in neuroscience to explain how the brain makes sense of wine compounds during wine tasting,  at a lecture on 2 March 2023.   He shared some tasting tips to improve our sense of taste, understand the logic of food pairing, and identify the presence of umami in wine and food.

The event was hosted by the Stellenbosch Wine Route and the Chenin Blanc Association.

Gabriel is passionate about how to identified the presence of umani in wine and shared his presentation to keep the conversation going.

PRESS RELEASE: Wines of South Africa Export Report 2022 infographic.

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Vinpro newsflash, 25 January 2023: Crop size

Photos courtesy of Bosman Family Vineyards, Wellington

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