A Steen is not a stein

By Celia Strong

Sounds like we’re going into beer-mode today. But, no, don’t worry, we’re not. We are, however, going to stay in South Africa again this week. I figured we should for this one more, very, very special wine. We’ll discuss bits of history, information on a new grape, a new winery — all the things that help us really appreciate our wines. Then, hopefully you’ll like this wine as much as I do.

We’re looking at South Africa but a different region this week, though. Paarl. For all practical purposes, this region, for the 20th century, was the  heart of the country’s wine industry. It is the home of KWV and the annual Nederburg Wine Auction. The Stellenbosch region is south of Paarl. Interestingly, there were several reasons why the center of South Africa’s wine business shifted to Stellenbosch from Paarl. Partly, it was the establishing of Stellenbosch University, specifically its great wine department. And, too, KWV in Paarl, while a large and very successful operation,  was a co-op and Stellenbosch, with its privately owned wineries, attracted more money and talent. In recent years, terroir-driven wines have gained importance in Paarl.

Our grape variety this week is Chenin Blanc. Not one that many of us drink much of. But, maybe, that will change a bit this week. Chenin grape has quite a few different names, not all used now but you come across them sometimes.  One of its names, Pineau de la Loire, tells us where it came from. Chenin Blanc grapes have high acidity so they are well suited to all styles of wine — bubbly to dry to demi-sec (half dry, duh) to sweet and very sweet dessert wines and even fortified wines. It has a fairly neutral flavor base, which lets it clearly show both the terroir it comes from and its winemaker’s influence. From cooler climates, Chenin’s juice is sweet and very high in acidity and makes a full bodied fruity wine. In the unreliable summers of the Loire Valley, not completely ripe Chenin grapes make spectacular sparkling wines. (And, now, you know a piece of Champagne history, too!). In the Anjou (Yes, the pears of the same name originated here.) area of the Loire, Chenin may make some of its  best wines — dry wines with apple and quince flavors.  In Vouvray, a town in the Loire Valley, off-dry wines with honey and floral nuances are common. In the best vintages, the grapes are left on their vines, until the “noble rot” forms on them, and dessert wines are made.

From its origins in the Loire, Chenin moved on to South Africa. It was probably included in the vine cuttings that Jan van Riebeeck with the Dutch East India Company took to the Cape Colony, in the 1650’s.

Between the Old World, the Loire Valley, and the New World, South Africa, there is a difference in the temperature that the winemakers use to ferment their Chenin grapes. For Old World style wines, where tropical fruit flavors are not as popular, they ferment at  warmer temperatures (60-68 degrees F).  For New World style wines, they use cooler temperatures (50-54 degrees F).  Longer, cooler fermentations augment a wine’s fruitiness. Also, New World styles of Chenin Blanc wines are treated with oak barrel aging far more frequently.

In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted variety, about one-fifth of all the vineyard plantings. For centuries, from the time this variety arrived with van Riebeeck, it was known as “Steen.”  (But not stein, so no beer here.) It wasn’t recognized as Chenin Blanc until 1965, when DNA tests proved that Steen was actually Chenin. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Chenin Blanc was the main variety for the renaissance of South Africa’s white wine business. In the beginning, these wines were off-dry, clean and crisp, but fairly neutral in their flavors. Toward the end of the 20th century, though, some vineyard managers and winemakers started to specialize in growing and making Chenin. Their goal was to have Chenin wines that had all the wonderful flavors and textures as some of their expensive cousins from the Loire. Part of this trend included searching out and saving older plantings of the grape.

And older vines gets us closer to this week’s wine.  Grape vines can grow for more than 120 years. It takes about three years for vine to produce its first grapes, and, after about 20 years, it starts to produce fewer grapes each year. “Old Vines,” for which there is no legal definition, produce fewer grapes but more intense and concentrated wines. Vines that are 30 or 40 years old can yield enough good grapes to make commercially available wines. Older than that, there are some made — like 100-year-old vine Zinfandel from California —but I am sure you can guess what happens to the price of a bottle as the age of the vines it’s made from gets older and older. Just because it’s a cool tidbit of wine information, there is a vine in Slovenia that has been alive since the 17th century. It makes about 100 mini-bottles of wine each year. In California, the oldest vine is an Amador County Zinfandel that was planted in 1865.

Finally, now, we are at our winery. Tormentoso.  When Portuguese explorers arrived at the southern tip of Africa, in 1488, they called it Cabo Tormentoso, Cape of Storms. The word “tormentoso” means torment, struggle or drama, but we can get the basic idea. And, the name describes how the grapes grow also. The soil is rocky shale, but struggling vines make for better flavors in their wines. All Tormentoso wines are farmed without irrigation, not really the norm in South Africa, and the vines are not pruned and trellised like we’re used to.  These vines are left as bushes and the grapes are hand harvested. Tormentoso has more than 200 hectares (200 times 2.471 acres) of vines that are over 25 years old. The Tormentoso Old Vine Chenin Blanc is 100 percent Chenin, from vines that were planted in 1977. A small part of the wine is barrel fermented and some is aged on its lees for six months. Most of it is fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures. Yippee! Flavors galore. Apricots, peaches, and coconut, acidity, huge mouth-feel, long lingering finish in your mouth.  This wine is a  phenomenal Chenin Blanc. Even if you’ve never had a Chenin before, you might as well start with great.

And, one more cute thing. Tormentoso’s label has a drawing of a sea creature on it, like old maps had. These were used to show areas of unknown danger.  But, lucky us, no unknown danger here. Just a great white wine for $13.99. Think of it for turkey dinners, ham dinners, seafood dinners, and, oh yeah, for fun because it tastes so good. Enjoy.

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