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What our expert thought of Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection, Chenin Blanc

about this wine About this wine
Chenin Blanc is South Africa's trademark grape, accounting for a fifth of all the vineyards. There's twice as much Chenin in South Africa than there is in France where the grape originated in the Loire Valley.
The cool and fairly wet Loire is rather an odd homeland for such a high-acid, relatively late-ripening variety. South Africa's warmer, drier climate would seem a much better match for it.
Yet for most of Chenin's long history in the Cape it produced light, dry, appley wine of no great distinction. The grape has a tendency to overproduce and in the fertile Cape soils it did exactly that. Back in the Loire, the Appellation Contrôlée regulations enforce low yields for Chenin Blanc because otherwise the characteristic flavours are lost. But in South Africa they didn't realise the grape they called Steen was actually Chenin Blanc until the late '60s.
In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the variety, with winemakers zealously reducing yields in order to craft more concentrated, ageworthy wines. In this they have been aided by the prevalence of old bush Chenin vines. Old vines are naturally less productive and their deep roots allow them to be dry-farmed (without irrigation) which further concentrates the grapes. This is such a wine, produced from low-yielding bush vines between 25 and 50 years old in the best sites on the Kleine Zalze estate in Stellenbosch.
After crushing, the juice was left on the skins for an extended period prior to pressing, extracting more colour and complexity. Fermentation was begun in stainless steel but completed in a mixture of old and new French oak barrels, which is common for high-end Chenin in South Africa but a marked point of difference with the Chenins of the Loire, where new oak is never used. The wine was then left to mature in the same barrels for five months, in contact with its lees.
the tasting The Tasting
The colour is a medium gold - quite deep for such a young wine and hinting at concentration.
There's a pronounced, sweet-smelling nose of flowers and honey, with tropical fruit and vanilla (I'm reminded of bananas and custard). Streaks of lime and ginger keep things fresh, so that this smells both sharp and sweet. There's also a non-fruit smell that's unique to good Chenin Blanc but is quite hard to describe. Some call it wet wool, but I think it's closer to clean damp straw.
Despite the sweet nose, the palate is dry. It's full-bodied, with distinctly high acidity (a Chenin characteristic). There are concentrated, pithy flavours of red apples and pomelo, supported by subtle vanilla oak and a creamy texture from the long lees contact and from malolactic fermentation. These lead to a long honeyed finish where banana and ginger show themselves once more.
A textbook example of oaked, old-vine Chenin Blanc, and a quintessentially South African style. Top-quality dry Vouvray (from Chenin's homeland in the Loire valley of France) shares many of the same characteristics, but with even higher acidity and without the vanilla hints from new oak which I think work really well here. It's also twice the price.

Tasting notes

medium+ yellow-gold

Intensity pronounced

Aromas flowers, honey, tropical fruit (banana), vanilla and damp straw, with lime & ginger

Sweetness dry

Acidity medium+

Body full

Flavours red apples and pomelo, with vanilla and cream

Length long

Flavours honey, banana, sweet spice (ginger)

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