South Africa has been an interesting proposition winewise. Starting to export in the 90s after the apartheid was lifted, the political stigma and rather parochial styles of most of the wines made it difficult to get any traction for the category in this marketplace. Now that we are about a quarter century into the ‘program’, we and they have learned a few things. The styles of many of the wines have become more international in an attempt to create better market penetration. A lot of those wines are competitive internationally, but it is fair to say that a good many of them are not memorable.
With a few exceptions, most of South Africa’s best efforts are uniquely South African. Among the most notable are the work of folks like Erin Sadie and some dynamic new white blends from an emerging cadre of open minded, creative newcomers. But the grape that seems to achieve the highest expression as a varietal is...Chenin Blanc.
Typically the vines are old, with deep roots extracting distinctive character from the unique vineyard sites, tremendous infused minerality and crackling, mouth-watering acidity. This is not the sweet, quaffable stuff that permeated the American market in the 70s, sort of a precursor to the white Zin era. In fact the best examples of South African Chenin can hold their own with the produce from the ‘motherland’ of the Loire Valley. Which is better? That’s not a sweeping debate but rather comes down to the individual comparison being made.
Huet or Chidane versus Sadie Family or Alheit? Fantastic comparison on the quality front though the acidity is a bit more driving in the South African wines. Frankly, for the most part, although the best of the Loire ‘giants’ are expensive these days, the best SA versions typically cost more. Advantage Loire. On the value end of the spectrum, however, we have seen things come out of South Africa that are downright unbelievable, and we have recently come across one of the most remarkable examples of South African Chenin Blanc we have ever tasted for this kind of price.
Simonsig was among the first wave of wineries that came over here when South Africa was permitted to enter this market. We tasted a number of wines over the years but mostly reds. We can assure you we never had their Chenin or it would have been a staple. Apparently, Simonsig Chenin Blanc was the first wine released by founder Frans Malan in 1968 and this particular bottling marks their 50th Anniversary harvest.
For a wine that is going to sell for this kind of price, it is given the royal treatment in the vineyard with all hand harvesting from 30-40 year old bush vines and cool, controlled fermentation. In the glass, a honey/peach aroma makes its presence felt right out of the gate. The flavor aromas of crunchy ripe kiwi and green melon jump out of the glass. The palate is crisp and fresh with Granny Smith apples and sweet tropical limes all sitting atop of driving acidity. The Simonsig Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2018 is what Chenin is supposed to be, with broad, bright honeyed toast, peach, and subtle minerality all as part of the presentation, but with the kid of cut that makes it all quite vibrant.
Full and round up fruit, and so easy to sip, this has the kind of riveting acidity that makes an impression and makes the mouth water. A complete effort with sizzling character, a little punch of berries and lemon s underneath and mouth watering snap to the finish. You can drink this with lighter fare or on its own as an amazing aperitif. Normally with most wines we’d roll out some sort of reviews, but wines like this doesn’t get the kind of respect they deserve and this one wasn’t reviewed anywhere we saw.
Like we said, we don’t recall ever tasting past incarnations of this effort from Simonsig, but this is one is one of the best Chenins we have had at any price in terms of its verve and, certainly among the best value white wines we hve had period. At $10, it’s downright silly. Over the years one of our value, go-to Chenins was Mann (also from South Africa), but this one is better. In fact we have tasted few others this compelling at any price.