Wine of the WeekLammershoek 2006 Chenin Blanc, Swartland, South Africa ($21, 91 points, www.bokkewines.com)Lammershoek winemaker Paul Kretzel embodies South Africa, and its wines; a tall, broad, solid man with a friendly manner and rich voice that lilts along with a vaguely Germanic Cape accent. His roots are actually Austrian, in the Wachau region of the upper Danube, an area famous for firm, mineral rieslings. The Chenin Blanc he poured during last week’s Sante Festival showed those roots as well—a different grape but similarly solid, mineral and dry with great depth. There was a touch of spice from a portion of the wine being fermented in old—and thus almost neutral-flavoured—barrels or “fuders.” A technique widely used for European rieslings in the days before stainless steel, it added a dash of exoticism to the pear flavours of this chenin and one could tell that Paul Kretzel was pleased as punch with the result. With 40 hectares of chenin under vine, much of it old stock harvested a very low yields, he is one the largest producers of premium chenin in the country, and he is poised to do extremely well as the grape rises to stardom in South Africa. Historically this grape, locally called steen, has been widely planted for use in cheap white blends, so there is a lot of it to work with (although much has also been uprooted in favour of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay).
It’s high time to see some interest in the grape. I first fell in love with the unique green apple, green pear, quince flavours of chenin blanc in the tiny of Loire Valley village of Vouvray back in 1984. It grows there in the white chalk (tuffeau) soils found widely across northern France, and I marveled at how that soil combines with the grape’s high acidity to produce such mouthwatering crispness and juiciness. And, as with riesling, how that acidity becomes the backbone, allowing the creation of styles from bone dry (sec) to amazingly honeyed, apricot botrytis-like dessert wine styles like the nectars from the Loire’s Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux du Layon.
At a South African seminar preceding the Santé trade tasting I also tasted a quite incredible oak-aged Bellingham chenin blanc called The Maverick ($20.15, 91 points, Vintages, #12724). Oak ageing of a delicate, semi-aromatic grape like chenin is controversial, with too much time in oak, too much new oak, or too much poor quality, resinous wood likely to overwhelm the fruit. Speakers from South Africa reported that the trend there is away from oak, yet I seem to recall several examples coming through Vintages in recent years (maybe Vintages buyers lean this way?). Anyway, the Maverick is really quite amazing. Created like the Lammershoek from very old vines (35 years), and packed with concentration, it has emerged as a rich, creamy yet firmly solid chenin with incredible spicy, cedary and poached pear flavours. It was aged 50% in three-year-old barrels, 50% in new French oak, for nine months. A few bottles of the Maverick remain scattered in GTA Vintages stores, so check out the wine search at www.lcbo.com.
Nor was it the only chenin I encountered last week. I was most fortunate to co-host a “deconstruction dinner” with chef Jamie Kennedy, a Toronto Life-sponsored Santé event matching several rarely-seen-here top wines from British Columbia with Jamie K’s amazingly flavourful, comfortable cuisine. The lead-off wine this night was Quail’s Gate 2005 Chenin Blanc ($18.99, BC), matched with mixed hors d’ouvres including smoked white fish canapés, arancini and mini-pork burger with quince (chosen specifically to link with chenin’s primary fruit character). This chenin delivered vibrancy, crispness and very precise fruit flavours, the perfect tone setter for a very upbeat evening on the first hot summer night in city. You can’t currently buy the wine in Toronto—like so many B.C. wines—but you can go to www.quailsgate.com and order a case from the winery ($18.99 in B.C). The 2006 is currently available, newly packaged and containing 17% sauvignon blanc for added zest. Trans-provincial direct shipping of wine is technically a contravention of some archaic, silly and unenforceable regulations, but you could ask.