WHAT: Chenin blanc is a grape that is not appreciated by enough people. Many people think it is the same as sauvignon blanc, but it is much different, usually with more body and complexity than sauvignon blanc.
For decades, it has been the premiere grape in the Loire Valley of France, where it is used in Vouvray and Savennieres, two famous wines. In recent years, it has made big strides in South Africa, where it is the major white wine grape.
If you have never tried chenin blanc, this week would be a good time to find one because Friday, June 17, has been declared drink chenin blanc day. To prepare for that I brought together a small group of friends to try seven widely different chenin blancs.
The overwhelming favorite was the Raats Original Chenin Blanc. There weren’t any clunkers in the group, but the Raats was the one everyone liked and that was the first bottle we drained. It had a refreshing dry taste, full of apples, pineapples and melons with a touch of limes and a long, mineral finish.
Chenin blanc, particularly the style made in Vouvray, is a great seafood wine, so we had steamed shrimp as well as chicken, cheese and other munchies. When you drink several white wines you need food as a palate cleanser because the sharp tastes take a toll on your tongue.
The wine is 100 percent chenin blanc grown in Stellenbosch in two distinctive soil types. The grapes were grown on vines with an average age of 35 years, some growing in decomposed granite and some in Table Mountain sandstone. Some of the vines are trellised and some are bush-grown.
Grapes are fermented separately, the decomposed granite bringing crisp acidity and a lime and mineral character, while the sandstone adds a softer and rounder texture and lush topical fruit.
The juice was cold settled for 2 to 3 days, then cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on the lees for 6 months before bottling. There is no wood aging, so the freshness of the grapes really comes through. To accentuate the difference in the characteristics found in the two soil types, the grapes from each soil type were pressed, fermented and aged separately and blended just before bottling.
I also liked the Vouvrays we tasted and a couple of American chenin blancs. All were great with the shrimp, even the ones with a little bit more residual sugar. The prices of the wines we tasted ranged from $5 to $25, and all were liked by at least part of the crowd.
WINERY: Founded in 2000 as a partnership between brothers Bruwer and Jasper Raats, with their father Jasper Sr. as viticulturist, Raats Family Wines has become famous for chenin blanc and cabernet franc. The whole family is passionate about those two wines.
When Jasper Sr. died in 2009, a cousin, Gavin Bruwer Slabbert joined Bruwer as winemaker and viticulturist. Bruwer spent time learning at other wineries before bringing his expertise to the family winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
A great deal of effort has gone into sourcing specific soil types and old low-yielding vineyards located in the Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville Hills and the Paardeberg area. The family believes the best soil for chenin blanc is located in and around Stellenbosch.
The grapes come from vines with an average age of 25 years old, grown 800 feet above sea level. All grapes are hand picked.
Bruwer travels to the United States and Europe each year to visit loyal customers, and believes that personal relationships with the sellers of his wines are vital.
“Because our wines should essentially be enjoyed in the company of good food by people appreciative of the passion and dedication that go into the making thereof,” he said.
The winery produces about 10,000 cases per year. They make two chenin blancs, two cabernet francs and two red blends that feature cabernet franc.
GOES WITH: Chenin Blanc is a fine sipping wine, but it really comes alive when you add food. Any time I have a Vouvray I look for some type of fish or seafood to go with it.
So with this chenin sampling the main course was steamed shrimp that I had brought back from Edisto Beach, S.C. The succulent sweetness of the shrimp paired perfectly with all the wines, even the ones with a bit of residual sugar.
Rotisserie chicken and fried chicken wings also matched up well. A port wine cheddar cheese ball and some Swiss cheese also paired nicely. I think the Raats chenin blanc would pair well with spicy dishes, sushi, oysters and seafood.