Welcome to Shelf Stars, The Growler’s cheap wine column in which we discover the best under-$15 bottles in town. This edition of Shelf Stars is brought to you with underwriting support from Central Avenue Liquors.
Whenever a wine drinker in the Twin Cities comes across the chenin blanc grape on a menu at a restaurant, it’s almost always one of two bottles: the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc / Viognier blend, and the Dry Creek Chenin Blanc. I call these two the “Standard Chenins” because that’s exactly what they taste like. Standard. Middle of the road. “White wine” at its most medium.
That’s a shame, because chenin blanc is one of the world’s greatest wine grapes and drinkers would do well to become familiar with its array of expressions. It achieves, perhaps, its stylistic peak in the beautiful wines of France’s Loire Valley—including the region’s finest sweet wines (like Vouvray and Quarts de Chaume), most ethereal sparklers (Cremant de la Loire) and most storied dry wines (Savenièrres, a wine as inaccessible as it is expensive.)
Outside of France, chenin is at its most prolific in South Africa. Grown there since the 1600s, it is their most-planted variety today and has for decades made a huge glut of standard, middle of the road, medium white wine. However, the few that are imported to Minnesota have proven to be good selections and fine values to boot.
As a value prospect, South African wines are underpriced for several reasons, but a major one is about reputation. The U.S. boycotted South African products during Apartheid, just as wine connoisseurship in the U.S. was just taking off. What little recognition South African wine had was further tarnished when it reappeared on the global stage. Their industry had missed out on several decades of technological and chemical advancements to winemaking, and pitiful bulk wine came to represent the country as a whole.
I recommend South African chenin blanc to the wine drinker who likes chardonnay but doesn’t like the buttery aftertaste that comes from oak barrels. The Kaapzicht Chenin Blanc ($12) is a great example: it smells like a steely chardonnay, lots of green fruit and white flowers. The taste is full of malic acids, like granny smith apples meet the skin of a Bartlett pear. It’s a great wine with a takeout order of fish and chips. And the Landskroon Chenin Blanc ($11) veers a little more into red apple territory, with fresh blossoms on the aroma, dry apple and zesty lemons on the sip, a medium-full body groaning with fruit sweetness, and a dry, lingering finish. It’s a wine your grilled pork tenderloin will love.
Scan the South African section (if your wine store has one) and look on the reverse labels for the importer Z Wines. They’re a couple of native South Africans who live in the Twin Cities and their seal of approval tells you you’re getting a South African wine that’s representative of the best the country has to offer.
South African Chenin Blanc
For Those That Like: Unoaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, quinces, and pears.
ABV: Somewhere in the standard 12–14%
Price Range: You can get solid versions around $12–13
Find it: In the South African aisle, or in the “Miscellaneous Whites” section.
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