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Steen and Chenin tie in taste-off

Northside Staff
Tasters: Dave Pohl, ed., Dana Malley, Alice Wentworth, Jason Wentworth, Travis Mordus, Jay Reed, Chris Coronel

Many wine drinkers know Chenin Blanc as the grape variety responsible for a myriad of white wines produced in the central portion of the Loire valley in France. There, Chenin-based wines such as Vouvray are made in a dizzying array of styles ranging from light and dry to full and intensely sweet, with sparkling wine part of the mix, as well.

What is perhaps less well known is that Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted wine grape variety in South Africa. It is likely that early settler Jan van Riebeeck brought it, as well as other varieties, to the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century. It now constitutes 17 percent of South Africa’s vineyard area, and is sometimes referred to as Steen. Until 1965 Steen and Chenin Blanc were thought to be different grape varieties. It is now understood that they are one in the same; some producers label their wines using both names.

South Africa is increasingly seen as a source for good value Chenin Blanc, usually made in crisp, dry or off-dry styles. Some wineries produce individual cuvées of Chenin Blanc that are aged in oak. This practice is rather controversial, as many feel that Chenin’s flavor and aroma is too delicate to withstand the oak treatment.

The staff at Northside Wine & Spirits recently blind tasted a group of ten South African Chenin Blancs. Overall, the wines were clean and well made. Though some were a bit neutral in character, the best were bright and citrusy; several examples exhibited pleasant hints of honey as well as pear.

Two wines tied for first place in the tasting. The 2009 Raats Original Chenin Blanc ($13 per bottle) was quite dry but flavorful, with hints of honey and peach underscored by a refreshing mineral quality. The 2009 Douglas Green Steen “Vineyard Creation” ($11) exhibited a similar honeyed note but showed a more citrusy profile, and finished on an intriguing melon note.

Both of these wines are very nice for the price! Either would be suitable as a refreshing aperitif. Try them as well with crab, creamy fish dishes, pork with mustard sauce, or spicy/hot dishes such as Thai or Indian curries.

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