Contemplating Chenin Blanc, the Old Vine Debate, and ‘Quality By Design’ Over a Glass of Sadie Family Skurfberg 2015…

This weekend I’m drinking one of my favourite Chenin Blancs in the Cape, the Sadie Family Old Vine Series Skurfberg Chenin Blanc 2015. After hosting the larger than life king of Chenin Bruwer Raats this week, for a tasting of his epic new release Eden Single Vineyard High Density Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc 2015s, both made from only 6 to 7 year old vines, the discussion inevitably turned to old vines and the general philosophy behind many of the newer boutique old vine offerings coming out of the Cape.

This delicious Skurfberg Chenin Blanc comes from old vineyards in the Olifantsrivier region up the west coast, from vines planted between 1940 and 1955 in the bush vine method, on decomposed sandstone. But does the fact it’s made from these old vines “define” this wines quality? I have also just read the recent article by Emile Joubert on Wine Goggle Blog, with some interesting points made by Bruwer regarding the old vine debate in South Africa.

It is indeed a broad and involved subject, which to me, seems that some of the disagreement stems from a difference in perspective, or perhaps even a slightly different philosophy with regards to growing grapes and making high quality wine. I am sure both Andre Morgenthal and Rosa Kruger won’t mind me paraphrasing them when I say that old vines alone are of course not a guarantee of quality in a wine. This would be far too simplistic. Equally, even Bruwer Raats will acknowledge that some very profound wines have been and still are being made from old vine fruit in South Africa…the Sadie Skurfberg one of the very best of the lot, even if the component vineyards were never invisaged to produce high quality wine.

To me, old vines should be protected and celebrated where the vineyards are still able to provide quality fruit that can be commercially viable for the farmer growing it, even if this means that the cost threshold is R30,000 per hectare. There are producers who are prepared to pay this amount of money. But equally, if we are to have more Skurfberg’s in the future for the next generation of drinkers, more “quality by design” vineyards like the Raats Family Eden Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc will need to be planted and nurtured into old age. At their youthful 6 years of age, the quality of wine being produced from their fruit is already in the top 1 percentile of highest rated quality wines in South Africa.

For me, it’s not an either / or situation. Both old vines and meticulously planned new plantings are an essential part of taking our very special wine industry forward for the next generation of fine wine drinkers and collectors, both in South Africa and around the world. For now, I will kick back on my restful Sunday afternoon sipping my Skurfberg 2015 Chenin Blanc and contemplate the subject … pretending to be a wise old sage.

Sadie Family Old Vine Series Skurfberg 2015 Chenin Blanc, WO Olifantsrivier, 13.5 Abv.

Admittedly this is a very serious wine to be drinking so young, but its profound lifted aromatics and complexity already in its infancy are so attractive and beguiling that I would have to recommend drinking this wine at as many stages of its development as the number of bottles in your cellar will allow. On opening, the aromatics are very much spicy, pithy and dominated by dried thyme, tarragon and sweet fennel, with a subtle but defined under vein of crushed granite minerality. 10 minutes in the glass is all that’s required to unleash wave upon wave of pear purée, pithy orange peel, tangerine, crunchy white peaches and other white citrus notes. The palate is almost overpoweringly intense – yet light footed, elegant, incredibly focused, intense and sensorial. The palate resonates with delicious notes of sweet white citrus, green apples, picante orange peel, and a forceful, tart acidity that melts away into the fruit concentration, leaving your mouth salivating for another sip. I often compare great Chenin Blanc from South Africa with great white Burgundy, because few wines can pull off this kind of depth, intensity, and fruit concentration punch with taught bristling acidity, yet remain regal, noble, sophisticated and utterly compelling. This 2015 is a wine that might well define a new generation of quality, from a vintage that already defines supreme quality in the modern era of wine making in South Africa.

(Wine Safari Score: 97+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

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