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care. If the grapes are harvested before they fully ripen, the high acidity of
the resulting wine will make it, according to wine expert Oz Clarke, “one of
the nastiest wines possible”.3 If harvested at too high of a yield, the grapes
will not retain any of Chenin’s distinctive character notes, leaving only that
same acidity. Thus, in the Loire, French regulations mandate that cropping
be kept low (40–50 hl/ha).
With optimal ripeness and balance between acidity and sugars being a
viticultural priority, many growers in the Loire Valley will harvest the
grapes in “tries” (successive pickings) through the vineyards. During each
picking, only the ripest clusters or individual grapes are harvested by hand.
Over a period of four to six weeks, there will be between three and six tries.
In areas that experience a lot of vintage variation, winemakers may
decide on a day-by-day basis the style and dryness of the Chenin they will
make, with the grapes harvested during each picking being made into different
styles of wine. The first few tries may go to sparkling and dry wine
production, while the latter tries may go towards sweet wine production.
The second most famous area for Chenin is South Africa, where it is
widely planted, currently accounting for nearly one-fifth of all vineyard
plantings. My wife and I tasted a wide array of Chenin wines when we visited
a couple of years back. The majority of the plantings are found in the
Western Cape and the Coastal region in Paarl and Swartland.
Most South African Steen was undistinguished until recently, when the
renaissance in winemaking in that country led winemakers to coax signature
versions from older bush-pruned (untrellised) vines that are dryfarmed.
This lack of irrigation forces the roots to dig deeper and work
harder to find moisture. Vines that undergo such stress generally produce
better fruit, as the vine must concentrate on survival and producing grapes
Old bush vines in Paarl area. Photo by Michael Welsh