What other grapes can be considered both established and subversive? Native and alternative? Classic yet contemporary? As comfortable growing in hot, arid climes as cooler, wetter ones? Capable of greatness in dryness and sweetness, even bubbling?
None can to the extent Chenin Blanc can. Now I'll declare something of an interest from the outset. I arrived at a love for Chenin via a long relationship with South Africa as a country and subsequently as a source of wine. I will perhaps always see Chenin (or Steen) through this lens as it is the lens I know best. This isn't itself a bad thing because while the grape is not native to South Africa, more of it is grown there than anywhere else in the world.
And yet the excitement Chenin elicits runs much deeper and wider than the fact it is behind some of South Africa's most celebrated bottles.
It is because when drinking Chenin, you can't help but feel part of a revolution.
In its French homeland it was becoming forgotten. Plantings have been in decline for many years. In the UK, drinkers were hardly clamouring for the wines of Anjou, Saumur, Savennières and Vouvray Outside the redoubts of some quality specialist merchants, for much of the market these were yesterday's wines, like a lot of classics of regional France that once upon a time were go-to bottles in bistros and wine bars but have been unceremoniously pushed to the margins by an influx of wines from around the world. That is itself no bad thing of course and makes the UK perhaps the most diversely thrilling place to drink wine in the world, and yet something is lost in the process.
Now there's a groundswell of electricity around the wines of the Loire, largely driven by the natural wine movement but also an urge to drink lighter wines of lower alcohol, more structure and finesse. Vouvray might, just might, be cool again. There is a neo-revisionist energy around French Chenin. And let's not forget its role in Crémant de Limoux, an affordable Champagne alternative that has been increasingly talked up in recent years.
Look farther afield to the New World and the revolutionary spirit continues. Historically there's always been a lot of Chenin Blanc in California but even more so than in South Africa it was not considered a great variety. You blended bulk wine with it and that's about it. And yet in the last couple of years I have drunk extraordinarily ambitious, delicious Chenin from smaller producers such as Broc Cellars and Maître de Chai (their Kierkegaard Chenin Blanc is glorious), dare I say wines that have more than a nod to the finest styles coming out of South Africa. Many more smaller US producers besides are experimenting with Chenin as a grape that's adaptable but also seen as alternative. It makes people sit up and take notice in a way that yet another Chardonnay simply doesn't, but as a classic French variety has a reassurance factor that genuine oddities don't.
The same is happening in Australia, where according to Robinson et al, "for long it was an ingredient in the popular branded wine once known as Houghton's White Burgundy". Now there's awesome, sometimes pretty edgy Chenin coming out of places as diverse as Swan District in Western Australia (like Vino Volta), or poles-apart Clare Valley (such as our very own Sigurd), Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale in South Australia (the latter two the source of no less than four different Chenin interpretations by Aphelion's Rob Mack). All this is further testament to Chenin's extraordinary adaptability.
Even where Chenin is a very minor player it is beginning to turn heads in a way most other varieties can't match. Argentina has a relatively large amount of it planted but it doesn't stick its head above the parapet very often. When it does, by the likes of Michelini and La Revancha, it can achieve stunning results, so much so that on evaluating Michelini I Mufatto's second release of their Propósitos Chenin Blanc (2017 vintage) this year, Tim Atkin MW declared, "it makes you wonder why people don't plant more Chenin Blanc in Argentina". Quite!
Only last night during a Zoom wine tasting with Loveblock founder Erica Crawford tuning in from New Zealand, she spoke of their plans to continue experimenting with Chenin in their Awatere Valley vineyards because of its adaptability but also its appeal as a quality variety that's not Sauvignon Blanc but can be simultaneously classic and yet subversive. Only James Millton in Gisborne has really made waves with Chenin Blanc so far in that country but I would bet my bottom Kiwi dollar he's soon to be just the first of many.
Chenin Blanc truly is extraordinary. This is an ancient variety first documented in Anjou in 1496; a grape that is the bedrock for such famous, classic French wines like Vouvray and Savennières; a grape that can be appreciated in luscious forms such as Coteaux du Layon, excellent sparkling wines such as Crémant de Limoux, or dry, minerally, honeyed, tense whites. And yet at the same time it is a genuinely modern, electrifying variety at the tip of the sword for a new generation in the New World, and a vehicle for counter-cultural trends in the Old.
So yes, I love Chenin Blanc, and this is why.
by Nik Darlington
Husband and wife team Rob Mack and Louise Rhodes started Aphelion Wines in 2014, but the idea had been fermenting in their minds since sharing a revelatory bottle of Barolo in 2005. Several jobs in the industry and one winemaking degree later and they were ready to move back home from Sydney to South Australia.
Oli North caught up with Rob, Louise (and Sari the dog!) in Willunga at their sitting room-cum-cellar door recently, just before the 2020 vintage got underway…
2014 was your first vintage I believe, how did you start off?
In the first year we took one tonne of Grenache from the same vineyard where we still get the majority of our fruit. I made four different wines – 100% whole berry fermented, 50/50 whole berry whole bunch fermented, one from pressings, and also a combination of the three.
Where do you make your wine?
We process at Haselgrove Winery in McLaren Vale. They have a small destemmer, small press and we can keep the barrels there too.
Have you changed much in terms of the winemaking since the beginning?
We always tinker around the edges with different processes, picking times etc. But in terms of style the wines, particularly Grenache, have stayed true to the medium bodied, aromatic style that we wanted from the start.
Why McLaren Vale, and why Grenache?
I grew up just north of McLaren Vale so I know the area very well from my childhood. It has a great mix of small producers who are really pushing the boundaries of a traditional grape growing region.
Grenache is a versatile grape which lends itself to many winemaking techniques such as whole bunch fermentation and extended time on skins. The aromatics of Grenache can be stunningly complex and alluring, and the medium bodied nature means they can be approachable when quite young. The combination of the region and the variety are perfect, the Mediterranean climate of the Vale is ideal for Grenache.
How many growers do you work with?
We work with four growers, two of which are in Blewitt Springs, where we source most of our Grenache. We only work with growers who keep spraying at a minimum, all of our growers could be certified organic using their current processes, however none are currently.
Would you look to have your own vineyard(s) in the future?
We have a long-term plan to purchase a small old vine Grenache vineyard. However we’re very specific on our requirements, so this may be a very long-term plan!
Can you tell us a bit about the vineyards used for the Confluence and Affinity?
These two wines are what we are known best for. The Confluence is a 100% Grenache wine with fruit sourced entirely from two vineyards in the Blewitt Springs sub-region of McLaren Vale, which has the highest quality and oldest Grenache vines in the area. One vineyard is 85 years old, the other is 45 years old and dry grown.
The Affinity is our Grenache, Mataro, Shiraz blend. The Grenache is sourced from the same vineyards as the Confluence, the Mataro from three sites across McLaren Vale and adds intensity and structure, and a splash of Shiraz from central McLaren Vale gives the palate some roundness.
You've recently released single-variety Mourvèdre, aka Mataro, and Sagrantino. What do you think about the potential for these grapes in McLaren Vale?
Both of these varieties thrive in the heat, and in warm years in McLaren Vale they excel. They hold their acid really well during the ripening period so they produce lively wines with intensity of flavour. We only produce small amounts of straight Mataro (called Emergent) and Sagrantino (Ardent), and they are starting to develop a bit of a cult following amongst our customers.
And four interpretations of Chenin? Is that something you'll continue every year?
We have two Chenins that fit in to our core range – Kryos, from the Adelaide Hills (our only wine outside the McLaren Vale region). And Pir, from Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale.
Because I love to tinker we did make two other single-barrel Chenins in 2019 but we probably won’t repeat them every year.
Different winemaking used on the same grape is something that seems to particularly interest you?
Yes, from our first vintage in 2014 we’ve been experimenting with our Grenache parcels every year with different production methods to achieve as much complexity as possible. But every variety I work with I try to impart subtle differences in processes, I love to have many different batches from different sites and processes to work into the final blends of our wines.
You don't seem to have hard and fast rules for elevage from year to year?
We’re very flexible each year on how we treat the fruit depending on the vintage. For example, I like using a lot of whole bunch fermentation but in 2019 the stalks were very green and astringent so we pulled the whole bunch portions back or didn’t use any at all in some cases.
Oak is very dependent on the variety, but it is always French or Austrian. We use very little new oak, I purchase a new demi-muid (600-litre barrel) every second year.
Shiraz goes into our new barrels, then after a couple of fills Mataro goes in there, and then finally Grenache. We don’t use any new oak for Grenache, only older puncheons and 2,400-litre foudres.
What is your approach to sulphur?
We sulphur after malo which is enough until bottling at a pretty low free sulphur level, usually around 25ppm. Small amounts of sulphur are important for the preservation of our wines in bottle but we believe in using the smallest amount possible to achieve the desired level of stability.
And do you ever acidify?
Most of our grapes being well suited to the Mediterranean climate here don’t need acidification, even in warm years. The one exception is Shiraz which may need a small amount of acid adjustment in hotter years.
How have the last few vintages looked for you? And 2020?
2017 was a cooler vintage which resulted in wines with a lighter body and great aromatics. Grenache was particularly strong in 2017.
2018 was warmer so the wines have more weight and concentration, but the Grenache still retained its beautiful aromatics – a classic year.
2019 had some vicious heat spikes during ripening and yields were well below average. The resulting wines were intense but perhaps lacked the delicacy of the previous two vintages.
2020 so far is shaping up to be a very good year, however with a dry winter yields will be similar to 2019. Most of January and February have been cooler than average so it will be a slightly later than average harvest with some great flavours.
What do you think is exciting for the future of McLaren Vale and South Australia more generally in terms of grapes and regions?
McLaren Vale has a strong Italian history with many migrants planting grapes here in the 1920s and 30s. The new wave of varieties in the Vale are predominantly from Italy – Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Vermentino. Exciting times as these varieties can cope with the warm climate very well.
South Australia as a whole is embracing the planting of new (to Australia) varieties to future-proof the industry against the impacts of climate change.
Can you tell us a bit about the labels and the design process?
Louise is responsible for most of the design and ideas for our labels and packaging. The labels are based on a photographic process called cyanotype where an item is photographed and a blue wash is used during the processing. It results in the feather we used being white and the blue wash as the background.
Finally, what new stuff for Aphelion do you have in the pipeline?
We will be producing our first Nero d’Avola in 2020, which I’m very excited about. The freshness and drinkability of this variety is amazing and it certainly fits with our ethos of working with varieties that suit our region. We are also producing a Malbec from Langhorne Creek which is part of a project called 5255.*
Our other goal for the next few years in increasing our presence in international markets. We currently export to the UK, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA but we will be working to hopefully see our wines in many more countries around the world!
*Rob is one of three winemakers to be selected for this project in Langhorne Creek this year. More information can be found here - https://www.langhornecreek.com/project-5255
by Oli North