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Alvi’s Favourite Wines: “Chenin Blanc is the most flavourful, balanced grape variety”

Why Alvi's Drift head winemaker Alvi van der Merwe favours Chenin Blanc. And what the future holds for this flavourful grape.

Following a previous blog in which our head winemaker Alvi van der Merwe shared why Pinotage is one of his favourite wines, we asked him more about his love of Chenin Blanc.

Alvi’s Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc
Alvi’s Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc

You once said, if the world was ending, the last glass of wine you’d choose to drink would be Alvi’s Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc. What makes this wine so special?

The balance. When you talk about a fruit-driven wine, you don’t want the fruit to jump out of the glass; for the wine to be so fruit driven that it’s almost undrinkable. This Chenin Blanc’s balance and elegance just make for such a remarkable wine.

First, as you smell it, there are these subtle, tropical flavours and white flower aromas coming through. Then, just a hint of vanilla follows. Once you take a sip, there’s this incredible, glycerolly fullness in the mouth. Finally, a long, luxurious finish.

Every time I drink this wine, I think, “Wow. This really is a world-class product.”

As a winemaker, why do you feel that Chenin Blanc is such a special grape varietal?

In my opinion, Chenin Blanc is, without a doubt, the most flavourful, structured, balanced grape variety. I also think our conditions in South Africa are ideal for producing superb Chenin Blanc wines. Of course, at Alvi’s Drift, we use only the very best clones, ones that yield these yellow-coloured, oval-shaped berries, which tend to give you superior flavours.

Tell us about your Chenin Blanc vineyards and the terroir.

We have several Chenin Blanc vineyards growing in widely varied soil types and situated on various aspects, from young vines to some very old vines that were planted by my grandfather. One of our Chenin blocks that I’m really excited about is a four-hectare block with underground irrigation that is showing such potential. Here, we’re irrigating 25 centimetres underground, which not only halves water use, but also creates an ideal environment for hair root growth. These hair roots absorb flavours from a depth where all the microbes and other organisms are active. This allows the vines to absorb nutrients really, really well, something which enhances the flavour enormously.

Regarding terroir, we have sandy loam, limestone and even shale soils for our vineyards, as well as dorbank, the hard, red calcareous soil that the Breede River Valley wine region is so famous for. The Chenin Blanc grapes grown in each of these different soil types exhibit unique flavours.

Of course, we get water from the Breede River that cuts through our farm, and our nights are cooled by the nocturnal breeze from the Atlantic ocean that’s only about 50 kilometres away. All of these factors make ideal conditions for producing wines of exceptional quality and flavour.

“Being the largest producer of this varietal in the world, South Africa has so many incredible Chenin Blancs to offer the world. Our Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa does fantastic work for this cultivar, both locally and abroad. The 2022 International Chenin Blanc Congress took place in Stellenbosch, which is such an honour for our country.”

Wooded Chenin Blancs are less common than tank- fermented ones. What goes into producing a wooded Chenin, like your Icon range Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc?

Well, just like you’d add vanilla to ice cream to balance its sweetness, when we mature our Chenin Blanc in toasted oak barrels, we’re adding vanilla flavours to balance out the fruit and the sweetness.

We use lightly toasted, tight-grain European oak so that the vanilla flavours remain subtle and elegant. It’s all about subtlety. We’re not trying to make a bold, heavily wooded Chardonnay here. And this is why the choice of wood is really important. Of course, the balance of the wood with the fruit is also pivotal. If the wine’s fruit is not right to begin with, it won't be able to stand up to the wood.

Your 221 Chenin Blanc was awarded in the 2022 Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge. What does this award mean to you?

Any award we win is a tribute to our entire wine-making team and also our staff working in the vineyards. Because producing an award-winning wine really is a team effort. The 221 range is really close to our hearts because it was named after my grandfather, Oupa Alvi, who was the 221st player to don the national Springbok rugby jersey.

Our 221 Chenin Blanc is a wine that is 30% barrel-fermented, with the remainder fermented in-tank. We’ve been producing it for three years, and it has been among the ten winners in the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top 10 Challenge twice now.

The year that it wasn’t included, that particular vintage was awarded a Double Gold Veritas Wine Award. So, in terms of performance, it’s just a consistently excellent wine with sufficient primary fruit flavours to allow it to age really beautifully. The same goes for its little brother, our Signature range Chenin Blanc.

What does the future hold for South African Chenin Blanc wines?

Very good things, I’d say. Wine lovers around the world are definitely taking note of South African Chenin Blanc. Our Mediterranean climate is just ideal for producing this varietal, and our Chenins can proudly hold their own against the great Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of the world.

We’ve been invited as far afield as Norway because people want to taste South African Chenin Blanc. I’m just excited about this wonderful, versatile varietal and the great wines it can bring forth.

Shop Online for Alvi’s Drift Chenin Blanc Wines

The Alvi’s Drift Chenin Blanc portfolio features three outstanding wines:

Browse our Chenin Blanc wines in the Alvi’s Drift online shop.