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Cederberg - Wine with altitude

Written by  Harry Haddon | April 8, 2014

Probably the most difficult thing about wine is trying to choose a bottle. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Everybody who has bought wine has experienced that sense of despair, while vacantly starting at a rack full of wines you have never tasted, and probably never heard of.

Relax, you are among friends. This terror of the wine aisle is a reason that many drinkers head for the relative safety of the beer fridge, or the slightly less exotic whisky aisle. The handful of names are familiar there, it’s peaceful, less frenetic. A person can only stare at the back of so many bottles before they simply need a drink.
    One variety that gets overlooked more than others when it comes to this situation is Chenin Blanc. It’s a bit of a confusing variety in its own right.
    There are so many styles of Chenin, from bone dry un-oaked versions to blockbuster oak fermented 2x4 monsters, it’s not surprising they get looked over, and down the line, short-back-and-sides-Sauvignon gets picked instead.
    Chenin Blanc has seen somewhat of a revival in recent years, both from winemakers and wine drinkers alike, yet it still sits on the sidelines when it comes to mainstream drinking South Africa.
    But there is hope and I bring it now. If you are undecided about which Chenin to drink, if you are worried about the quality, or which one to buy, worry no more as I have found the perfect Chenin to get you started with.
    High up in the Cederberg mountains David Nieuwoudt is the fifth generation Nieuwoudt to work the Dwarsrivier farm. His Grandfater, Oom Pôllie, together with his two sons, successfully planted wine grapes in the 70s, and started making fine wine where no one thought it possible, 100m above sea level. It is South Africa’s highest vineyard, and the brand’s tagline is “Wines with altitude”.
    If Chenin is a somewhat enigmatic variety, then Cederberg is a good producer to focus on. It sits apart from everyone else who makes wine in South Africa because, more than anything, they’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere. High up in the mountains forty six kilometres inland from the N7, between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam, and 1000m above sea level, Cedeberg enjoys a climate like no other producer in South Africa. But is this climate any good for grapes?
    We live in a pretty warm country for growing grapes. When summer rolls round and the grapes start ripening on the vine, our Africa sun can beat mercilessly, pushing up sugars and ripening grapes before their time. But if you head 1032 metres into the mountains, where temperatures can drop half a degree Celsius for every hundred metres you climb, your grapes can spend longer on the vine ripening fully.
    Not only is the cooling effect of altitude helpful for Cederberg, but because they are up in the mountains they have a wealth of slopes on which to plant their vines. Slopes are important as the morning sun is cooler than the afternoon sun, so the direction the slope faces will affect the amount and degree of sun the vines receive.
    But perhaps the best thing about being so isolated, and high up, is the lack of pests and diseases Cederberg has in its vines. But what of the wines?
    The wines from Cederberg always have a freshness about them, which is expressed in their sleekness, like a yacht with beautiful lines, or the elegance of a perfectly fitting cocktail dress. The elegance and freshness are thanks to the vineyards’ altitude and having the varieties planted in the correct places among a mix of clay, granite and sandstone soils.
    The Cederberg Chenin is not your typical example. It avoids any of the blowsy fatness that overripe Chenin can sometimes attract; like a pear that’s been in the sun too long, all droopy and sad. It also avoids the reflux-inducing acidity that some Chenins tend to produce. No, the Cederberg Chenin sparkles with life, and its resonant acidity demands you come back sip after sip. The flavours of Cederberg’s Chenin are all about winter melon, grapefruit and white pear. In some years there is a slight herbaceousness to the wine which can confuse some for Sauvignon Blanc, or perhaps make it the perfect gateway Chenin.
    If you want to treat yourself to something a little bit more regal, you can try Cederberg’s Five Generations Chenin. This one has been fermented in oak barrels, which results in a a richer, more decadent mouthfeel along with flavours of nutty-peach, and limes and honeyed sweet vanilla notes. Despite this richness the wine remains fresh, and alive partly thanks to its lowish alcohol of 13.5%. It’s a wine worthy of the lofty heights at which the grapes are grown.
    Even if it’s not Cederberg, the next time you are staring blankly at a supermarket shelf filled with wines and have absolutely no clue what buy, but are looking for something fresh and zippy, try a Chenin, what’s the worst that can happen?