Karien O'Kennedy - 17 May 2018

I attended a Chenin blanc tasting with a group of winemakers recently and we tasted a combination of Chenins including the recently appointed Standard Bank Top 10. I experienced the top wines as stylistically quite different, which to me was refreshing to know that the combination of terroir and the winemaker’s vinification choices are acknowledged and rewarded. However, nine out of the ten wines were wooded. The group questioned if this result, and the results from the competition in previous years, mean that in order to be recognised as high quality, one has to mature your wine in wood? According to these winemakers, many top quality unwooded Chenins also exist, but they don’t seem to stand a chance with the judges. I guess the old saying: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is valid here. If you present the Top 10 to my husband – who falls in the category of the average consumer – he will, let’s just say, prefer not to drink them. He prefers fresh and fruity unwooded bottled wines, the younger the better, and he can distinguish quality differences between brands. But wait, is he then really the average consumer? Or is my sister rather the average consumer, who regularly buys and drinks box wine and prefers her whites to “not be too aromatic.” They need to “taste like wine and not a fruit salad.” Okay so I digress, debating who the elusive “average consumer”- that so many consumer insight studies refer to - really is, is a subject for another day.  This blog’s musings are whether wood in white is an indicator of quality?

In a recent study conducted in Australia, 83 Australian Chardonnays were sensorially evaluated and scored by eight industry experts on a 20 point scale as well as a quality level ranging from A to D. The wines were selected based on either their James Haliday rating of >90 or by their sales in one of Australia’s main retail chains – top 10% sold. In general the judges scored the wines as follows:

  • The older vintage scored better than the younger vintage
  • The wooded wines scored better than the unwooded wines
  • The fruitier wines scored lower than the less fruity wines
  • The wines with the “more typical Chardonnay aromas” scored lower than the wines with the higher oak lactones
  • The higher priced wines scored higher than the lower priced wines

Keep in mind that the wines in the line-up contained the top 10% sold in a supermarket, which means wines that received a low score from the experts will most probably receive a massive thumbs up by my husband and the majority of consumers. Okay granted, the average (there is that confusing word again) consumers buy mostly on price but I would be curious to know, if subjected to the same wines in the line-up in a blind tasting, what their perception of quality would have been?

So back to my question and my group of winemakers – does wood increase quality perception of Chenin blanc by experts? The answer seems to be yes. Is it possible to produce a top quality white wine, as judged by experts, without wood? Yes, look at Sauvignon blanc. Chenin is sometimes described as a very versatile grape, lending itself to many different wine styles. On the one side it can be stylistically close to warmer climate Sauvignon blanc (sans pyrazines) if it is vinified similarly, i.e. reductively and with aromatic thiol enhancing yeasts. Researchers at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Viticulture and Oenology found significant concentrations of volatile thiols in Chenin blanc – similar to concentrations found in South African Sauvignon blancs. On the other side of the spectrum it can be stylistically closer to Chardonnay, if less reductive winemaking accompanied with barrel fermentation and maturation is practised. Due to Chenin’s chameleon nature, should we not rather judge its quality in two categories - wooded and unwooded – or will wooded continue to remain the witbroodjie in this competition?

The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the reality of the competition mentioned, nor does it reflect the opinion of Stellenbosch University – Karien O’Kennedy

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