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Swirling the sun: Simonsig celebrates South Africa’s sunshine grape, Chenin Blanc

Galileo famously said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” While this description rings true for all wines, it seems particularly apt for South Africa’s sunshine variety – Chenin Blanc.

In the Cape Winelands, Simonsig Family Vineyards has enjoyed a long and celebrated history bottling this grape variety. It holds a particular sentimental quality for third-generation winemaker and cellarmaster Michael Malan. “I was a young boy when I first encountered the mesmerising aroma of fermenting Chenin Blanc,” he says. “My mom traditionally cooked for the harvesting team, and back then she would drop me at the gate, from where I would run along a dusty path up to the cellar. As I got closer, the pungent aroma of tropical fruit became stronger until I could smell nothing but the scent of passion fruit, papaya and pineapple.”

Michael’s childhood memory is a reminder of how in 1968, his grandfather, Frans Malan, bottled Simonsig’s first Chenin Blanc, then called Steen. In 2018, this 50-year milestone was celebrated with the release of a commemorative Steen magnum, highlighting the importance of this cultivar for Simonsig. Notably, Frans Malan also originally used Chenin Blanc to make South Africa’s first-ever traditional method sparkling wine – the beloved Kaapse Vonkel –  due to the fact that cultivars such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir weren’t available yet in the early ’70s.

As the Malan family’s use of Chenin Blanc was established, so too was the variety’s loyal following of South African wine lovers who discovered it packs a punch at every price point. Producers such as Simonsig have invested a great deal of time in understanding the diversity of Chenin Blanc and the terroir that the variety needs to excel. As a robust variety, it thrives in warmer climates. And even now that winter has set in, it’s as if the wine produced from Chenin Blanc ushers warmth into every wine lover’s heart. In a country blessed with abundant sunshine, Chenin Blanc has affirmed itself as the wine for all seasons, affording us a little warm sunshine in a glass, even on a cold winter day. 

As one of the country’s premier Chenin Blanc producers, Simonsig provides wine enthusiasts with a range of options to celebrate with its Simonsig Chenin Blanc, Langbult Steen and Needless to Say Rosé, a blend Chenin Blanc and Pinotage.

“Chenin is a part of our DNA,” Michael says. “It’s our time and attention to detail that have made it our cornerstone white variety over many years. The real magic that shapes these wines lies in understanding the site and learning when and where to pick.” Chenin Blanc’s affinity for heavier shale soils with high clay content results in aromatic wines of impeccable quality. The picking action also makes a difference. “Picking the grapes in stages eases the pace for the cellar team. It also allows us to create exceptional building blocks as components are fermented and aged separately to blend wines representing the true essence of Simonsig Chenin Blanc.”  

Simonsig concentrates on Wine of Origin Stellenbosch, and the farms’s competitive edge stems from equal dedication to larger and smaller volumes. “Whether we harvest Simonsig Chenin Blanc from various blocks on the estate’s 22 ha and those of our neighbours or our  estate’s single-vineyard Langbult Steen, both wines are blended from multiple pickings to build elevated character into them.”

Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2024

Whether you love staying at home with a good book or prefer going on a bushveld safari, Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2024 is the perfect winter companion. The vibrant character of this unoaked wine, which is one of Michael’s favourites, is made for those who appreciate balanced, fruit-forward wines. Its layers are accentuated through multiple pickings, resulting in a spectacular display of fruit and culminating in a delightful, tangy finish. “Our picking approach captures various expressions of Chenin Blanc nurtured on the farm, from the zesty lemony characteristics we get from earlier pickings to the riper mid-pickings and late almost raisin-like fruit that delivers sweeter honeyed notes,” Michael says.

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Simonsig Langbult Steen 2023

Made in a more reserved style than the Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2024, the Simonsig Langbult Steen 2023 offers a more complex experience. Formerly known as Chenin Avec Chêne, the wine was rebranded and named after the vineyard Langbult Steen from the 2022 vintage, when the vines, planted in 1987, were officially awarded Old Vine status. Now in its second vintage as a certified old vine single-vineyard wine, it highlights how old vines preserve heritage. Fermented in 400-litre barrels with a 10% new oak component, and stainless steel tanks and a concrete egg, the focus on earlier pickings contributes to a more linear style. Although still in its infancy and yet to fully blossom, the wine possesses an ethereal depth that promises to unveil richer and more complex aromas as it matures.

Chenin Blanc at Simonsig is a remarkable ambassador of place. While the wines capture the nuances created through their site-specific terroir which, in turn, is portrayed through various ripening stages, their true form is retained thanks to artisanal excellence. Needless to say, these wines are crafted by sunlight, and the Malan family’s love for Chenin Blanc is evident in their use of this variety for over 55 years and its various expressions in the Simonsig portfolio. They are proud of how this tradition has been passed down three generations, but always with an eye on where they can take it in the future.

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All Simonsig Chenin Blanc wines are available online and at the cellar door.

Simonsig Chenin Blanc and Needless to Say Rosé are priced at R90 a bottle, while Langbult Steen is available for R245 a bottle. Limited numbers of the 1.5-litre commemorative magnums Steen 2017 cost R593 each.