In my fourth and final year of university studying winemaking one of the topics discussed frequently in class has been the future of wine in South Africa and particularly the identity we need to establish in order to firmly place ourselves amongst of the most reputable wine exporters. One of the problems identified as being the speed bump for South Africa has been the lack of identity amongst our wines, particularly with that of Chenin blanc.
The most widely planted cultivar in South Africa, for better or for worse, is Chenin blanc. The problem comes in with the plethora of wine styles Chenin is subject to. Clean-cut and fruity wines are set next to wild-ferment wines next to overripe, orange wines and the consumer (apparently) is confused by the ever changing identity. Thus, Chenin is left with a murky reputation. Not bad but not good and definitely not consistent.
Recently I’ve been trying to describe this phenomenon to my non-wine drinking friends and explain why this lack of identity is seen as a problem, at least by some members of industry. When I began talking through my personal plan of action I stumbled across the perfect metaphor. Chenin blanc is South Africa needs to become Taylor Swift.
Now, bear with me here. I realise not everyone is a T-Swizzle fan and that’s okay. But no one can deny that the singer-songwriter has an eye for publicity and damn, if she doesn’t have a reputation then I don’t know who does.
At the start of her career Tay Swift was the squeaky clean country singer from Nashville. She wrote pining love songs about first boyfriends and soul mates. She established herself as the good girl and started gaining her fan base. Now, this is where Chenin needs to start taking notes. Not everyone liked the squeaky clean Taylor and she was often mocked for being the goody-goody girl but she still sold 8.1 million copies of her second album across the world. Success was no stranger. Now, if Chenin can adopt this same persona some magic could happen. South Africa needs to produce the squeaky clean, good girl Chenin with crisp citrus and stone fruits to attract its fan base. The wholesome, simple wine with a fixed reputation. Everyone who hears Chenin (much like early Taylor Swift) knows exactly what to expect and either hates it or loves it.
This feat is by no means simple or easy. Chenin will be rebuffed by the Khanye-Cabernets and will constantly be told they will never be good as Beyoncé. A very unfair accusation; Beyoncé and Taylor are completely different artists. It would be like comparing Chenin blanc to Sauvignon blanc.
Once Chenin has done that it can start developing its reputation. Taylor is infamous for her numerous boyfriends who all seemed to be “the one” and all ended up leaving her broken hearted and armed with new writing materials. These boyfriends or “pairings” if you will can also help Chenin. The best way to elevate a wine from the average table wine to the blockbuster wine used at weddings and award shows (two places where Taylor Swift is also often associated) is to establish a good food and wine repertoire. The clean cut Chenin has an array of food pairings from cheesy brie (Taylor Lautner) to the herby meat dishes (Joe Jonas) and more.
So now we have the established Chenin/Taylor with a loving fan base and impressive reputation. Love it or hate it; it’s here to stay. This is where the fun can begin. As Taylor entered the world of pop and sass, Chenin can enter into other wine styles as well. No longer clean, innocent and fruit-driven it can become edgy, full bodied and powerful. It’s time to get out of the woods, shake it off and fill in the blank space in the wine rack. During the 1989 album era of Taylor Swift she started to appeal to a new crowd of people without losing her original fan base. Chenin is no different; it starts off in one style but can then jump across to another. From clean citrus fruit to woody and spicy, it will attract a new crowd of wine drinkers to revel in its versatility. And one day, Chenin blanc can dabble in the often orange wine exports, just as Swift started rapping.
If Taylor Swift could overcome adversity (another valid point with the South African wine industry, there’s always a Kim with their snapchat stories exposing the South African working condition and deterring sales), jump genres and cement her reputation in the music industry then Chenin can do so in the wine industry. Maybe it just needs to have its heart broken a couple times…