Jean Daneel's Signature voted best Chenin Blanc

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Chenin Blanc Challenge 2008
Jean Daneel's decision to go solo is paying dividends with him having won the 2008 Chenin Blanc Challenge, the third time he has won this competition. Christian Eedes reports.
When I arrive at Jean Daneel's cellar on the fringe of Napier, I am confronted by a pack of dogs including an enormous St Bernard male, whose name turns out to be Hamlet. It is me, however, who momentarily has an existential crisis wondering whether to get out of the car or not to get out of the car. Eventually, I screw up my courage to the sticking point and am relieved to find the dogs are all perfectly friendly, as is Jean and the rest of the Daneel clan: his wife Renée who runs a restaurant and deli in town, older son Jean-Pierre, who helps with winemaking and general management of the business and younger son, Marchand, who is training to be a chef and assists mum with cooking.

Winning the 2008 Chenin Blanc Challenge with the Jean Daneel Directors Signature 2006 is yet another in a string of successes for Daneel with this variety. He first triumphed 10 years ago in the 1997 Challenge with Morgenhof Private Reserve Bin 210 1996 and then repeated the feat in 2003 with his Jean Daneel Signature 2001. Further success was to follow when Signature 2003 was rated 5 Stars and proclaimed the first "Wine of the Year" in the 2005 Platter's.

Napier lies on the R316 between Caledon and Cape Agulhas, just short of two hours' drive from Cape Town, and the first question that has to be asked is why this rather obscure location to build a cellar?

"The land's cheaper than Stellenbosch," says Daneel frankly, before adding, "If I'd looked to set up there, I would've been just another fish in the pond. Anyway, I don't have the resources to compete with all those millionaires."

Daneel is a feisty character with a list of achievements that go well beyond Chenin Blanc. He was appointed as winemaker at Constantia property Buitenverwachting in 1983 to oversee a substantial renewal project, and his successes there culminated with him being judged Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1992 for the Buitenverwachting Merlot 1991.

When the irrepressible Anne Cointreau of the French cognac and liqueur family acquired Stellenbosch farm Morgenhof, Daneel was just the man to direct its upgrading. He was there from 1993 until 1999 but started making wines for himself in 1997.

Initially, Daneel made his own-label wines in a stable-turned-cellar on a friend's farm in Franschhoek but in 2005, he acquired property just outside Napier and began setting up a cellar and experimental vineyards.

Jean-Pierre Daneel refers to the 60-ton cellar as "a self-built shed" and there can be few less pretentious in the country. His father points out that the winery staff consists of "the two of us plus the gardener" and says that this helps to "keep things personal".

Building was complete in time for the 2006 harvest, and though equipment to hand may be the bare minimum, this does not seem to have had any effect on quality. While the white-label Signature Chenin Blanc dates from 2001, the black-label Directors Signature had never been made prior to 2006.

Bar the few rows of vines on his Napier property, Daneel doesn't own significant holdings of land and prefers to source fruit from different growers. He relates that from 2001 until 2004, he obtained grapes for his Signature Chenin from a well-established vineyard on Remhoogte in Stellenbosch. Yields however were increasingly variable, and from the 2005 vintage, fruit from a variety of different areas was utilized.

Daneel explains that this approach has two advantages. "We don't get all our fruit in one go - and by working with grapes that come from different soils and climates, we get more complexity." First into the cellar in 2006 was a batch from Wellington, then Paardeberg, Durbanville and Stellenbosch.

Whereas the Signature '06 spent 13 months in barrels varying from first to fifth fill, the Directors Signature '06 was compiled from four 100% new oak barrels, each containing juice from one of the different growing areas. The wine went on to spend a full 17 months in wood and there's no doubt that this has contributed to the wine's rich, buttery character.

There will be some that argue this buttery quality obscures the wine's fruit but Daneel contends that it is a specialized product made for a specific clientele. He points to various examples of Chardonnay such as Glen Carlou, Hamilton Russell and Jordan Nine Yards that are made in a similar style but are nevertheless highly regarded. He adds that it is a wine that is very much intended to accompany food and should be able to stand up to relatively heavy dishes.

In recent times, South Africa's winemakers have rather artfully used grapes infected with botrytis (noble rot) as an agent to lend complexity - the resulting wine showing aromas of honey and having improved body. Daneel reveals that typically he picks his grapes at between 24º and 25º Balling (measure of sugar in the grape) at which stage he necessarily gets about 5% to 10% of his crop infected with botrytis. "If you remove botrytis on the sorting table, you potentially have something very close to Sauvignon Blanc. Back-blend a portion of sweet wine and integration becomes an issue." Work with what the vineyards give you is his attitude...

The Directors Signature is exclusive both in terms of quantity and price: total production was a mere 1 200 bottles and the wine sells for R230 a bottle ex cellar. Those that either can't source or can't afford the Directors Signature will be glad to know that Signature is made in bigger volumes (20 000 bottles), sells for a lot less (R88 a bottle) and is not far off the reserve bottling in quality picking up a worthy 3½ Stars from the Challenge judging panel.

It is noticeable that the Directors Signature is priced exactly the same as the FMC Forrester Meinert, until now the most expensive local example of Chenin and considered by many to be one of the benchmarks. Some might consider Daneel a bit cheeky for putting such an ambitious price tag on his maiden release of this label but he's unapologetic, saying: "This wine was not easy to make. It took a lot of time and effort and I believe it's very much comparable to the FMC." He adds that by having more examples of Chenin priced at ultra-premium levels, it will go some way to enhancing the reputation of the category overall. "I've got nothing against Chardonnay, but there are some expensive examples out there. Who says Chenin can't fetch the same sort of prices?"

The issue of price aside, the Directors Signature proves once again that when South Africa's best winemakers turn their hand to Chenin Blanc, world-class wines ensue. What's so refreshing in this instance is just how down-to-earth Daneel is: "I can't speak about terroir - I use bought-in grapes from different regions. I don't have a family farm going back generations. What I've got is a brand - it's all about establishing and protecting quality."
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