When someone suggested that I try MAN Family Wines’ Chenin Blanc, my first reaction was that I don’t like sweet wines.
Although Chenin Blanc grapes are often used to make excellent sweet wines in France and elsewhere, I was assured I’d find this South African offering to be well-made, crisp, and refreshing — a dry white wine perfect for drinking in the warmer months. And I was told it’s a great buy.
I respected the recommendation, packed away my fears of teeth-aching dessert wine, and bought a couple of bottles. I’m glad I did. The wine is just as it was described, perhaps even better.
I have since returned to the MAN Chenin Blanc on a number of occasions, and it’s become one of this year’s summer and fall favorites. I’ve also tried a few other South African Chenin Blancs that are more expensive, and I like MAN better.
Finding that I’ve held on to misconceptions about wines for years is always humbling for me. But, after all, I write about cheap wine, so I’m not afraid to admit I occasionally have wrong-headed notions.
The versatile Chenin Blanc grapes, which are used in a wide variety of styles, from sparkling to fortified wines, are believed to have first been grown in the Loire Valley in France as early as the 9th century. Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company gets the loudest credit for bringing the grapes to South Africa in 1655, although there is some evidence the fleeing French Huguenots might have brought the vines to the country three decades later, a point that hardly matters to anyone except ampelographers (botanists who are fascinated with origins of grape vines).
The grape was called Steen, and the vines took to the deep soils, warm climate, and ocean breezes of the Western Cape region. It is now the most widely planted variety in South Africa, covering almost 47,000 acres – about twice the amount of Chenin Blanc planted in France, wine expert and author Jancis Robinson says in her book The Oxford Companion to Wine.
It took botanists until 1965 to identify Steen as Chenin Blanc, and the name was officially changed, although the MAN vintners note on the label that the wine is made from “Free-run Steen,” an indication that the grapes are not pressed (only crushed and stemmed) and the original name has not died out.
The South African wine industry went through an upgrade in the late ’60s and early ’70s when a new generation of winemakers took over and started using modern technologies. They gained respect for the country’s Chenin Blanc with an off-dry, clean and crisp wine, Robinson says.
Around 2000, young wine producers, including the partners in MAN, started making Chenin Blanc as a dry wine that reflected the character of the grapes and the terroir. The result is high-quality wines that are now readily available in New England and across the country.
Great ideas often are fueled during wine-drinking gatherings of friends, and the MAN founders are no exception. On one such evening, Jose Conde, brothers Tyrrel and Philip Myburgh, and their wives Marie, Anette and Nicky, decided to make the sort of wine they wanted to drink on a daily basis — high quality at a reasonable price, the company’s website says.
They all had some background in wine — Conde is the owner and winemaker of the award-winning Stark-Conde wines, Tyrrel Myburgh is the winemaker and owner of the award-winning Joostenberg Wines, and his older brother, Philip… well, he’s a lawyer and a wine drinker. So starting another winery wasn’t such a wild idea for them.
After fooling around on the weekends, making small batches of good wine, they decided to turn their efforts into a commercial venture. In 2001, they launched MAN Family Wines, a name drawn from the first initials of their wives names. The first year, they produced 300 cases in an old tractor shed, and they are now making more than 175,000 cases in a new winery.
The grapes used by MAN are the key to the success and quality of the wines. The partners found 30 farmers in the Agter-Paarl region who are sustainably growing exceptional Chenin Blanc on old, non-trellised and unirrigated vines. The yields are low, but the grapes are high in acid and full of intense tropical fruit flavors. Conde and the Myburghs wisely signed the farmers to long-term contracts and made them stockholders in the company.
I like to drink MAN Chenin Blanc with appetizers, but it’s also an excellent match with spicy Asian food, rich seafood dishes and grilled rare Ahi tuna with mango salsa.
MAN Chenin Blanc sells for $10.99, but I’ve found it on sale for $8.99. It’s available in the Pioneer Valley, but you may have to ask for it in some stores.
Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.