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UI Podcast #16 Part 1 | Under the Influence of Chenin Blanc | Radford Dale | Alex Dale

In the latest Under the Influence podcast we are under the influence of Chenin Blanc with Alex Dale, founder of Radford Dale, where we explore some of the finest examples from South Africa versus the rest of the world. Chenin Blanc is such a special grape, it makes versatile and complex wines, ideal for food, with wonderful expression of terroir and winemaking styles. Diving into its origins and different expressions across the world, was a fascinating journey.

Here is a rough transcript of the podcast courtesy of ChatGPT (excuse AI generated spelling mistakes or misquotes!):

Allister: A very, very warm welcome to the SA Studio here at Bellfield. It makes me chuckle a little bit because when we do podcast tastings, often there's like one, two, or three bottles of wine, but I believe we are working our way through 12 bottles of wine this afternoon. So, true to form, we've got incredible quality and a journey through different regions. Right now, we are going to be under the influence of Chenin Blanc, which is really exciting. Welcome.

Alex Dale: Nice to be here at last, neighbor. The last time I was here, it was a winery.

Allister: Exactly, a micro-winery. Now we are sitting in what used to be the barrel chai, and we are not so much making wine but talking about it and expressing our opinions on the world of wine. It’s long overdue. Either you've been in Burgundy or I've been in Bina Fasa. There's been a lot of travel. You've always been someone that I really look up to in this industry. You came to South Africa, pulled yourself up in this industry by your boots, and have created an incredible brand in Radford Dale. You've got an amazing import business, which we're going to be exploring as well in terms of some international wines. Most excitingly, you are now a landowner in Elgin, having bought Radford Dale Organic. Just give us a quick overview of this incredible journey you've taken.

Alex Dale: Quick? When I moved here in 1994, 30 years this September, the industry was experiencing open markets for the first time. Previously, sanctions had prevented that. I'd been visiting several times before when I lived in Burgundy. I came and did vintages down here because of the opposite seasons. I very quickly realized the potential: the geology, the climate, the people—all the ingredients to prove over time that South Africa is one of the great wine regions of the world. But a lot of work needed to be done. All the great European wine regions have defined who they are and what they do over centuries and millennia, going back to Roman times. I think I have one life, so I have to try and cram what the Cistercian monks did in Burgundy over a thousand years by trial and error. They planted certain grapes on certain soil types, figuring out the best slopes, drainage, top soils, etc. We have to do that over a huge country.

The first 20-25 years, we were always based in Stellenbosch, but we didn't want to be bogged down by what had always been done. We set about experimenting and seeing the real potential. We were one of a small handful of people in Swartland in 2003-2004 when we started making wine there, led by Eben Sadie, my very good mate. He introduced me personally to each grower. That was before Mullineux and Riebeek-Kasteel and everybody else got there. I always wanted to make Pinot Noir because of my Burgundian background, obviously, and Chardonnay. We tried Pinot Noir in all sorts of places. I laugh thinking back—we even went to places like Simondium for Pinot Noir because Glen Carlou was making Pinot there, but it was a disaster for us. We tried in Darling, Hemel-en-Aarde, all the way down to Stanford. We consistently got really good results in Elgin. Eventually, during COVID, I had nothing else to do. I was stuck at home; it was illegal to sell wine. An opportunity came up—we went to buy grapes, and Brian said, "No, you can't buy any grapes, but you can buy the farm." Not the conversation we anticipated, but we couldn't not do it. It's the only organic farm in the whole region, which is important to us. It's been organic since day one, so you've got vines now which are almost 20 years old that have always been organic. It's an amazing site with a perfect climate and lots of different aspects. So we bought it.

Allister: Fantastic. Now we're a bottle throw from your vineyard. Yes, it's such a privilege and a great addition to the Elgin Valley. Another thing I really respect that you did during COVID was the Restaurant Rescue Project. Give us a quick overview of that.

Alex Dale: I've been a business owner since I was 17. I've had a couple of businesses in Burgundy, and since I moved here, I've started businesses as well. We have three now. I know what it's like to face imminent death as a business and how stressful it is, how difficult it can be to even pay your staff. Your staff have families that depend on them, especially important in this country. Waiting for the government to come up with a grant or whatever would take too long, even if it does materialize. Businesses need a big hit of cash. The banks were refusing to work with the government scheme to lend money to businesses, which was a disgrace. I had this idea to help my friend Matt Manning and his restaurant, Grub & Vine on Bree Street. He works really hard and started from nothing. I thought, how can I help him not go under? Young family, recently married, etc.

I had this idea that if I could bring about a scheme to help him, I could share my oxygen. My exports meant I could sell, so I had money coming in and knew I could survive. I wanted to share my oxygen—my wines. I had inventory, more than I wanted. So I told Matt, "I'll give you 300 cases of our top wine, Black Rock red blend from Swartland, for free, no strings attached. You offer that to underwrite a voucher, publicize it. You sell the voucher for 1,400 Rand, the wine is worth more than that, and you'll get the wine for free once it's legal to transport it. You'll also have a voucher for a meal." We raised about 400,000 Rand in 2-3 days. Then I thought, let's do this for other restaurants as well to preserve Cape Town's gastronomy. We ended up doing it for 20 restaurants. Other wineries joined in. Sam O'Keefe from Lismore, who had just lost her farm, house, and winery to a bushfire, donated 250 cases. It was the wineries clubbing together, all independents. It was a body system, and it worked.

Allister: I think the big corporates were too busy making hand sanitizer.

Alex Dale: Exactly. It was just one of many examples of innovation and positive spirit. Everywhere you go, you lift other people up. Today, we're tasting wines that you've made with your team from different regions and exploring wines from other countries that you import. Shall we get cracking and explore the fascinating topic of Chenin Blanc?

Allister: Yes, let's start. Where should we begin?

Alex Dale: We're going to start in New Zealand, Hawke's Bay, the northeast part of the North Island. This is a real oddity, a Chenin Blanc from New Zealand. The link to South Africa is Rod Easthope, who worked for many years in South Africa at Rustenberg and was the founding winemaker at Coin Rock. He did great things here and is a formidable talent. When he went back to New Zealand, he quickly became head winemaker at Craggy Range, one of the foremost wineries in the southern hemisphere. He has profound links to South Africa, got married here, and was exposed to Chenin Blanc in a big way. So when he started his own winery in Hawke's Bay, he made a fantastic Chenin Blanc.

Chenin Blanc originates in the Loire Valley in France. Historically, it hasn't spread around the wine world like it has to South Africa. The reason for that is spirits. Under the KWV, brandy was the main product of the wine industry, and Chenin Blanc, along with Colombard and Semillon, were grown almost exclusively for distillation purposes. It's not a great reason, but it's given us a real positive today: there's a lot of Chenin Blanc planted, including older vineyards. It's in every site because it was mass-produced. A lot of it has been ripped up and replaced by international varieties like Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.

When I moved here in 1994, I'd already done several harvests at Hartenberg. Tasting Chenin Blanc in the vineyards, I was amazed at how good the grapes tasted despite being neglected. Overhead sprinkling systems, no trellising, very little done by hand. Yet, neglected and mistreated as they were, they always tasted great. The more manicured varieties required a lot of winemaking, whereas Chenin was natural. It's a real survivor of a grape. Chenin loves our soils and is comfortable in all regions. We set out to preserve old bush vines and told growers we'd pay more than they could get for Cabernet or their top reds to leave it in the ground. Some said no, but we still work with one sizable vineyard. We've also convinced key growers to replant Chenin over the years.

Let's go back to the roots of Chenin. We're starting with a New Zealand Chenin Blanc. It's got that classic Chenin-like freshness, quite similar to South Africa. Hawke's Bay has nice granitic soils and makes great Syrah, so it doesn't surprise me that Chenin works there too. Rod is a real character.

Allister: I can really taste the character and freshness in this wine. It’s got that crisp acidity, which makes it very refreshing.

Alex Dale: Exactly. Now, let's move on to the next wine. We have a De Trafford Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch. David Trafford is known for his red wines, but his Chenin Blanc is exceptional. This is a 2015 vintage, which shows how well these wines can age. David is a traditionalist, making wines that last for decades. He comes from the old school where you don't make wines for quick consumption but for aging.

Allister: This has some serious aging potential.

Alex Dale: Exactly, it's serious stuff. Let’s move on to the next wine. We have our own Radford Dale Renaissance Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch. We've been making this wine since 2003. Back then, we bought fruit from different places. Now, it's mainly from an organic vineyard in Bottelary Hills. The vineyards are about 25 years old, planted on decomposed granite. It's dry farmed, unirrigated, and gets no additional water. The roots go down very deep to find water. This is a 2021 vintage.

Allister: It's very interesting to see the evolution of this wine. I remember some of the earlier vintages, and it's fascinating how the style and quality have developed over the years.

Alex Dale: Yes, it's been a journey. We ferment in old barrels, about 10 years old, so they don't impart much oak flavor. It's all about texture and complexity. We want the wine to speak for itself, to express the vineyard and the vintage.

Allister: I think that's a hallmark of great winemaking—letting the vineyard shine through.

Alex Dale: Absolutely. Next, we have a wine from a good friend of mine, Chris Alheit. This is the Alheit Vineyards 'Fire by Night' Chenin Blanc. Chris is a bit of a Chenin Blanc fanatic, and he's made a name for himself with his single-vineyard wines. This one comes from the Paardeberg, which is a fantastic area for Chenin. The soils are decomposed granite, and the vineyards are bush vines, dry farmed.

Allister: Chris's wines are always so precise and expressive. You can really taste the terroir.

Alex Dale: Yes, he has a great touch with Chenin. This is a 2020 vintage, and it's already showing incredible complexity and depth. It's got that classic Chenin freshness but also layers of fruit and minerality.

Allister: It's amazing to see how versatile Chenin Blanc can be, from New Zealand to South Africa and within different regions of South Africa.

Alex Dale: Indeed. And that's the beauty of Chenin Blanc—it adapts well to different climates and soils, but it always retains its character. It's a grape that really tells the story of where it's grown.

Allister: Let's move on to the next wine. This is the Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc from Bot River. Sebastian Beaumont is another winemaker who is passionate about Chenin Blanc. This wine is named after his grandmother, and it's always a standout.

Alex Dale: Yes, Beaumont is one of the pioneers of Chenin Blanc in South Africa. The Hope Marguerite is a barrel-fermented Chenin, and it shows incredible balance and elegance. The vineyards are over 40 years old, which gives the wine great concentration.

Allister: It's wonderful to see so many winemakers dedicated to Chenin Blanc and pushing the boundaries of what this grape can do.

Alex Dale: Absolutely. It's a very exciting time for Chenin Blanc in South Africa. There are so many talented winemakers and great vineyards. It's a grape that has found its true home here.

Allister: I think we have one more wine to taste. This is the Mullineux Old Vines White. It's a blend that includes Chenin Blanc as the main component. Andrea and Chris Mullineux have done an amazing job with this wine.

Alex Dale: Yes, the Old Vines White is a fantastic example of what can be done with old vine Chenin Blanc. The vineyards are scattered around the Swartland, and the blend includes other varietals like Clairette Blanche and Viognier. It's a complex, layered wine with great texture and length.

Allister: It's a fitting end to our tasting. Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing these incredible wines. It's been a real pleasure.

Alex Dale: Thank you for having me. It's always great to talk about Chenin Blanc and share these wines with fellow enthusiasts.

Allister: Cheers to Chenin Blanc and to many more great wines to come!

Alex Dale: Cheers!



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