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These bottles of chenin blanc will sell you on the sometimes polarizing grape [Chicago Tribune :: BC-WBS-CHENINBLANC-SOUTHAFRICA:TB]

It was in front of their eyes the entire time, and finally they realized what they had. The "what" that we're talking about is the chenin blanc grape variety, and the "they" are the winemakers of South Africa. It took a long time, but eventually they put one and one together, and realized that a great natural resource of theirs had huge potential and should no longer be overlooked or taken for granted.

The now-respected chenin blanc grape variety was born in the Loire Valley of France, and appears to have made its way to South Africa in the mid-17th century. Back then, the grape was known as "steen" by the Dutch settlers who inhabited the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the country, where the majority of its wine is grown and produced today.

According to the South African Chenin Blanc Association, it was not until 1963 that C.J. Orffer, the professor who headed up the University of Stellenbosch's viticulture program at the time, matched up the leaves of steen with those of chenin blanc to determine that steen was, in fact, chenin blanc. So that's the abbreviated version of the complicated tale of the South African chenin blanc name game. To sum it up: The grape was there from the start of the country's wine grape cultivation and was known by at least a couple of names through the years, including steen (sometimes spelled "stein") and chenin blanc.

But the grape's rise to prominence and worth in South Africa is even more tortured and roundabout. A versatile and high-yielding grape, chenin blanc was a major player in much of South Africa's brandy in the 20th century but was not valued to any large degree as a grape for quality table wine until as recently as 1999. This is when the CBA was formed and local winemakers began spending time turning chenin blanc grapes into the best wines they could.

Even in recent years, winemakers have undertaken massive replanting efforts to ensure higher quality grapes and wine moving forward. At the same time, other winemakers have been preserving and focusing on their old vines that have proved themselves as producers of consistently good fruit.

Still, South African chenin blanc can be polarizing. It shares space with chardonnay in the sense that people who say they don't like it have had either poor-quality versions of it or styles that don't suit their tastes. Try a different bottle.

Good South African chenin blancs can offer floral, citrusy and honey-kissed notes; apple, pear, apricot and tropical fruits; and nutty and toasty expressions when the wine has been fermented in oak barrels. Many of them have a formidable medium- to full-bodied roundness, often with zingy acidity to boot. Generally, South African chenin blancs are meant to be drunk young and fresh, but this is a varietal that can also benefit from bottle aging. The fruit and acidity of South African chenin blancs can make them nice apertifs (but be wary of alcohol levels that land between 13 and 14 percent), and they can also stand up to heartier seafood, grilled chicken and a variety of Asian cuisines that bring the spice.

Although the grape variety is not originally from South Africa, it is the most-planted grape variety in South Africa, and no other place on earth has more of it. Almost one of every five grapes grown in South Africa is chenin blanc.

Once an abundant yet underutilized commodity, chenin blanc is now a source of pride for the South African wine industry. Doesn't that make you want to track down a bottle or two and find out why? Below are notes from a recent tasting of South African chenin blanc. They are listed in ascending order according to price.

2016 Solms Delta Chenin Blanc. From the Western Cape, this wine offered ripe pear, lime and anise to go along with a crispness that made it very easy to drink on its own. $12

2015 Stellar Winery The River's End Chenin Blanc. Pear, apple, butter, apricot, anise and honey characterized this creamy, mouth-coating wine, which also had a touch of citrus on the finish. $14

2016 Ken Forrester Vineyards Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc. Peach, apricot, fennel, orange blossom and bright acidity were all present in this fresh and clean wine from the Stellenbosch region. $15

2015 Terre Brulee Le Blanc Chenin Blanc. Full of apricot, minerality, citrus and zingy acidity with a dry, crisp finish, this Swartland region wine clocked in at 13.5 percent alcohol. $15.

2015 De Bos Sur Lie Chenin Blanc. This wine from the Wellington region offered pear, green apple, anise, tropical fruits, citrus, tangy acidity, and lip-smacking tartness on the finish. $17

2015 Mullineux Family Wines Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc. Minerality, apricot, tropical fruit, vanilla, honey, a whiff of smoke and cleansing acidity all pushed through this wine's round lushness. $20

2015 Bellingham Old Vine Chenin Blanc. At 14 percent alcohol, this Coastal Region wine was packed with bright stone and tropical fruits, honey, oak, vanilla and refreshing acidity. $25

2014 Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc. This wine offered apricot, lime, honey, oak and fresh acidity, and should age well in the bottle for five years or more. $30

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