A Wordsmith’s Praise of SA Chardonnay

Andrew Jefford is recognised as of the most gifted wine writers in the world. He has an ability to weave and sculpt masterpieces with words, each one used very carefully and with specific intent. A very measured man, Jefford is not given to hyperbole.

And his summation of his impressions after tasting 16 Chardonnay from eight different South African wine regions at the De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay in Robertson recently? A somewhat ineloquent but also revealingly expressive word: “Wow!”

Sitting among the 180 attendees I was struck by Jefford’s use of that one word because it was almost out of character for him. But he admitted that he’d used it – again – with intent: to convey just how impressive the line-up of wines had been, especially after he’d preceded the tasting with an address on Chardonnay.

Highlights of his keynote speech were that Chardonnay has for many years produced the greatest white wines in the world – and yet the familiarity and ubiquity of the grape has the potential to “erode and belittle Chardonnay’s reputation”.

He quipped that Chardonnay was so familiar “that Anglophones often shorten its name to Chard or Chardy, as if it was a pet dog. It’s the same grape variety which fills hundreds of thousands of bottles every year with white wine which feels as familiar and as comfortable to many of its drinkers as an old jumper, or a pair of slippers.”

Yet, in spite of that familiarity, Chardonnay retains its ability to “reflect its growing conditions with often dramatic fidelity”, regardless of whether the grape was planted in New Zealand, Australia, Champagne or Burgundy.

He compared the different expressions of Chardonnay in Champagne, in Chablis (“a still dry white wine which is indeed balanced and palatable, though it’s still fresh, quick and mouthwatering…”) to that of Puligny-Montrachet, where the wine becomes more weighty, “richer, fuller and denser … cream, nuts and wild mushrooms”.

Chardonnay loves to travel – and it does so well. “I mean that it retains its agreeable varietal character, yet can also derive complexity, intrigue and singularity from local growing conditions. It’s also able to adapt itself to a wide variety of climates without getting flustered or losing its intrinsic balance.

“Remember that Chardonnay is not an aromatic variety like those two rival whites, so its intrinsic character tends to need drawing out, pitching and framing.

“Much of the pleasure of Chardonnay lies in its secondary aromas, its textures, and its development in bottle.  These are all areas in which sensitive winery work with various degrees of barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees contact or exposure can bring intricacy.

“At the same time, the great lesson of the global Chardonnay revolution of the last 30 years is that any lack of subtlety or excess of ambition in one’s approach to Chardonnay will be mercilessly punished.  The reason why ABC came to stand for Anything But Chardonnay was the garishness of lavishly ripe and heavily oaked Chardonnay.  The skill in Chardonnay craftsmanship always lies in restraint.”

And it was these characteristics that Jefford saw displayed in the 16 wines at De Wetshof. In a departure from previous years where the convener, Dave Hughes, polled local wine writers for their opinion of the best local examples, this year he was assisted by winemakers Richard Kershaw MW and Hannes Storm. The two best wines from eight different areas were selected, based on a tasting of a broad range of samples the three conducted.

The wines chosen were: Groot Constantia 2012 and Cape Point Vineyards 2012 (Cape Peninsula), Vergelegen Reserve 2012 and Vriesenhof 2012 (Stellenbosch Helderberg), Kranskop 2012 and De Wetshof Bateleur 2012 (Robertson), Richard Kershaw Elgin 2012 and KWV The Mentors 2012 (Elgin), Rustenberg Five Soldiers 2011 and Tokara Reserve Collection Stellenbosch 2012 (Stellenbosch Simonsberg), Chamonix Reserve 2013 and Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Serruria 2012 (Franschhoek and Villiersdorp), Hartenberg The Eleanor 2013 and Jordan Nine Yards 2013 (Stellenbosch Bottelary) and the  Ataraxia 2013 and Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2012 (Hemel-en-Aarde).

“What a privilege to be able to do this sort of tasting,” Jefford commented afterwards. “A lot has happened in the past 10 years!”

A highlight for him was that most of the wines tasted had alcohol levels of 13% or slightly more. In Australia, the wines would have been at 11%, 12% or even less, he said. “You have to reflect where you are,” he continued, which included alcohol levels – and he cited numerous Burgundies from the warmer 2010 vintage that had alcohol levels in the region of 14%.

“You have luminous locations – and it’s great to see that winemakers are not forcing the wines into a straitjacket of low alcohol levels.” The grapes, he said, had been able to travel a “full phenolic journey” and remained expressive of firstly the site or terroir and, secondly, the vintage and growing conditions.

“There is lots of diversity and variety. I really relished tasting these wines.”

It has been less than four decades since the first cuttings were smuggled to De Wetshof in a box of chocolates. In that time local winemakers have travelled a steep trajectory in learning not only where it’s suited to growing but also how best to treat it.

It is praise from commentators such as Jefford, allied to an increasing international awareness and appreciation of local winemakers’ skill in vinifying the grape, retaining its intrinsic quality and yet simultaneously expressing something unique to Chardonnay in South Africa, that is changing minds and winning fans back.

Something to celebrate indeed!

– Fiona McDonald

Danie de Wet

Anthony Hamilton-Russell

Andrew Jefford