Grace and favour

The view of critics and buyers in the United Kingdom – London – is that, of the New World wine producing countries, South Africa is the most innovative and exciting said Steven Spurrier at the Celebration of Chardonnay hosted by De Wetshof in Robertson recently.

While that is a sentiment and opinion heard more and more frequently by locals, Spurrier backed it up: “I have viewed that (innovation and excitement) over the space of two hours with just one grape variety.”

In his opening address Spurrier, famous for having engineered the groundbreaking 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’ which placed American wines ahead of their French equivalents, paraphrased Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn who described Chardonnay as “the chicken of the wine world”. He said winemakers can write on it and make their own unique version or expression of the wine – but it was also important where the chicken came from and how it was prepared.

Jan Boland Coetzee, Simon Barlow and Danie de Wet

Four years ago Andrew Jefford was the guest speaker at this same event and Spurrier referenced the eloquent writer and credited him for stating that great Chardonnay should have Tension, Energy, Precision and Focus.

“I believe our youngsters – the current or next generation – can achieve the heights we as winemakers only dreamed of,” said Neil Ellis who belongs to the generation of producers who saw Chardonnay introduced to South African soils just a few short decades ago.

Ellis was the last man to speak, following colleagues such as Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson, Jan Boland Coetzee of Vriesenhof who spoke movingly of the greatest Chardonnays of the world and his dreams that South Africa could one day produce wines to rival them, Simon Barlow of Rustenberg who recounted nighttime raids on vines at Nooitgedacht while working with Desiderius Pongracz, Anthony Hamilton-Russell of Hamilton Russell Vineyards and the gracious host and ultimate Chardonnay-phile, Danie de Wet whose De Wetshof has an enviable reputation with this chameleon grape, producing five vastly different expressions.

“If you were a young winemaker in the 70’s,” Ellis said, “you took your cues from Germany at the time. The (resulting) wines were well made but boring. The rest of the world was interested in emulating – not creating. In the 80’s viticulturists and farmers took us back to the vineyards and asked what we had to do to achieve our goals?

“What they did – and Chardonnay is a classic expression of this – was take us back to a low tech approach but based on scientific principles. Nothing is achieved without science. Knowledge about site is passed on from generation to generation,” he said.

He urged the new generation of winemakers to be patient. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said, referring to the 12 wines tasted at the Celebration of Chardonnay. “I’ve been impressed by all the flights. They have shown remarkable diversity of styles, wines that are technically very good – wines with elegance and restraint. It’s been a wonderful privilege.”

Master of Wine Remington Norman chaired the panel and in his closing remarks stated that the consistency of quality in South African Chardonnay was “extraordinary”. “The quality of SA Chardonnay has rocketed in the past few years! You can put these wines on any Michelin-starred restaurant list with complete confidence.” A sentiment echoed by Spurrier who said the last flight of three wines demonstrated wines from 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages, from Stellenbosch, Robertson and Elgin “quite different terroirs, quite different vintages but quite easily of Grand Cru Burgundy standard”.

Steven Spurrier

The question was asked: why does South African Chardonnay not get its due internationally? Answers from both Spurrier and Norman were that the wines were too cheap in the influential UK market.

“South African needs to deliver ‘Bang for Buck’,” said Norman. “The best wines are stonkingly good! People read about these top end wines in Decanter and other sources and go to their local supermarket to buy a bottle of South African Chardonnay – and at the entry level, it doesn’t deliver... so they never try it again or trade up.”

Having last been in South Africa 10 years ago, Steven Spurrier asked De Wetshof matriarch Lesca De Wet when the best time of the year would be for him to return for a visit with his wife. How could visitors – even high-profile guests such as him – fail to be charmed by the stately beauty and grace of De Wetshof, with its lush green lawns and the roadside avenue of flowering purple jacaranda trees and massed array of iceberg roses. And, of course, superb Chardonnay.

- Fiona McDonald