Improving chardonnays, difficult vintages

Unoaked chardonnays have been regarded by many as wimpish when compared with their, more serious, oaked big brothers.

They have rarely enjoyed good press, or much press of any sort. But quietly, as the vines (and the winemakers) have matured, so have these unoaked chardonnays. For any who struggle to think of international benchmarks, Chablis is home to the style; not all Chablis is unoaked, but the best of those wines that are has the knack of developing from a fresh, slightly citrusy youngster into deep, nutty maturity. Blanc de Blancs Champagne, also 100% chardonnay, develops in a similar curve.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to reaching the same standard of Chablis, but there is a growing number of wines that are interesting enough to be worth wider attention than they currently enjoy.

Delheim - Chardonnay 2013 new look LRBoth Tim James and I agreed the Delheim Chardonnay Unwooded 2013, from 15 year old vines, is one of them. For a youngster it is very expressive with ripe, almost tropical lemon zest aromas. Zest there is too in its fruity acids but time on the lees has balanced these with enriching substance. I – but not Tim – find a slightly edgy finish, but nothing that a few months won’t round out. Anticipate pleasurable drinking, with or without food, over the next year or two – but probably not longer; your R77 won’t have been badly spent.

From the point of view of vine age, three vintages of Seven Springs Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay (2011, 12 and 13), provided insight as to what happens with young vines. Owners, Tim and Vaughan Pearson kindly gave us the three wines in the interests of tracking development. The trio are in a more elegant, less forceful style than the Delheim; not surprising given the vineyards enjoy similar conditions to wineries in Hemel en Aarde Ridge but lies outside that Ward in the WO Overberg. The youngest, to be released in three or four months (for R75), has noticeable citrus, white flower, cream notes, great freshness and lightness of touch, if less intensity than the wine from the warmer region. A year older and the freshness is still here with similar but more intense and lengthy fruit. Even the maiden crop 2011, has acquired more than just bottle age.

Unwooded chardonnays might be gaining in character, but oaked versions – especially SevenSprings Chardonnay 2011they’re now much more sensitively treated – remain the popular favourite. Maybe it’s the youth of Seven Springs vines, but their oaked Chardonnay 2011 (R114), although with easy balance, appears less interesting than the unoaked; maybe it will benefit from a further year or two.

Nothing could illustrate the difference between the cooler climate Seven Springs enjoys and the warmer one of Voor-Paardeberg than Vondeling Chardonnay, also from 2011.You can just taste the sun in this wine, but in no way is it overripe or flabby; rather it brims with mouthfilling vibrancy and richness in the elegant style associated with the whole range. If it doesn’t elicit a smile, the R85 price tag will; what excellent value! But both these chardonnays deserve to find fans.

Winelovers might struggle a little more with some 2010 red wines. I see from a report I wrote that an extreme heat wave in the early part of March was detrimental to fruit still hanging, which presumably much cabernet on virused vines was. My maxim is always follow the winemaker rather than an area or vintage; it’s once again born out here.

The struggle shows in Neethlingshof Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (R76) which lacks any real substance and has a tell-tale jammy yet hard finish. Even the usually reliably consistent

The animal ploughs at Waterkloof
The animal ploughs at Waterkloof

Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (R150) is more evolved and lacking depth; it’s a good candidate for drinking before the more ageworthy 2009. Of the three cabernets we tasted, Waterkloof came off the best: harmony between its juicy ripe fruit, flesh and structure provide satisfying drinking now, though neither Tim nor I believe ageing it will bring further improvements.

Merlot, as is so regularly recorded, is a difficult customer at the best of times; a vintage such as 2010 didn’t help. Without the requisite flesh but a little too much extraction, Waterkloof’s seems rather ordinary.

Addendum to the same farm’s Syrah that Tim James wrote about here: I also tasted the second bottle the day after he’d opened it; thankfully, it was a totally different proposition to, what I described as the oxidised state of the one we’d shared at our tasting.

A final thought. I really believe that to be fair to a wine and to winelovers basing shopping decisions on others’ tasting notes, a second bottle (if available) should be opened when there’s doubt about the first, and, importantly, the producer is normally reliable.


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