Style, integrity and chardonnay

Later this month I’ll be attending Danie de Wet’s bi-annual Chardonnay Celebration. Danie was a chardonnay pioneer – before it even was chardonnay! – and much more so when the real thing happily put down roots in his Robertson vineyards. That was over 40 years ago now, but more on that event in due course.

Chardonnay has wound down many stylistic paths since those early days. Initially more oak than fruit due to young vines and a just-started barrel programme meaning all were new; used, less flavour-dominant barrels would take a few years to find a place in the cellar. And even then didn’t, as many winelovers had come to enjoy the vanilla flavours. Then there was also the ‘Breakfast’ style, less pleasant than one might imagine, the wine’s simple buttery flavours and texture augmented by heavily toasted oak. And I haven’t even touched on the over-enthusiastic stirrers of the lees. At the opposite end  of the spectrum, some attempted what they called ‘Chablis’ style, either totally or mainly unoaked but bearing little or no resemblance to the genuine thing.

In more recent years, chardonnay has blossomed, in part thanks to expanding its footprint. Robertson is home to around a quarter of all the Cape’s chardonnay, doing well in both bubbly and as a distinctive, limey table wine. Hemel en Aarde valley and, particularly, Elgin have thrust quality chardonnay further into the international limelight. In fact, I’ve long been convinced Elgin’s fame will rest on chardonnay.

The Top Ten chardonnays in Christian Eedes 2014 Chardonnay Report
The Top Ten chardonnays in Christian Eedes 2014 Chardonnay Report

It was something of a surprise then that only one Elgin chardonnay, the Paul Cluver 2013 and one from Hemel en Aarde, Newton Johnson Southend 2013, were acknowledged in the top ten of Christian Eedes’ fourth annual Chardonnay Report, sponsored by Sanlam Private Wealth. The full report can be read here.

Eedes with his colleagues James Pietersen and Roland Peens, taste 60 selected wines, awarding a top ten with a certificate (and kudos). Those invited have performed well in competitions or are from highly regarded producers. It was clear tasting those 10 that the judges have a specific stylistic aesthetic, best summarised in two words: freshness, purity. Oak is still evident in a few but it’s more a question of harmonising over time than an inherent lack of balance, not a result one could have been confident of way back when.

If that fresh, pure style shouldn’t come as a surprise in wines originating from the cool highlands of Elgin or southerly, sea-influenced Hemel en Aarde, some might wonder that the majority of the ten – seven in fact – come from Stellenbosch. Closer inspection of that group will show altitude plays an important role, with proximity to False Bay also a factor

The view from Uva Mira, one of the highest lying farms on the Helderberg. Table Mountain & False Bay are visible in the background.
The view from Uva Mira, one of the highest lying farms on the Helderberg. Table Mountain & False Bay are visible in the background.

in the case of Uva Mira 2013, Eikendal 2013, Longridge 2013 and, I guess to some extent, Haskell Anvil 2012: all being on the Helderberg . Attentive readers will also note the predominant vintage: 2013 is turning out to be a great one for chardonnay. Even in what might be thought of as a warmer area, the Bottelary Hills, the high-lying vineyards of Hartenberg and Stellenrust (the latter based on the Helderberg) provide the freshness and purity (as well as the intelligent winemaking) which secured them a place in the top ten. The only successful Stellenbosch chardonnay I struggle to attribute to altitude is Glenelly Gran Vin but then it is a 2013!

The one winner from Franschhoek, Chamonix Reserve 2013, arguably is one of less than a handful of chardonnays enjoying the most integrity of any in South Africa,  another being Hamilton Russell, which, for the first time, didn’t make the top ten this year. (I have enormous respect for Jordan Chardonnay, but I think even Gary & Kathy have slightly changed their style – to one that’s beneficially slightly fresher.)

I see integrity deriving from three factors. Firstly, the vines being planted where they feel at home; secondly, the winemaker’s understanding of what nature is giving him or her (a lengthy process and so often the tripping block here, given the musical chairs that goes on between winemakers and cellars) and thirdly, established, mature vines.

I got to thinking about integrity this week after tweeting an article about the need to re-calibrate after those who score, mainly on the 100-point scale were ratcheting up to a level that leaves little leeway to reflect better wines in future vintages.

I believe it is unwise even unhelpful to rate over-generously before such integrity has been established; the swings and roundabouts of vintage, winemaking experiments and less than compatible relationship between site and vine can often lead to a less than consistent result in the wine, leading to confusion among consumers. It may also call the scorer’s own integrity into question.

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