Seeking site

Anything but chardonnay > absolutely brilliant chardonnay. Was it so long ago numerous winelovers belonged to the former group? Many wines that went under the varietal name bore little resemblance to it, let alone reflected any sense of where the vines were grown.

Ripening chardonnay
Ripening chardonnay

There may be a few winelovers who continue to like those former heavy, rich wines, dressed in lashings of heavy toasted oak but I’m sure more find freshness, less oak and also less alcohol, make for much easier, more interesting drinking.

Pleasant drinking is one thing, character is quite another: character derived from site. Site may be a single vineyard or a number of blocks which make up a single vineyard but can also be used more generally about the general characteristics of a specific area.
Two events last week focused on site specific wines.

The first was the inaugural Franschhoek Appellation Grand Prestige awards. This event was initiated a year ago, when a large group of local winemakers and media got together

Bunches of semillon
Bunches of semillon

to taste various vintages of three varieties – semillon, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon – bearing the Franschhoek Wine of Origin. These three were chosen as the valley’s historical best performers and the tasting aimed to identify aromas, flavours and general style common to each variety and Franschhoek. Despite the District’s different aspects, altitudes and soils, tasters managed to pinpoint features each variety had in common to a surprising degree.

franschhoek-vineyard_semillonThis exercise led to the recent tasting by a panel of around 17 local winemakers and retailers of 57 entries, across all three varieties, with ten being adjudged to carry the varietal and Franschhoek thumbprint as defined in the initial tasting but also of top quality. These were: Semillons from Haut Espoir (2009) and Franschhoek Vineyards (2012, 2013); Chardonnays from Chamonix (2013 Reserve), Moreson (Mercator Premium 2013 and Knoputibak 2012), Maison (2013) and Rickety Bridge (2013); Cabernets from Stony Brook (Ghost Gum 2009) and Rickety Bridge (Paulinas Reserve 2011).

More important than the awarding of these wines, will be to see how they perform in future. The ultimate point of this exercise is to identify those sites which consistently produce typicity with quality. If this does happen, it will not only benefit Franschhoek as a wine producing area but South Africa as a whole.

The bi-annual Chardonnay Celebration, a generous and informative event organised by the De Wet family of De Wetshof, also put site specificity under the spotlight.
In the past, various media were asked to nominate their top ten, with the most-often mentioned being selected. That rarely covered the wide spread of the Cape winelands where chardonnay is now successfully grown.

To correct this anomaly, samples from a wide range of origins were blind tasted to select a pair from each of eight listed below.

Chardonnay’s very versatility both in where it will put down roots and its sympathetic response to the winemakers’ fashioning in the cellar has led to difficulty in pinpointing origin, but given winemakers’ present attention to reflecting what happens in the ground rather than the cellar, it could be imagined an exercise such as this year’s Chardonnay Celebration would help to shed some rays of light on general characteristics of each origin, limited number of samples nothwithstanding.

The tasting was preceded by guest-speaker, the ever-eloquent Andrew Jefford, who, in his introduction, drew an apposite analogy between the piano and chardonnay. Comparing grape varieties with musical instruments, he said: ‘There’s little music that cannot be played on the piano, and no instrument which interprets a wider range of musical thought with more expressive grace and profundity than the piano does. And wine’s piano, for me, is Chardonnay.’

Among the six Stellenbosch chardonnays – Helderberg (Vergelegen, Vriesenhof), Simonsberg (Rustenberg, Tokara) and Bottelary (Hartenberg, Jordan), there was just a general sense of greater ripeness and breadth of fruit flavours, but also greater focus on freshness, especially in the last pair.

The home team of Robertson, represented by Kranskop and De Wetshof Bateleur, illustrated the area’s defining pronounced limey/citrus vigour. (De Wetshof The Site chardonnay, served at lunch, is even more expressive of Robertson.)

Of the cooler areas, perhaps a purity and natural freshness of fruit could be appropriated to the Cape Peninsula pair of Groot Constantia and Cape Point Vineyards, despite lying on opposite sides of the peninsula mountain spine.

Tension and concentration typified the Hemel en Aarde pair; Ataraxia and Hamilton Russell, even though they originate from opposite ends of the valley.

Elgin, surprisingly, was a disappointment. Obvious residual sugar in both Richard Kershaw 2012 (2013 is spot on Elgin) and KWV Mentors obscured the area’s usual thrilling vibrant mineral liveliness.

CapeofGoodHopeChardThe biggest thrill was left to the Anthonij Rupert Wines Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2012. (Its unlikely partner was the always excellent and ageworthy Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve from Franschhoek.) Grown at around 670 metres on the Stettyn mountains outside Villiersdorp in the Elandskloof Ward, the Rupert wine has the throbbing intensity and tension of wine grown in an area surrounded by winter snow and marked diurnal summer temperatures. I really hope to try it again in a few years.

The move from style-driven to site-driven wines has been made; the journey is underway. It won’t always be a smooth one, but much of interest lies in store.

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