A few months ago there were confused, even angry mumbles from South African chardonnay producers when not one local example made the cut to be included on an international line up of New World chardonnays vs Burgundy.
The genesis of this blind tasting was a remark passed by Keith Prothero, one-time partner in the Mullineux wines, great supporter of South African wines and generally knowledgeable oenophile, that most people would not be able to tell the difference between New and Old World chardonnay.
Several tastings to decide the final line up did include South African wines, pre-selected by Greg Sherwood MW, after a raft of suggestions from local winelovers and across the stylistic spectrum; even so, none made it through.
I was as mystified as anyone by this omission. South African chardonnays have been on a roll; holding their own on international competitions, accruing many Platter five stars and are generally agreed to be in a good space.
My mystification was joined by disappointment when, a short while later, a blind tasting of local chardonnays left me and my fellow tasters shaking our heads in disbelief at the struggle we had to find top wines. A handful of quality individuals did come through, but it was the general ordinariness that shook us. There are still oak problems, though less so than in the past. More troubling seems to be over-enthusiastic working of lees – rolled, stirred or even shaken (well, maybe not the last), which leaves the wines ‘muddy’ and devoid of precision. Chardonnay is recognised as a grape for winemakers’ moulding but it should still display a sense of place.This is a pretty ruthless overall assessment of a line up which likely contained many enjoyable wines. But then Greg and Keith were ruthless over the international chardonnays that were included.
Chardonnay is very much a focus at present; last week Tim James and I tasted three very different examples. Radio adverts can be annoyingly memorable; the one for Vriesenhof Unwooded Chardonnay 2017 falls into that category through its vulgarity and being totally out of character with this producer. The same agency could have had a hand in the back label which assures: ‘This is a wine style that highlights the playfulness of the varietal ..’, whatever playful chardonnay might be. The claims that it’s light and refreshing and bursting with fruit are more credible. Otherwise, there’s nothing terribly complex or interesting and a pricey R100 for what it offers.
There’s reason to take note when Tim Atkin scores a wine 92/100 (careful scrutiny of the sticker reveals a 2016 Report rating); it’s also a Sommeliers Selection for 2018. Take note too of the latter’s description on their gong, ‘Voluptuous and Rich’, as it accurately describes the Whalehaven Conservation Coast Chardonnay 2014. The back label enjoys some colourful imaginings: the mid-palate expressive of ‘croissant and baguette’, which somehow ‘evolves into a residing (sic) and persistent minerality ..’ Pretty much a meal in a bottle at a meal’s price of R360.
The idea behind releasing the wine with two years’ extra age is so that ‘connoisseurs and sommeliers can purchase wines where optimal bottle aging has contributed extra flavour development.’ In this case, advancing on the chewy, rich texture and toffee-like flavours, is oxidation. Neither Tim nor I give it much chance of further longevity. Are there still fans of this style? It does seem a world away from the real cool climate, terroir-driven wines as its Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley source is described.
Thelema’s Sutherland Chardonnay Reserve 2016 (R300) offers better value and authenticity in its Elgin origin. It has the area’s purity and acute freshness but is also nicely anchored by lees-generated weight; absolutely no muddiness of texture here. A further two or three years should show better integration and complexity.
A more important focus on Chardonnay falls under this year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award. The five finalists are Arco Laarman of Laarman Family Wines, Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon, Murray Barlow of Rustenberg, Ronel Wiid of Bartinney and Clayton Reabow of Môreson; as credible a list as one would hope for.
Tomorrow sees the results of the Prescient Chardonnay Report, a competition run by Winemag with judges Christian Eedes, Roland Peens and James Pietersen. Will any of the DC finalists feature among the top scores? What will be the overall opinion of the wines entered? I have a feeling there’ll be surprises and controversy.
There’ll probably be the same reaction when the Platter five star wines are announced on 5th November.
Chardonnay offers a style for every taste, even if apparently not yet of a quality to stand up against the world’s best.