The classic variety chardonnay has had something of a chequered history in South Africa. In the early 1980s the majority of the wines labelled chardonnay were in fact auxerrois; a mistake due to smuggling of vine material by producers frustrated with the delay of legal importation. Auxerrois was subsequently and over-hastily removed from the permitted list of wine varieties. Chardonnay took another blow when the late Pamela van dyke Price famously announced that the Cape is not chardonnay country. Hardly an auspicious start to the variety which by 2017 was ranked 7th and accounted for 6746.22 ha or 7.14% of vineyard area.
For records’ sake, in 1983, under what was listed as chardonnay, it covered just 120.78 hectares, or roughly 0.12% of the total vineyard area.
One of the most interesting aspects of chardonnay’s journey in the Cape is the evolution of styles. In the early days – when, admittedly, winemakers were just starting a barrel progamme and most was new – there was often more oak than wine flavour from young vines. The softening effects of malo-lactic fermentation and stirring the lees were also enthusiastically employed. ‘Buttered toast’ became a common tasting note for the richly-textured, even oily and toastily oaked wine.
Nothing subtle about and little to gain from ageing these recipe wines. Some loved them, for others, it was this style that gave rise to the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay). There were exceptions; in 1986, Sydney Back won Diners Club Winemaker of the Year for Wooded White with his Backsberg 1985 Chardonnay – yes, it was the real thing – the wine was balanced and understated, unsurprisingly it aged well for many years.
Many cooler areas have opened up since quotas were dropped in 1992; chardonnay has expanded with them. Winemakers’ confidence and knowledge of working with the grape today sees steelier wines with enticing purity as well as weight; much of this due to less or no malo-lactic. More mature vines have encouraged winemakers to try unoaked chardonnay. Sometimes referred to as ‘Chablis style’, wishful thinking if ever there was, today’s unoaked chardonnays are more characterful not only thanks to greater vine age but the introduction of concrete eggs and clay amphorae, both of which add textural interest to the fruit. (Still no resemblance to Chablis though!)
ABC nowadays stands for Always Buy Chardonnay.
For an objective view of South African chardonnay, I asked Remington Norman for his thoughts. Remington knows Burgundy intimately, has written books on the area and led tours. But he’s also familiar with developments in South Africa, where he and his wife, Geraldine, live for part of the year.
He mentions better plant material, more careful, focused vineyard management and precision harvesting as producing better fruit.
In winemaking, he notes more subtle and adaptive use of new wood, coupled with less batonnage – stirring or rolling of lees – and less acidification, which used to be noticeable, destroying the wines’ cohesion.
His most important observation is; ‘experience of great wines from elsewhere has given winemakers an idea of what they are aiming at – not to mimic, but in terms of depth and structure.’ Some excellent chardonnay is being made here he concludes.
Continuing an exploration of ten-year-old wines from my cellar, I chose two chardonnays different in style but both with excellent track records.
Both Jordan Chardonnay 2009 and Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay 2009 showed very well and are still full of life.
Jordan was as fresh as one might expect from a screwcap closure. This is now the Jordans’ closure of choice; when it was introduced, consumers were given the choice of cork as well to satisfy more conservative, traditional tastes.
The wine’s bright acidity focuses tropical and pickled lime aromas and provides a clean, linear thread to richer, leesy undertones. Full-bodied, well-balanced with a strong personality, it held well for several days.
Traditionally, the wine is fermented in small Burgundy-shaped barrels, equally shared between new and second fill. Aged on the lees for nine months, with occasional rolling of the barrels and blended with 8% tank-fermented wine to balance the citrus flavours. The only changes now are the addition of a new Burgundy cooper, Chassin and some new vineyards planted with a Burgundian clone.
Chamonix is more oxidative and richer in texture, though just 13.7% alcohol, but also with a firm backbone of natural acid, which encourages flavour definition. This is essentially savoury with persistent oatmeally, hazelnut notes which embrace the mouth. The Chamonix also drank well for a good few days. All but 10% was naturally fermented in new oak, the rest in a concrete egg and aged for 14 months. Current winemaker, Thinus Neethling confirms he’s following the successful approach of his predecessor, Gottfried Mocke who made the 2009.
Both are interesting and pleasurable wines rather than set one’s heart racing with great complexity. Was it worth keeping them for ten years? From the point of view that they remained fresh but with the calming effect of age, yes. Would they have been as enjoyable two or three years earlier? Quite possibly. What it did prove is that white wines can age as well as reds.