On the local front, the general consensus appears to be that Chardonnay needs wood-maturation to attain optimal expression and depth. Woodless Chardonnays are not given much serious thought in competitions or discussions, largely the result of the label ?+¦?+º?+¦un-wooded?+¦?+º?+æ seeming to imply something is amiss or that the bottle contains juice deemed not good enough for barrel nor a serious audience.
Sans wood, however, the noblest of white grapes has the potential to provide an incredible experience. Those having had one of the great Chablis pass their fleshy lips, such as a wine from the Fourchaume vineyard, will know what I am talking about. Incredible purity. Crystal clarity. A heady floral perfume that might otherwise have been adulterated by oak. A tuning fork in the mouth as the wine strikes and sings, from entry right down to the gullet.
But that is why Chablis is Chablis, vines grown in limestone rich soils that once were oyster-beds before even mammoths roamed the earth. For it is limestone that boosts soil pH leading to plant development creating concentration and complexity in the fruit.
The closest South Africa gets to this is the Robertson Valley. Long, long ago – very bloody long ago, in fact – the valley was filled with thousands of termite nests. As time progressed and the insects died, the nests crumbled and millions of little crawly corpses ended-up in the soils, creating a bed of limestone the likes of which are not found in any other part of South Africa’s vineyard landscape.
That the country’s leading proponents of un-wooded Chardonnays are thus found in the Robertson area’s calcerous soils is not surprising De Wetshof, Bon Courage, Rietvallei and Bonnievale Winery deliver truly delightful interpretations of a style that deserves more recognition. Especially seeing as the general South Africa palate likes its white wines without any wood clutter or complexity.
The positives of un-wooded Chardonnays are the gorgeous juicy citrus flavours, the weighty presence of the wine on the palate and the lack of searing acidity compared to other white varieties, especially Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, not enough acidity leads to flabby, listless un-wooded Chardonnays of which there are also too many on the local front.
M?+¦-ú?+¦+¦reson in Franschhoek seems like an unlikely place to make Chardonnay in its un-wooded purity due to the dull sandy soil. However, the wine going by the name of Dr Reason Why shows that soil should not be judged on looks alone.
This wood-free number is made by Clayton Reabow, an eager Chardonnay young gun in whose hands the category is safe for the future, as his commitment and focus shows.
The wine was produced from a single block situated on Moreson yielding seven tons per hectare. Three different vinification techniques were used in creating a structure and profile suited to the wine’s un-wooded future: 45% of the grapes were crushed and skins/stalks separated, 45 % was whole bunch pressed with stalks and all, while 10% underwent whole bunch and stalk fermentation.
Natural fermentation was used and the wine was given full malolactic fermentation, with 90 days spent on the gross lees during which the wine was given a twirl every week.
The result is one of restraint, the fruit not bolting forward as these wines can do. Tight notes of grapefruit and rose petal lie on a brisk breeze exuding freshness and life. The palate-weight is, however, firm and settled. Just because it is un-wooded, does not mean things cannot be serious.
Seriously worthy of being checked out. Wooded or unwooded, a Chardonnay by any other name remains just as sweet.