Chardonnay Off the Beaten Track

Vermaaklikheid is a pretty hamlet on the South Cape coast, a small village that makes your average one horse town look like a sprawling Chinese suburb on Discount Poodle-Burger Night. I’ve known the place well for 40 years and during this time the only truly eventful thing to happen there was when Oom Lool de Jager stole his brother-in-law’s Boerewors recipe. And then there was the warm summer’s day when former Calvin Klein model Josie Borain walked into the Vermaaklikheid Central Kafee in a bikini.

This also happened to be the event that saw Oom Lool going back to church, an hour’s drive away in Riversdale, in an attempt to resurrect his career as a preacher.

One thing I also know about Vermaaklikheid is that it is special farming land for grapes. In the old days a few Hanepoot vines produced fruit described by Afrikaans author Abraham de Vries as “the sweetest grapes in the entire land”. Sweetly eaten by the locals, the Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandrie) was also used for the illicit distillation of witblits of venomous potency.

Rush-hour at Vermaaklikheid on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River.
Rush-hour at Vermaaklikheid on the banks of the Duiwenhoks River.

As a hard-drinking student I once downed a double tot of this firewater and for the next three days I saw pink turkeys flying past me singing “New York, New York”. I swear.

The grapes’ sweetness lead to their downfall, however, as the flocks of sweet-toothed finches grew a huge love for them, devouring the whole vineyard as soon as sugar had set in. The farmers lost patience with viticulture and for years Vermaaklikheid was grape-free

Until the name Baleia Bay surfaced and breached. Made from grapes grown at Vermaaklikheid, the appearance of Baleia Bay Chardonnay naturally attracted the attention of my clan which has ancestral rights to the town and the region.

Planting Chardonnay here is not as crazy as it sounds. Vermaaklikheid’s soils are packed with limestone, and although I have not yet seen the vineyards, memory recalls some edgy, attractive ridges which could provide a rugged and characterful home to a grape as terroir-sucking as Chardonnay.

And before I had a chance to try the stuff, the Baleia Bay Chardonnay 2013 had won a gong at this year’s Old Mutal Trophy Show.

My friend Bernard happened to visit Vermaaklikheid recently, on call to wine-collector Lafras Huguenet, and brought back a case of Baleia Bay Chardonnay. All of R50 a bottle, I hasten to add. Needless to say, I was champing at the pip to give it a go.

The wines of Baleia Bay.
The wines of Baleia Bay.

The wine has a shy, tight nose which initially does not want to budge, so I would recommend decanting. But it does open-up, eventually, to reveal a hit of salt and a fine line of gravel and water. It is surprising that the characteristic Vermaaklikheid aroma of wild buchu does not find its way into the wine as this delicious herby smell, drifting in on a southerly breeze, is one of the area’s primary features.

It is a fresh, substantial wine on the palate. Wood is understated, but there is plenty of tart white pear, stone and dried flowers on the palate, all-in-all a Burgundian Beaune feeling to this. Drinkable, and very interesting, although some fruit-driven dimension should complement the wine as the vines get older.

However, this is by no means a Trophy wine, considering the general high standard of Chardonnay in South Africa and the Old Mutual Show was unfair to pass this burden of great expectation on a lovely – but not great – wine.

But well done to Baleia Bay for putting Vermaaklikheid on the map. Now that the Platter Wine Guide is forced to take notice of the brand they should in future correctly report that the place lies near the Indian Ocean, and not the Atlantic as is the case in the 2014 edition.

One tot of Oom Lool’s witblits, and there goes the neighbourhood.

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