I was looking at a dead goat and drinking the finest Chardonnay in the land. The goat was big and fleshy and red, and this being the Restaurant at the Newton Johnson winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Chef Eric Bulpitt was deftly dissecting the creature with a razor-sharp knife, the kind used for settling old scores in Sicily. He was preparing lunch for a few hungry wine-tasters, which brings me to the Chardonnay.
The occasion was a tasting of South African wines in preparation for this Year’s Celebration of Chardonnay held bi-annually on De Wetshof Estate. Dave Hughes was taking a panel comprising wine-maker Richard Kershaw MW and Hamilton Russell Vineyards cellarmaster Hannes Storm through a range of wines representing South Africa’s regional diversity. The panel’s objective was to corral a selection representing the various nuances and expressions the Great Burgundian White sucks-up from various local vineyard sites.
This being far too a taxing task for me, I had the luxury of pulling corks, filling the panel’s glasses and sitting back to sip any of the wines that tickled my fancy. It was kid-in-a-candy store stuff and with the valley lying below me as seen from the gorgeous Newton Johnson property, well, this must be the feeling Mahatma Gandhi experienced during his mid-morning bouts of levitating.
There was a lot of wine around and I did my best to work through most of the samples once the judges had been poured theirs. My general assumption is that South Africa is making some really incredible Chardonnays. I felt proud. To be South African. To see the Great Burgundian White honoured by our talented, committed and passionate wine-makers. To realise that, yes, terroir does exist. And it can be smelled and it can be tasted.
Taste Vriesenhof Chardonnay and you get the grit of Stellenboschberg quatz dust between your teeth, feel the splash of stern southerly winds blowing in from False Bay.
Get a mouthful of De Wetshof Bateleur and it is coarse limestone leading to a dollop of grapefruit due to the touch of clay soils on the banks of the gently flowing Breede River.
And so we went through Stellenbosch, Elgin, Hemel-en-Aarde, Paarl, Constantia, Durbanville.
There was one go-to-wine, though, and for me it was Richard Kershaw’s own Chardonnay from Elgin, already a cult wine after one vintage, namely 2012.
It really is a striking wine, the most brilliant Chardonnay I have tasted all year and I had to haul the wine to a quiet corner to give it a proper going-over, just as Chef Eric was putting bits of goat into the oven.
The Richard Kershaw Chardonnay is unashamedly decadent and splashy, like an artist who found himself having so much fun he just had to use all the colours on the palette.
You want creaminess – well, would that be double-thick New Zealand or clotted Cornish? For on the mid-palate there is a silky, evocative cloak of luxurious creaminess. Citrus? For you, I give ruby grapefruit from the Rio Grande Valley, the fleshy green limes of Key West or yellow Moroccan tangerine. Stone fruit? How about north Portuguese green plum or Ashton apricot.
And so it goes, but hell, what an incredible wine. The promiscuous flavour profile is underscored by a structure that illustrates, to a T, what makes Chardonnay the world’s greatest white wine. Dense, but refined. Powerful, with grace. Rock-and-roll, with violin and harp. A linear experience that sates the palate and the senses. From beginning to end this wine gives nothing but pleasure and enjoyment of the visceral kind.
Are we ready for some roasted goat after all this? You must be kidding.
The cooked goat was plated, pretty as picture. And I moved on to red wine, although the Kershaw Chardonnay was not going to let go easily.
The red wine on offer included Newton Johnson Vineyards three single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, all from the 2012 vintage and charmingly named Mrs M, Block 6 and Windandsea.
Like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir does a pretty good job of site-expression, as the three Newton Johnson wines illustrated with deft and confidence.
The farm’s Windansea is from a higher slope, the vineyard planted on shallow clay lying on deep, rugged Hemel-en-Aarde dirt. It expresses excellent varietal character and you’d be able to identify this as Pinot Noir even if your nose was stuffed with shot-gun shells and taste-buds had been surgically removed with an angle-grinder. The Pinot experience is succulent, splashy fruit with nosebleed. Beauty and grace with a stiff-arm tackle. Poetry and violence. Everything Pinot Noir wants to be, this fine wine is – and then some.
Tasted next to the Windansea the Newton Johnson Mrs M is a perfumed, silky siren. Restrained and impeccably mannered, the wine is enormously satisfying with a plush, vibrant juiciness and a thrilling hit of all-spice.
Fine wine. Great food. Civil company. Still counting the blessings. And they just keep on coming.
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