Despite my unashamed propaganda-mongering for the French Huguenots, you have to hand it to the folks from Dutch-land. Messrs Malan, Joubert, Du Toit and Du Preez would still be growing melons and raising goats in Franschhoek if the mighty Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) had not thrown a lifeline in the late 1600s by offering them the opportunity to give up their national identity and swap croissants for stroopwafels and “voilà” for “heel leuk”.
The VOC’s influence rules when it comes to the Cape’s wine culture and heritage as it is those gabled houses and cute slave bells that attract the tourists and issue our industry with provenance, not to mention the richly toned names of Meerlust, Vergelegen and Rust en Vrede.
Although the industry today shows a greater diversity of ownership than during the VOC era, a few Dutch lineages are still to be found, the influence of which can only be termed as complimentary.
Almenkerk Estate from Elgin is probably the finest example. Run by the Van Almenkerk clan who are positioned as Dutch-Belgian, Almenkerk has been quick to make a mark on South African wine in terms of wine quality, tourist-offerings, marketing energy and all-round nice folk.
Their first harvest was only in 2009, which is hard to believe as Almenkerk is today an integral part of the local chronicling of Chardonnay. The sold-out signs on the website attest to this.
Joris van Almenkerk is the winemaker, while wife Natalie struts the marketing stage with style, panache and honed business acumen. Between Natalie and Carolyn Martin from Creation they could sell a truck-load of double dough pizzas at a Tim Noakes Symposium.
During a recent tasting through a range of Elgin Chardonnays, my choice fell on the Almenkerk 2011. Four years down the line makes it about ready for optimal drinking, and I was keen to see how it compared to the 2013 which is doing the rounds on-trade.
It was a rivetingly exciting exercise to see the progression both in wine style, as well as vineyard expression.
The 2011 is currently a real blockbuster Chardonnay, a canal away from the progression the later Almenkerk wines have taken to a leaner look. This wine is, actually, nostalgia-inducing as it displays the various characteristics that some would deem to make a caricature of Chardonnay.
Beautifully hued, the wine is soft and plush and glides onto the palate like a played-out trout into a landing net. Once inside, there is an opulent creaminess verging on the sensual, with a lovely nostalgic hit of butterscotch thrown in – a ringer for the Backsberg Chardonnays of the 1990s.
The wine livens up on the mid-palate with riffs of winter-melon, Moroccan grapefruit and just the slightest murmur of marzipan.
But it really is a case of the sum overpowering its parts. This number is broad and profound, old school New World, yet formidably individualistic. If Dutch had a word for humdinger, this would be it.
Almenkerk Chardonnay Vintage 2013 has not had much time to get pumped up in the bottle, but it shows a vastly different profile to the 2011. The younger wine is, as could be expected, tighter and shyer, yet by no means meek on the flavour spectrum. Citrus has now taken over, while the lees contact of 10 months still ensures a show-stopping complexity. The Moroccan grapefruit has been replaced by Key Lime and instead of winter-melon there is a freshness one gets from loquats or white stone fruit.
But some parts of the song remains the same. The wine oozes from the glass into the mouth, commanding attention as the vineyards and the winemaker says: hey, this is Chardonnay.
Which it sure as hell is. Great wines, and bloody heel leuk.
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