The sixth De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay was held last week on De Wetshof Estate in Robertson. Now one of the world’s leading Chardonnay events, this year’s occasion was addressed by American novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney. Herewith his complete speech on Chardonnay, terroir, Marilyn Monroe and Cape wine quality.
Chardonnay is the great chameleon of viticulture, or to put it in a slightly less flattering light, more than a bit of a trollop. It’s the world’s most famous and beloved white wine grape. It’s a superstar, beloved of drinkers and growers, famous all over the world. But it’s also an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
On the one hand, in it’s Burgundian homeland it’s viewed as an almost transparent medium of terroir, a transmitter of the inherent qualities of the site from which it springs and takes it’s nourishment, a conduit between the subterranean world of geology and the solar system.
Some fifteen years ago I was standing in the Clos de Malte vineyard in Santenay, with Jacques Lardiere, longtime winemaker of Louis Jadot when he said to me, “The tension in the ground, do you feel it?” He pointed with one hand to the ground and with the other to the sky. “The minerals must be connected to the sky. We are seeking the unconscious of the earth.” Well, what could I say? I felt something, but maybe not quite that.
At another extreme, Chardonnay is viewed, especially in certain corners of the New World, as a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which the winemaker can express himself and his vision. Between these two extremes it can be difficult to isolate an inherent quality of Chardonnayness – a Platonic form of Chardonnay.
Depending on when it’s picked, where it’s grown and who is making it, Chardonnay comes in a huge variety of styles ranging from lean and stony to opulent and tropical; metaphorically speaking it runs the gamut from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy, from anorexic to sumo wrestler, from raw oysters to poached lobster, from Zen to Baroque, from Botero to Modigliani.
What do you say about a grape this mutable, this promiscuous?
In Chablis, it tends to produce a wine that is saline and acidic, with an undeniable hint of minerality – I plan to avoid the controversy about what exactly constitutes or causes minerality, if indeed it exists, and operate on the assumption that we have all encountered this impression in certain wines and can often agree about when it’s present and when it isn’t.
Whereas in, say, the Colchagua Valley of Chile or the Napa Valley of California Chardonnay can produce a fruit cocktail of a wine with a voluptuous, viscous texture. And strangely enough, I’ve often felt that Chardonnay from the Santa Rita Hills, in the Santa Barbara region of California, which is chilled by relatively cold Pacific air even as it bathed in blazing California sunlight, can seem extravagant and refined at the same time, ripe but laced with a bracing acidity.
Here in the Cape, the range of styles and of terroir expression is incredibly broad and diverse.
The notion of terroir, so convenient at first glance, becomes muddied when we consider the influence of the winemaker. Given relatively ripe grapes, the winemaker can turn Chardonnay in almost any direction he likes. Some, perhaps, abuse the privilege.
Let’s start in Burgundy, which is, almost certainly the homeland.
There’s a modest little town in the Mâcon which may or may not have given its name to the grape; at any rate it seems to have first mutated into being in the vicinity and continued for many years to adapt to this particular landscape, or, as the Burgundians would have it, the many micro landscapes and microclimates in which it was cultivated for hundreds of years.
We can make certain generalizations about white Burgundy, although the Burgundians themselves resist the idea of generalization, and of varietal character. The various white Burgundies all happen to be made from the Chardonnay grape, although historically Aligote, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc were also grown in these districts. But they would claim Chardonnay is a grape, but not a wine.
According to the pure terroirists, there’s no such wine as Chardonnay. There is, for instance, Chablis, in the northernmost extreme, grown on the famous Kimmeridgian limestone and often reminding tasters of marine elements, of oyster shells, fossils of which, from the Jurrassic period, are scattered throughout the vineyards.
Is it merely poetic license to imagine that this might help explain its affinity when drunk with live oysters?
Farther south the hill of Corton has plenty of limestone, and tasting notes often mention minerality. Then there is crisp, steely Puligny-Montrachet, and Meursault, supposedly fleshier and nuttier and flirtier than its neighbour, and Chassagne-Montrachet, which is harder to characterize.
Between Chassagne and Puligny a modest slope encompasses the holy ground of Montrachet and its subdivisions—Chevalier-Montrachet above and Batard- Montrachet below. Seeing these vineyards for the first time one may feel as I did, slightly disappointed. The gradient hardly reaches a pitch steep enough to earn the name of a hill and the vines look like Chardonnay vines anywhere else, maybe worse, since a lot of them are diseased at this point. On the other hand, some of my most thrilling drinking experiences have involved wines made from these grapes.
All Burgundy lovers believe in the concept of terroir and let me just state for the record that I’m a Burgundy lover. Those who catch this bug inevitably have the same experience; they find that a wine made from a certain plot tastes noticeably different from one made on another plot, which may be only yards away. Et voila! A convert is made.
In my own case, the most convincing early demonstration of the concept of terroir came for me in the cellar of Louis Jadot, the venerable domain/negotiant in Beaune with that whacky philosopher poet Jacques Lardiere. After driving north through the major white wine vineyards with Jacques Lardiere from Santenay to Chassagne and Puligny, pausing to gaze in wonder at the holy slope of Montrachet, I then tasted wines from the vineyards we’d just visited.
The wines, all from the ‘99 vintage, were made using the same regimen, and it was startling to note the differences as we moved barrel to barrel up the Côtes de Beaune, to detect, for instance, a hazelnut note in the wines of Meursault which had not been noticeable in the wines of Chassagne and which seemed to disappear when we got to the wines of Puligny, which seemed much more linear, and, yes, I hate to say it, mineral.
Something was going on here. And yet if I were to compare any of these wines to those of, say, Helen Turley, whose opulent Sonoma Chardonnays I have been following for years, the differences would seem minimal compared to their similarities. Which fact would seem to reinforce the validity of the terroir concept.
On the other hand, if some evil genie had inserted a barrel of Hamilton Russell Chardonnay in amongst those barrels in the Jadot cellar, I might possibly have identified it as a Meursault. Whether my impression of Hamilton Russell Chardonnays as resembling those of the Côtes de Beaune is a matter or geology or winemaking, I’m not certain.
I recently repeated this experiment in the cellars of Pierre Yves Colin Morey, tasting a broad range of Chardonnays from St. Aubin to Corton-Charlemagne, all made with the same regimen and all vastly different.
Last November I bought a barrel of Meursault Charmes at the Hospice de Beaune auction and I asked him to raise it for me. He was quick to point out that the Hospice part of the Charmes vineyard was better situated than his own, higher on the slope, and subsequent tastings of this own barrel and mine would definitely seem to bear this out.
Even within Burgundy, it’s clear that winemaking can sometime trump terroir. To my taste, the reductive, laser sharp Meursaults made by Coche-Dury and Roulot seem almost Puligny-like.
So where the hell does that leave us? And just to complicate matters further, let’s not forget that as the planet warms, white Burgundy vintages like 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2015 in some ways resemble those from traditionally warmer region.
For centuries, European winemakers yearned, usually in vain, for physiologically ripe grapes, whereas now, along with their New World counterparts, they are often seeking ways to ameliorate potential over-ripeness: picking early, blocking malolactic fermentation, acidifying, avoiding new oak in favor of stainless steel, avoiding lees stirring.
In my native land, fashion has taken a radical turn away from ripeness, butteriness and tropicality. The new buzzwords for Chardonnay are lean, balanced, focused, and nervous.
In the early days, by which I mean the seventies and eighties, Californian Chardonnay makers literally basked in the sunshine, and in Napa and Monterey and other very warm areas developed a style of Chardonnay that might best be described as buxom, the vinous equivalent of such California girls as Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson.
New oak and lees stirring helped exaggerate the lush character the climate provided. I think the earlier history of your own Chardonnay experiments here in the Cape was similar.
In the nineties a kind of reaction set in; we had something called the ABC movement, for anything but Chardonnay. (Cabernet was sometimes included.)
Personally I think it was unfair to blame the grape itself, just as I feel that it’s unfair to blame dogs for their misdeeds when the fault lies with their owners. Chardonnay had been abused, its image had suffered and early in the new millennium a new generation of California wine growers set out to rehabilitate it.
Lately, thin is in, and cool climate is the buzz phrase tossed around by savvy young wine consumers and sommeliers in my part of the world.
Acid is the new desiderata. Nervousness is a virtue. Ripeness is no longer all. In fact, ripeness is a word that is best avoided in the fashionable precincts of American wine connoisseurship.
Any adjectives associated with anorexia have become positive descriptors for fashionable Chardonnay and you hear winemakers bragging about picking at brix that barely reach double digits.
Wine growing regions like Napa and the inland portions of the Russian River Valley are now deemed too warm for really produce cutting edge Chardonnay. Winegrowers in search of cool-climate Chardonnay are moving closer to the Pacific, to the chillier reaches of Sonoma and Mendocino and the Anderson Valley. The new wisdom seems to be that any place warm enough to justify the construction of a swimming pool is too warm for Chardonnay.
The only problem with these many of these remote areas is that during harvest the grape growers have to compete with the marijuana growers for labor.
As a Burgundy lover I like this trend in general, especially since global warming seems to be turning certain white Burgundians into fruit bombs, although when the acidity starts to shrink my entire face and I’m getting a strong note of stainless steel, my inherent hedonism kicks in and rebels. I mean, come on, we all like a little fruit in our white wine, don’t we?
I don’t want to live in a world where all Chardonnay tastes like bad Chablis, any more than I want to live in a world where all Chardonnay tastes like a pineapple and mango smoothie.
As an American who didn’t vote for Donald Trump, I’m in favor of diversity, and choice. Instead of criticizing Chardonnay for not knowing its own mind we should celebrate it for its amazing versatility. We should be grateful that a Glen Carlou Chardonnay tastes different from a De Wetshof, and that neither one tastes like Cervaro della Sala, from Tuscany or Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay from Sonoma.
I’d like to finish with a few observations on Chardonnay in the Cape. I first visited South Africa as a wine tourist in 2001 and I returned in 2004 and while I was impressed with much of what I tasted then, Chardonnay was a very minor part of the picture. Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc were very much the dominant white grapes.
Producers were perhaps still struggling to obtain good Chardonnay plant material. As you well know, when a few pioneers turned to Chardonnay in the seventies they found mostly diseased and virussed clones at the Stellenbosch University collection.
Danie de Wet was one of those pioneers, and his efforts to bring good Chardonnay to the Cape were practically heroic. By the time I arrived at the turn of the millennium, much progress had been made, though Chardonnay was less than five percent of the total vineyard in the Cape and like the Chardonnays of Napa and Sonoma in that period, I felt there was a lot of over-oaking – or perhaps it was underfruiting.
Fifteen years later, I’m absolutely dazzled by the quality of Chardonnay available in the country, by the overall high quality of premium chardonnays available, by the sophistication in the handling of oak on the part of those who use it, though I’ve also had some fine unoaked examples.
I believe that style was first tried right here, at De Wetshof. And there is also a developing sense of terroir. It’s clear that Cape winemakers are learning where to plant Chardonnay, and how to grow it and how to vinify it.
When I was last here, Elgin, for instance, was never mentioned and I gather was mostly given over to orchards.
I can honestly say that Chardonnay from the Cape can easily compete on the world stage and that I’ve tasted some here that would put many premier cru white Burgundies to shame.
I was fortunate enough to taste a 1995 Thelema Chardonnay this past week at Singita Boulders and it was absolutely extraordinary, a honeyed, nutty wildly complex beauty that would absolutely put almost any white Burgundy of similar vintage in the shade.
Last night I had a 93 De Wetshof Finesse and it was if anything more remarkable given its incredible freshness, it’s light colour, bright acidity and minerality.
I believe it’s time for Cape Chardonnay makers and drinkers to consider the glories of aged Chardonnay, to hold back some of their wines for the future.
I would like to close my remarks with a wish, in the hope that Cape winemakers plant more Chardonnay. Yes, I know Chenin Blanc is, for historical reasons, the signature white grape of South Africa. And yes, there are some great ones made here.
But from an international marketing perspective, Chenin will always be a niche. And personally, I will always yearn for Chardonnay.
Chardonnay may be ubiquitous, it may be a cliché in many regards, it may be the source of a lot of mediocre plonk, and a lot of pumped-up, big cleavage floozies, but at it is capable of great profundity, and it can age and develop for decades.
It is a bit of a contradiction, given its ability to produce wines of crystalline purity on the one hand and Baudelarian decadence on the other.
It is, for me, the most seductive and the most romantic white grape on the planet.