Watching Chardonnay Artists at Work

Anybody doubting whether wine is art should be a fly on the wall when winemakers get together to ascertain the merits and the components for making up a certain blend. I always find this an enriching experience, validating my conviction that wine does and always should stand apart from all other alcoholic elixirs.

This is not whisky or brandy, where blending is simply done to ensure that each year’s brand – VSOP Cognac, Johnny Walker Blue, KWV 10 Yr Old – will taste exactly like the previous year’s, and the year before that. Blending a wine from a new vintage means using a palette bearing the uniqueness of each year to create a final canvas expressing the beauty of the whole from the sum of its best parts.

Last week I was corralled into the De Wetshof board-room to partake in viewing 20 different young Chardonnays from 2017 to form a mind’s eye as to which wines will eventually show in the Estate’s unwooded range, namely Limestone Hill, Bon Vallon and Sur Lie.

Each wine was from a different site showing the effects of the respective turf’s soil component, along with the influences of elevation, wind, sun and temperature.

Joining me were De Wetshof CEO Johann de Wet, winemakers Peter de Wet and Danie Morkel, with patriarch Danie de Wet conducting proceedings with Von Karajanesque confidence and authority.

All the wines had been on the lees for some ten weeks in separate tanks, the lees stirring done at the same intervals under uniform temperatures.

Danie de Wet, conducting proceedings.

So the one overriding take-out, for me, was that terroir is alive and it is well, and it is tangibly evident. There really is no debate here.

The wines were still milky and un-fined, as the picture show.  And in such youth, one would not expect to detect the wines’ differences with such ease unless there were two wines originating from extremely different spots of terroir.

But every one of the 20 samples screamed individuality, despite each one obviously being Chardonnay.

As we went along the flights, the characteristics of each of these 20 different sites on De Wetshof were announced: clay soils, with gravel; broken mountain rocks, high in limestone; gravel on clay, planted on a gradual slope.

The soils’ contribution to each sample’s flavour component, aroma and structure was as evident as the effect of the Banting diet on a squad of sumo wrestlers. Chardonnays sourced from sites rich in clay, were broader with nuances of grapefruit and softer, plush residues on the finish. The more stone, the more the flavours of nuts and lean citrus.

Despite their youth and incomplete state, it was quite fascinating to taste two or three wines of such complexity that if I did not know better I would have identified them as having had a swipe of wood. In certain wines, there was a spicy nuttiness with a slight bit if toast, features Danie de Wet ascribed to the magical effect of lees and the Robertson terroir that is each year delivering Chardonnays of greater and surprising complexity.

This exercise underscored the importance of skill and of experience in the winemaking process. When these wines are eventually bottled, the final products will be the result of the use of human senses, understanding and foresight to ensure excellence of which their name is worthy. This should be remembered when opening a bottle of good wine. It is of people and of nature, and creativity and art. Be blessed to be a wine lover.

·       Emile Joubert

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