South Africa’s top seven Chardonnays scrummed down with three Burgundian stunners at the De Wetshof Estate in Robertson last week for the bi-annual Celebration of Chardonnay. The brainchild of De Wetshof proprietor Danie de Wet, the inaugural Celebration of Chardonnay was held in 2006 to create a generic platform on which South African Chardonnays can feature, as well as the commitment and efforts of local winemakers tussling with this Burgundian grape be recognised and honoured.
As per usual, this year’s list of South Africa’s top Chardonnays was chosen by a panel of local judges and experts under the auspices of Dave Hughes. In addition to the line-up were three wines selected for the occasion by the Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy of which Danie is a member.
“By putting three French wines in the mix the idea was not to have a beauty contest to see who has the longest legs and the prettiest hair,” says Danie. “Being an inclusive event honouring Chardonnay in general, the idea was to portray the myriad elegant interpretations the grape lends itself to. The success of the previous two Celebrations of Chardonnay urged as to broaden our horizons, so to speak. And the first choice for selecting a foreign flavour fell on Burgundy, the grape’s ancestral home.”
The 10 wines poured for tasting thus consisted of: The judges South African choices, being Ataraxia Chardonnay 2008, Hamilton Russell Vineyards,Chardonnay 2009, Bouchard Finlayson,Missionvale Chardonnay 2009, Paul Cluver Chardonnay 2009, Jordan Nine Yards Chardonnay 2009, De Wetshof Estate Bateleur Unfiltered 2006 and Chamonix Reserve Chardonnay 2009. The French numbers were,Domaine Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne Grand Gru 2006, Puligny Montrachet 1 er Cru Clos de La Mouchere 2007 and Meursault Les Perrieres Premier Cru 2007.
Recalling the event, I can describe the wines in one word, thanks to Jean-Charles de la Morni?+¦???+¦?+¦-+?+¦+ëre, proprietor of Domaine Bonneau du Martray in Burgundy: Refinement.
During his address on his own wine, Jean-Charles singled out refinement as the essence of Chardonnay’s character. And the South Africa wines all showed this characteristic, which may not have been the case 10 years ago. At this tasting, there were no signs of over-eager oaking in any of the seven wines. Acids and oak structure created a firm backbone on which the fruit, floral and mineral flavours could position themselves. And there was a beautiful diversity.
The Missionvale was enveloped in maritime, white mussel shell cloak. Hamilton Russell showed a bracing freshness and a whack of grilled nuts. Chamonix and De Wetshof had the power of minerality, while Paul Cluver and Ataraxia had delectable dabs of spice.
Jordan Nine Yards was, as usual, a big, uncompromising wine with a sensual deliciousness that staggered many in the audience. A beaut.
On the local wines Jean-Charles commented: “I am shocked, surprised and delighted” by the quality of the wines.
“South Africa’s winemakers have shown that they understand the Chardonnay grape’s most famous feature, namely the ability to be transparent and in its wines to express the uniqueness of the natural environment where it grows. Your winemakers not only understand this, but they understand it very well.”
Coming from someone whom Norman Remington recognises as “a rock star” of Burgundian wine, these were words to cherish for South Africa’s Chardonnay makers.
Jean-Charles’s own wine, the Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2006 was itself a masterpiece. Poured from magnum after double decanting, the wine was graceful and fresh with the brooding, cascading sensorial overload of Chardonnay from extreme low pH soils.
Clos de La Mouchere was a little tight and austere, but then Puligny Montrachet is a recognised late starter. The Les Perrieres poured at the tasting had more fresh, floral and steeliness than one would expect from a Meursault, even such a relatively youthful 2007 item. But, having been opened for a few hours, I went back for a second tasting. A subtle creaminess had started to develop along with a drop of confection. How wonderful this wine is going to be in five years’ time.
Remington Norman, the other guest-speaker joined Jean-Charles in opening a few minds to the nature of terroir. “South Africa is far too young a wine country to really start talking of terroir,” he said. “Terroir is not just about climate, soil, slope and aspect. It is about how the vines have through generations adapted to their environment and reacted to the vineyard practises in that environment.”
Having said that, although South Africa may suffer from premature terroir obsession, the Chardonnay brush-strokes are quickly creating a masterly canvas.
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