Raw Elegance of Rietvallei Chardonnay

The paradox is typical of South Africa. On the one hand, holding a glass of supremely elegant, noble and classical white wine made from one of the world’s finest grapes, a thing called Chardonnay. The other hand is grasping dry red rocky Karoo soil, the very same soil from which the fine wine originates.

This Karoo really kicks in as one passes through the town of Robertson heading Ashton way. The fertile, life-affirming Breede River is behind you and the landscape starts getting drier, rougher, tougher. The sparrow-hawks sitting on the fences have a “jou-moer” look in their eye and there is a palpable  untamed hardness about the blue in the sky and the dirt beneath your RM Wiliams boots.

This is Africa, a world away from the cultured, preened elegance of the winelands nearer to Cape Town. Yet, wine culture also does runs deep here and the landscape lends itself to the making of world class wines. Especially the aforementioned Chardonnay.

Rietvallei Estate is one of Robertson’s – and South Africa’s – leading producers of quality Chardonnay, the region’s signature grape in terms of quality and volume. And, especially, in diverseness of expression. The pockets of various site-specific terroir found in Robertson is one of the most intriguing South African wine narratives, with a number of different Robertson wards each producing wines of individual personality and varied character.

Lying on the region’s eastern ridge, Rietvallei has broken, weathered soil without the rampant clay component found in dirt closer to the river. It is also flatter, and driving through the vineyards the pale rims of Robertson’s famous limestone soils are vivid in their presence. It looks and feels and tastes of Chardonnay over here.

Rietvallei is one of Robertson’s pioneering Chardonnay producers, and owner-winemaker Kobus Burger is continuing the legacy. Although he gets a warm look in his eyes when mentioning Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, he knows Chardonnay is responsible for much of Rietvallei’s reputation.

The 2012 Chardonnay, for example, scored a gold at this year’s Chardonnay du Monde and was announced as one of the top 10 wines on show coming in at fourth position to be exact.

This winning wine is found in the Rietvallei Special Select range, with an un-wooded Chardonnay present in the Classic Estate Range.

Both wines were presented to me recently, and eschewing convention I went straight for the big-hitting wooded 2012. That would be big-hitting in terms of reputation, for the wine itself is a refined, elegant and subtle masterpiece.

Unlike the Robertson Chardonnays closer to the river, the Rietvallei Chardonnay does not have the wet fullness of those wines. Instead, more perfume and dried flowers are found here, with the classical roast nuts and butter drifting below the surface, although not absent. Not by a long shot.

Kobus Burger from Rietvallei.
Kobus Burger from Rietvallei.

There is still a slight toastiness from the 10 months in wood, but this adds to the waft of exotic spice which must have been the factor appealing to those international judges on the Chardonnay du Monde panel. Lingering, beautifully balanced on fore, mid-palate and finish, this magnificent wine is a heart-stoppingly proud testament of what South Africa can do on the Chardonnay stage.

The Rievallei Special Select Chardonnay cracks a 982/1000 score.

When it comes to un-wooded Chardonnay, Robertson has shown itself to be in a class of its own. The chalky soils bring a balance and pH structure that unwooded Chardonnay requires if it is not to be an insipid and watery afterthought. Think American jug White Burgundy.

The Rievallei un-wooded 2012 is proof of the soils’ importance when doing it sans wood. Lip-smacking brisk citrus. A winter melon fullness with a bit of honey. Integrated acidity, without the faintest hint of the alcohol back-burn that un-wooded Chardonnay sometimes lets loose. And an overall appealing, moist moreishness that makes a cold bottle of un-wooded Chardonnay seem like the most desirable thing in the world on a hot day at the edge of the Karoo.

Score: 959/1000.

Hopefully wines of this quality will assist traditionalists – as well as the country’s generic marketing bodies – that great wines are not limited to regions on Cape Town’s side of the DuToitskloof tunnel. Tunnel-vision does not have to be taken literally now, does it?   

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