I remember being put down by the late great Graham Beck whilst my admitting an appreciation for the crisp, steely wines of Chablis. “Waste of good Chardonnay, is Chablis,” said Graham, gruffly, while lifting the tumbler of Dimple Haig to his broad mouth, ice chiming in the crystal. “In Chardonnay it’s a case of no wood, no good. A waste of time.”
Whilst the world’s great Chardonnays – of which I am happy to include a number of South African wines if asked – involve a time spent in the recesses of a barrel, the un-timbered versions of wines made from this grape are not to sniffed at. As those remarkably pure Chablis wines have shown for centuries. The growth of sales in unwooded Chardonnays confirms an appreciation for this style has spilled onto these southern shores of ours, with some leading wine brands counting them among their top sellers.
My interest in the oak-less Chardonnays lies not so much in their undoubted quaffability. I pot a cool bottle of this as quickly and eagerly as the rest of them. But having a certifiable obsession with this variety, my inquisitive nature has me seeking the back-story to what is being tasted.
De Wetshof in Robertson was the first Cape winery to put an unwooded Chardonnay on the market when Bon Vallon hit the shelves in the early 1990s. And 1998 saw De Wetshof releasing the first vintage of Limestone Hill Chardonnay, a wine that has gone on to pretty much drive the unwooded category here.
The casual name, modest pricing at under R100 as well as the slightly sweeter, more tropical essence found in this wine helped change the way South Africans saw Chardonnay in general.
When Johann de Wet, now CEO of De Wetshof, started-out on the family farm, he spent a large amount of time with the Limestone Hill – in vineyards, cellar and market-place.
“Limestone Hill has turned into one of our leading brands, the result of getting the wine into the market-place, as well as the irreverent name and image,” Johann told me. “But the most important factor is the focus we put behind this wine in its making: you don’t just make an unwooded Chardonnay by taking the barrels away. You have to have specific terroir suited to bringing out elements in an unwooded wine that would not work as well in a wooded one. And in the cellar it has to be handled with a knowing sense of allowing the complexities of flavours Chardonnay to show, while at the same time restraining some of the exuberance so as to capture the purity and zest.”
De Wetshof’s Limestone Hill vineyards are set on soils showing an abundance of free limestone (obviously) – the highest limestone in any of the estate’s soils with the highest pH levels. The earth also has a heavy clay component, ideal for water-retention as well as giving the wine a confident broad structure.
As far as the wine-making is concerned, well, it begins at 02.00am when the grapes are harvested in the coolness of post-midnight. Once de-stemming, pressing and overnight settling are complete, the juice is racked-off from the sediment and pumped into stainless steel tanks for alcohol fermentation. After fermentation, the wine is left on the lees for five to six months under controlled temperatures. Weekly stirring of the lees ensures maximum flavours are released until the wines are ready for bottling.
It is, thus, not surprising that the complete structure of the wine is the first thing that gets me on tasting the 2019 Limestone Hill. One year on from harvest, the wine’s honey-drop and sherbet prickles have calmed down to show a calmer, yet more vivid, expression of Chardonnay purity.
The most obvious is the juicy grapefruit, a taste experienced in quite a few of De Wetshof’s other Chardonnays, but most pronounced in the Limestone Hill. The citrus element drives the wine, yet an engaging hit of summer melon – the orange one – and ripe figs further the Garden of Edenesque pleasure of a wine that will have a Norwegian scallop-catcher tasting summer during the black-night depths of a northern winter.
Although not having the rapier thrust and glass-shard cut of a Chablis, Limestone Hill’s beauty and deliciousness lies in the perkiness and verve stabbing through a lush fruit-filled galaxy of pastel-coloured stars.
Cool, fun, wonderful and Chardonnay.
No wood, as this wine should.
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