Taking Cape Chardonnay to Infinity and Beyond

The South African Chardonnay Forum has been re-launched under chairmanship of Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate. In a heart-to-heart Q&A he outlines the objectives and flies the flag for Cape Chardonnay.

What roles do cultivar groupings such as the Chardonnay Forum play?

Johann de Wet: Well, I’d like to start by saying that this grouping had been dormant for a few years, so at the end of 2020 we did a re-launch after talks with South Africa’s Chardonnay producers. These discussions, and the decision to re-look this specific cultivar grouping, were inspired by the astounding positive reception Cape Chardonnay has been getting – local and internationally – over the past few years. Positive comment, plus the undeniable quality of Chardonnay we are currently seeing, inspired myself and a few like-minded industry players to get the forum back on track.

As far as the role of such groupings, I don’t think there is one overriding ethos and vision representing all such collectives. Like the country’s wines and the different terroir they represent, we all have unique traits. The SA Chardonnay Forum aims to provide a platform committed to two aspects. First, to use the forum to share technical information as well as to identify these pertinent topics and issues for communicating.

During our first get-together earlier this year, most of the representatives identified technical information as one of the significant desirables. Fermentation, wooding, viticulture, clones, yeasts….there is a never-ending need for information and a platform on which it can be exchanged. And to this, we are committed.

Secondly, the forum has to ensure the profile of South African Chardonnay is continuously communicated as one of premium and of excellence. The Celebration of Chardonnay at De Wetshof, which I helped manage since 2006, has been instrumental in creating an awareness of the brilliant diversity and stylistic excellence of Cape Chardonnay. Local and international commentators constantly comment on our quality in this category, and as a producer, I also see the interest from the market. Through the forum we want to ensure the image and reputation for this category goes from strength to strength.

Johann de Wet

What are the plans for the Forum in 2021?

JdW: Besides the basics such as a website, social media presence and communication to members, we have committed to a few physical events. There was a very successful tasting of 2021 barrel samples to kick-off the year. And in early summer, we are planning a visit to Chardonnay vineyards that form part of Vinpro’s Gen Z Project for experimental plantings. An information day would be a top choice, but the Covid-19 situation will have to lead us.

We are, however, an inclusive body and we listen to our members. If someone has a great idea and wishes to suggest a research project, tasting or technical information session, we’ll do it.

To what do you attribute the strength of the category of Cape Chardonnay?

JdW: Obviously, I can’t avoid the cliché of terroir and site, but that is the driver of great Chardonnay anywhere in the world. If one wants proof of the incredible geographical features that make up the Cape winelands, look at the spectrum of astounding Chardonnays originating from this country. We have maritime and continental climates, soils varying from limestone to decomposed granite to alluvial, and a mind-blowing diversity of aspects and altitudes.

Secondly, being a relatively new cultivar to be planted here – Cape Chardonnay is only some 40 years old – Chardonnay has benefitted from producers’ terroir-driven planting mindset. The characteristics of site drove and continues to drive Chardonnay plantings, with the result being that producers generally have expressive fruit to begin with.

Thirdly, Chardonnay winemakers are infatuated with the variety. They realise they are working with the world’s greatest white wine grape and this respect and care bodes well for creating great wine.

De Wetshof recently won two gold medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and in the media release you said an interesting thing, namely that international accolades are more important for local producers than ever. Explain.

JdW: Since the first local liquor bans last year, I think it has become imperative that the South African industry now – more than ever – grows its global footprint in the premium wine segment. Exclusive focus on the local market is just not sustainable for any mid-tier to large producer of premium wines. We have known this for some time and some attempts have been made by the industry to address it. But Covid-19 enforced the urgency.

Having said that, those statements on the Decanter awards were made before the recent violence and looting in South Africa which has put our national image in a very negative light. But that does not change the fact that the market for premium wines in South Africa is very limited, and to sustain and grow the industry we are really going to have to get our act together in the major international markets – Europe and America.

And you believe South African Chardonnay has a role to play here?

JdW: For sure, Chardonnay has the potential of being one of the varietals spear-heading South Africa’s foray into the upper-segment of the international wine market-place. It is the most popular premium and best-known white wine in the world. The UK imports over 70m litres a year and in America Chardonnay sales are over 200m litres. Along with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay is a white wine that does not have to introduce itself, as consumers know what a good version of this wine has to offer. If we do enough to get the word of good Chardonnay into the world market and have enough brands to service those markets, the entire local wine industry will benefit from the resultant positive image of South Africa’s bullish presence with a world-famous wine variety of superb quality.

Yes, but do we have enough Chardonnay?

JdW:National plantings are 6 500ha, which is still pretty small. But producers who have worked the markets are planting more – De Wetshof is planting 16ha this year – and I expect the Cape to edge to 8 000ha in the next few years. In the past two years we saw a shortage of Chardonnay, mainly from bulk wine buyers, so this must have inspired further planting – now, or in the future.

Where can interested parties find out more about the Chardonnay Forum?

JdW: Further information and contact details can be found on www.chardonnayforum.co.za. As I said, we are inclusive and wish to be a home for producers as well as anyone interested in joining us on this great journey that is South African Chardonnay.

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