If one had to select a single redeeming feature of a wine and a grape called Chardonnay, I’d say that generosity would go top of my list. The world loves Chardonnay, and in return it appears to love the world in its offering of wine enjoyment at different levels of appreciation, as well as the variety’s uncanny ability to grow and make good grapes for fine wine almost anywhere where a patch of suitable vineyard soil is available.
Chardonnay is the most grown white grape on earth. Its ancestral home is in Burgundy, France, where the variety’s finest wines continue to be made, but today it is grown in wine country’s ranging from the famous – America, Australia, New Zealand and Chile. To the not so well-known, including China, Israel, Canada, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey.
Here Chardonnay has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the geographical features of myriad countries whose winemakers wish to grow this great white grape. And the reason for this wishing, leads one to its other level of generosity, namely in the deliciousness Chardonnay offers those with a fondness for wine.
No matter from what country or winemaking region it originates, and no matter what its price or the level of its winemaking heritage, Chardonnay wishes to charm and to satisfy; seduce and beguile. A dry white wine, for sure, but with inherent complex flavours ranging from fruit, spice, flowers, nuts and butter, complemented by an accurate balance between fruit and acidity that gives it presence and beauty in the mouth.
This versatility is one of the features of South African Chardonnay, too. The grape grows in most of the country’s winemaking regions and is made into quaffable volume-driven wines priced at under R80 a bottle, to vineyard-focussed and grape-curated masterpieces that nip at the R1 000 price-tag.
The other feature of Cape Chardonnay – and this is why we are here – is that the inside-word in the wine world is that South Africa is currently making some of the greatest wines from this ubiquitous variety. Some international commentators have even alluded to the fact that if one is looking for the finest Chardonnay wines outside of the aforementioned Burgundy region of France, then you better head toward the southern tip of Africa.
Recognition such as this is great. But what truly makes it more astounding is that what is today internationally recognised as a great Chardonnay offering, is only just-over 40 years old. And getting to where South African Chardonnay is today, has been quite a story.
An Underhanded History
The illicit importing of Chardonnay vines into the country has become part of South Africa’s vinous history, offering a colourful narrative in the legacy of Cape wine. However, if one had to look at the effect this underhanded agriculture action had on the country’s wine industry, it deserves more than a brief referral to “Chardonnay smuggling”.
Fact is that in the 1960s and 1970s the South African wine industry was dominated by three grape varieties, namely Palomino and Chenin Blanc on the white side, and Cinsaut on the red. As the industry was controlled by the KWV, farmers had to obey the wishes of this official body, making those of an adventurous spirit and with a more global outlook on the nature of wine feel restricted and confined.
One of these farmers was Danie de Wet, who in 1972 had returned to the family De Wetshof farm in Robertson after studying viticulture and winemaking at the famed Geisenheim Institute in Germany. During his studies Danie had visited and worked in various European vineyards, as well as taking a particular interest in various grape varieties which, according to his knowledgeable professors at Geisenheim, could adapt well to conditions back home on De Wetshof.
“One of the grape varieties that I studied at Geisenheim and which my professors recommended as being suitable for planting in South Africa was Chardonnay,” says Danie. “Which suited me, as during my time in Europe as a student I had visited Burgundy and fell in love with the wine Chardonnay makes. When asked why I chose to help specifically introduce Chardonnay to the Cape, I simply answer: ‘my palate and my tongue led the way’.”
Returning to South Africa, Danie realised that he was going to have to put what he learnt at Geisenheim into practice. “Back in the 1970s, the local wine industry was not a particularly exciting place for a young South African wine farmer with a bit of ambition. Your options were limited to growing certain grapes as specified by legislation and selling your wine in bulk to the big dominating companies or co-operatives.”
That idea of taking Chardonnay to the chalk-soils of Robertson, however, would just not go away. De Wet managed to procure a Chardonnay vine-cutting from the Nietvoorbij Agriculture Research Centre in Stellenbosch – with the assistance of one Desiderius Pongrácz – but once planted, this specific clone did not deliver the desired goods.
Thus, De Wet went to the next option, circumventing the official channels by having Chardonnay cuttings flown into South Africa and planting the material on De Wetshof.
“I did it for the industry,” says De Wet. “Why did I and a few other wine people follow this route? Because back then if you wanted to introduce a new grape variety into the country it would take 20 years or more to establish it due to the rules of officialdom. And as South African wine people we simply did not have this time – in the 1970s and 1980s we were lagging behind other New World wine countries such as America, Australia and Chile who were offering Chardonnay and new grape varieties to the world of wine and accordingly gaining international recognition.”
With the contraband jetted-in, planted and propagated, a few Chardonnay vineyards took root in the Cape. And from 1980 a handful of Chardonnay wines began finding their way onto the market, with Backsberg in Paarl, Stellenbosch’s Simonsig and De Wetshof being the pioneering troika.
“If I look back at the way Chardonnay was received by the wine industry and wine consumers, I can only say that it was the right grape variety at the right time,” recalls Danie. “When those first few wines were released at the beginning of the 1980s, only some 30ha of Chardonnay was growing in South Africa. But the consumers instantly found a liking to the wine. True to the magic that Chardonnay is, it offered them a white wine of depth and complexity they had not been exposed to in terms of the local offerings.”
Danie and his fellow pioneers, including among others Sydney Back (Backsberg), Frans Malan (Simonsig) and Jan Boland Coetzee (Vriesenhof) – had their spirits dampened in 1985 when the Klopper Commission was established by the government to investigate the illegal importing of agriculture plant material. After lengthy testimonies were given among a slew of excited publicity, the “importers” were found guilty. However, the Commission recommended a work-group be established to look into ways of creating a quicker and more streamlined system of introducing new vine material into the Cape winelands.
This can be seen as a seismic shift in the fortunes for South African wine, which now saw not only Chardonnay, but other varieties including Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot having a smoother and less red tape-entangled ride into the vineyards of the Cape.
Looking back at the trials and tribulations associated with establishing Chardonnay, one can’t help but recall the fact of what De Wetshof achieved in 1985 – the year of the Klopper Commission – at the Vinexpo, the world’s largest and most important international wine showcase held in Bordeaux. Of all the wines on show, from all the countries in the world, De Wetshof Chardonnay was announced the Best Wine at Vinexpo.
How, one could ask, could anyone with the interest of the South African wine industry at heart, maintain that Chardonnay in this country was “illegal”?
Riding the Wave of Regional Diversity
If the grape of Chardonnay, which loves expressing itself in different landscapes, soils and climates, is going to find happiness in one country, South Africa could just be that place.
“No other white wine grape expresses its place of origin – terroir – in the way Chardonnay does,” says Paul Clüver from Paul Clüver Family Wines who pioneered the variety in the Elgin Wine Valley in the late 1980s and today offers one of the Cape’s finest Chardonnay selections.
“In Elgin we find the ultimate cool-climate Chardonnay with a firmer acidity and sterner backbone than the quirky charm of wines in warmer areas. And this is one exciting aspect of South Africa’s Chardonnay category, namely this exciting regional diversity. Chardonnay is one grape we all love. But the wines from Elgin and Robertson vary immensely, as do those from the Hemel-en-Aarde and Stellenbosch. One fabulous grape cultivar, but due to its ability to take-on the particular features of the region where it grows, Cape Chardonnay offers spectacular diversity.”
A grape-skins’ throw to the south-east of Elgin lies the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near the town of Hermanus which has taken the importance of terroir expression to a new level. This 20km stretch of vineyards has been divided into three appellations: Valley, Upper and Ridge, the brainchild of Anthony Hamilton Russell from Hamilton Russell Vineyards who introduced vines and Chardonnay to this region in the late 1970s, launching the first Chardonnay here in 1983.
“Hemel-en-Aarde is blessed with three distinct borders of geographical differentiation,” says Anthony, “and due to the expressive nature of Chardonnay and our other signature grape Pinot Noir, the three parts of the valley allow a variety of specific features in their wines. Chardonnay is an amazing vehicle to show this variance in soil-composition and climate. Promoting South Africa’s regional diversity has of late given the country a degree of sophistication in the wine world, and with its ability to show specific terroir, quality South African Chardonnay has been a great vehicle for this.”
Stellenbosch, South Africa’s leading wine region, has an enviable reputation for being good at everything it does, with Chardonnay being no exception. One of the first Cape Chardonnays was made at Simonsig Estate, and today the list of excellent Stellenbosch Chardonnays is as long as it is varied.
“There is a lot of talk about geography and terroir and regional diversity when it comes to Chardonnay,” says Sjaak Nelson, winemaker at Jordan Estate, one of Stellenbosch’s leaders in this variety and a cellar that was named Best White Wine Producer at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge in 2022, for – among others – its Chardonnay. “For me Chardonnay is about the deliciousness a good rendition of this wine allows for. There is satisfying completeness to it, a white wine that offers depth and complexity and fulfilment, as well as tasty rivets of citrus, white fruit and spice. That’s why it’s the world’s most famous white wine – drinkability and taste. Fortunately, in South Africa, we as winemakers are able to make this quality of Chardonnay due the regional terroir, but also because we simply love the grape and the wine.”
Johann de Wet, CEO of De Wetshof Estate, concurs with Sjaak’s emphasis on the role of the winemaker.
“The one thing that unites us, is our pure love for Chardonnay and the joy the wine gives us,” says Johann, who walks in the footsteps of his father Danie. “It also has a lot to do with respect. The provenance, history and legacy of Chardonnay makes us realise we are working with a very special grape variety representing a specific piece of earth – in this case a vineyard – which only you have the honour and privilege of making wine from. This is the kind of spirit and commitment that unites Chardonnay producers and has, along with the diversity in terroir the Cape offers, played a major role in the reputation we have been fortunate to obtain for our wines. There is no doubt in my mind that Chardonnay has played a major role in the reputation of excellence the South African wine industry has achieved over the past few years.”
The kind of generosity, thus, that can affect the fortunes of a total industry, too.
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