Autumn is not only the finest time to be in the Cape winelands from an aesthetic point of view, the air’s crisp bite blessing the vineyards’ shades of gold and red under a baby blue sky with an all-encompassing enchantment. Now, too, great things await behind the cellar-doors as the current vintage of wines, recently fermented and heading into a state of calm as they ponder their paths to future character and person, lie in cool tank and firmly wooded French oak barrel. Heady aromas greet you upon entering those cellars, where the privileged few are permitted to sample the offerings of the most recent vintage that be 2023.
Yes, it rained and it was cool, and nature disrupted the travails of winemaker and worker, as nature has every right to do. I am thus leaving a precis of the later ripening red varieties for later, while throwing myself with wanton abandon into my colleagues’ white wines from this year’s harvest. Which are showing a discernible personality of what, to my mind, appears a special vintage.
From the raw young offerings in Durbanville, I am invited to look at Sauvignon Blanc from Diemersdal Estate. Of course, Thys Louw, Diemersdal proprietor and winemaker, already had his initial Sauvignon Blanc bottled and in market during the first week of March. But the other stuff, the other lines, are still resting on lees. For the tasting, I head one way, and this is to the wine lying in the 220l glass globes that Thys this year used for the first time for fermenting a portion of the famed Diemersdal Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc.
The globes of glass have not the porousness of oak and clay and cement, nor the static electricity shifting through stainless steel. Glass is pure seal, tight as a nun’s grimace at a Lady Gaga music video, and unlike the scowl, the Diemersdal wine lying atop its bed of creamy, shivering lees, looks ethereal, projecting a shimmering pellucid gold. Tasting-glass topped, the nose is stupefying in its sabre-thrust of purity, backed by an understandably virginal ripple of shuddering unsettled grape aromas. In the mouth, this unfinished wine is as taut as an angler’s fishing line hooked to a bolting 25kg steenbras, but the cord is running along strobe-lit worlds of clean white fruit resting on cold, sharp rocks. The pristine clarity and the tightly-strung, eagle-eyed bearing resulting from the fermenting and aging in glass globes are evident.
This portion will be blended with the other cut of Eight Rows Sauvignon Blanc now settling down in tank. This is also tasted, and as one can expect, it is more expansive in its showiness, already displaying a feral herbaceous leaf together with grated yellow pear and lime-peel, as well as having a comfortingly mellow presence in the mouth.
Some 160km to the east, I am walking between rows of tall stainless-steel tanks tasting 2023 Chardonnays from De Wetshof Estate. These commanding steel vessels separate De Wetshof’s various sites of geographical DNA. Chalk is the main run in the soils, but components of gravel and clay vary.
For De Wetshof it was a quick, cool vintage, all the Chardonnays already harvested by the end of February. Tasting-glass in hand, I follow Johann de Wet along the gleaming tanks, stopping every so now and then to have a splash of young Chardonnay hit the glass. Gushing.
As we work our way down, sniffing, tasting and spitting the just-assessed liquid into a large bucket, a picture begins to emerge. The wines are delightfully calm and confident in such an early stage of development. Exuberance and energy have somehow left the meaty claw of lees behind, and the wines are already precise and devoid of shifty clutter and the indecisiveness of youth.
The samples from vineyards growing on soils featuring clay in the leading role, are flash. Clad in grapefruit and green almond, they sprite forth a brittle fragility alerting one to a thoughtfulness in the wines, a delicate murmur of calm echoing through the uplifting structure evoking admiration and delight.
As for the Chardonnays on leaner soils, less dependent on the denseness of clay-layered earth, there is a breeziness. A charming display of white flowers, ripe yellow citrus and uplifting joy in the harnessed harmonious corralling of all those wonderful Chardonnay tastes, then tapering towards an intelligent simplicity of vinous beauty. One is tasting not with your mouth, but with your soul.
In barrel, De Wetshof’s single-site expressions are relaxed, knowing they have months of lees-dancing before the winemaker will lift them from their dark isolated stillness. But after eight weeks in wood, these wines are displaying a blessed grace underscoring a very fine year for serious Chardonnay.
The Site 2023 sampled from oak is already blossoming with its characteristic tangerine-peel perfume and taste supported by a bed of intense rolling thunder. This is serious stuff, a gilded frame calling one to become involved in its multi-layered canvas, one of colour and light, taste and aroma, drama and song. Nothing appears as it seems, unless you look very deep upon which one finds the magnificence of the unexpected wonder.
Out Elgin way, Andries Burger from Paul Clüver Family Wines had some rain-dancing to do as his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ripen late. He takes me immediately to wood, the Chardonnay in those cavernous oval foudré. The wine from 2023 is glowing. It runs in the mouth like rivulets of water seeking the shortest route down the worn marble column of a Greek temple perched on the heights of a sun-baked island. Fruit and a ripple of umami-inducing spice flirt with the senses, but for me the wonder lies in structure. The Chardonnay caresses and talks in whispers, but not without confidence in the way it reveals the class of varietal pedigree Elgin is known for. Here is a polished stony coolness, with the sun entering the wine on the mid-palate, unleashing nuts and fig-peel and a slight maritime salt tang.
The combination of restraint and agreeable calm runs through to the Chardonnay in smaller barrels, although here the young wine shows a coaxing grip, a sharper focus and firmer managing of fruit notes as well as persistence in the finish.
Winter now beckons. But with the taste of this year’s fresh wines still reverberating, it will be forever summer.
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