Seven Flags Chardonnay and the Gaucho

By Lafras Huguenet

The mob was donning Palestinian flags, loud and baying and smelling of garlic and hummus. I passed them at Hyde Park Corner, wrapped my scarf close, and continued west along the park’s edge, the protestors’ guttural wails drifting off in the distance, silence once descending on an icy late afternoon in London.

Chilled air was being sucked in through dry lips, slightly chaffed, and the light was fading quickly. It was good walking, even steps in a graceful rhythm, and I continued unwavering, pausing only to look at the Royal Albert Hall on my left, the most splendid theatre in the world. Kensington High Street was throbbing with pedestrians and traffic, the rear-lights of the idly paced vehicles now red and bright in the dark. Turning left at Kensington High Street Tube Station, I felt shards of iced rain on my face, and passing the Armenian Church on the left, I bit my lip against the snow.

The heat was on in the Abingdon Villas apartment, and I gladly rid myself of the confines of coat, hat, scarf and gloves. Kicked off my brogues and, using the phone, allowed the summery sounds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho album to send ribbons of cool sunlit jazz-rock through the place. Licking my lips, I realised how dry they were, a sensation shared by my throat. The walking had been all day and it had been long, and apart from the half Guinness off Sloane Square, I hadn’t had a drink all day.

A feeling of slight loss and homesickness set-in, emotions not much helped by Donald Fagen’s nasal, neurotic voice while singing “Glamour Profession”. I thought of the Cape where, I gathered, the summer sun was shining, and dry warm breezes were blowing through the vineyards and down from the mountains in the most splendid of all the winelands in the world.

There is nothing to connect one’s soul to a beloved place like a glass of wine from that place’s origin. For the past few months, I had been drenched in Barolo, soused from Burgundy and seduced by Bordeaux. Now, in the London chill of a not-such well-lit place, my heart did not desire a South African wine: it needed it.

The 78-bottle wine fridge was alarmingly empty on account of some furious bouts of entertaining prior to my return to Cape Town a few days hence. But this was of no issue because pausing at the door of the cooler, the wine I wanted and needed lay before me as if it had been placed there by a concerned angel who looked after my well-being on this place that is the world.

Paul Clüver Seven Flags Chardonnay, the wine an old friend, but this from the 2022 vintage yet to be formed and acquaintance with. I grasped the bottle in joyous hands, pulled the cork and – as is my wont with younger Chardonnay – ran the wine down the crystal glass throat of a not-too-showy decanter. An intoxicating aroma of fine white wine filled the room and I poured a glass as the music ran into the very fine song “Gaucho”…”your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes.”

Sitting down, appropriately in a lived-in leather couch, I nosed the wine with admirable restraint and knuckle-clenched patience as I was just dying to get some liquid passed these parched lips. It was seductive and beautiful smelling this, pure Chardonnay notes of jasmine, green sage and churned Ayrshire butter being spread on a crust of very good home-baked white bread.

I noted the vintage – 2022 – implying that this Seven Flags Chardonnay was made from 35-year-old vineyards planted in 1987 on Dr Paul Clüver’s splendid Elgin farm. There where the Groenlandberg edges a turquoise sky and indigenous wild-flowers dapple the slopes from where one looks down to one of the most splendid valleys in all the Cape.

It is a cool country, too, known for apples, but since the initial forays of Dr. Clüver into viticulture, Elgin has leaped to the top of the Cape’s fine wine offerings. If one revived the embalmed corpse of a Cistercian monk from Burgundy, I am sure the brother would muster enough life to agree.

I took a deep draught as I am not known for going in lightly. A generous thirsty first mouthful allows the wine to show itself in all its adventurous, lusty vividness, something all that poncy sniffing and swirling before taking a cautious first sip can never emulate.

This was all I needed, and more. Chardonnay expressing a place attached to my heart and one that clasps my mind in the most unexpected moments. It provided, generously, the comfort and ease and reassurance that I needed.

While the nose is rather delicate, the wine presents itself in the mouth with sincerity in its dedication and completeness. Flavours are vast, bewildering in their almost promiscuous diversity. Lime-peel and dry apples. Lemon-curd. A crunch of kumquat with a long run of salinity elevating the fruit to a level of sensation, I believe, is called umami by the Japanese folk. There is line of burnt-butter and brioche to add a feeling of reassurance, that splendid feeling that all is right with the world.

By the third mouthful, as the Steely Dan album was running down to the haunting melodic drama of “Third World Man”, I began appreciating the grace and body of the Seven Flags Chardonnay. Here it has the kind of cultured civility deserving a place in the British Museum, aptly placed next to the Elgin Marbles. For the wine is formidable in the alert, gushing power it presents to fortify the senses as well as the bejewelled, refined environment allowing one to experience the whispered secrets of the wine’s very heart.

I filled the glass, and decided on Gaucho all over again.

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Retrieving the Elgin Marvels

When the new CEO for the country’s latest industry body, simply named SA Wine, slips into his or her chair, there will no doubt be a number of pressing issues to contend with. One of which is to act on the acceptance of the fact that the Cape vineyard is too weighted on Chenin Blanc and Colombard – over 40% of total wine output – and that if the quest to premiumisation is to be followed, greater emphasis needs placing on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Reasons being that the latter are universally seen as desired white wines with captured markets, require no introduction to the wine world and command the kind of international prices able to inject the economic impetus into wine farming with which the local industry is tasked to expedite. The establishment of SA Wine no doubt being a new vehicle to help with this.

Be assured, the new CEO should be, that as far as espousing the merits of both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay go, there is great support from the growers and vinifiers of these classic and renowned varieties. Just look at Sauvignon Blanc SA, the first local grouping to bring an international wine competition to South African shores, namely the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon that rolls-in in March. Chardonnay brothers and sisters are also doing it for themselves and have done so ever since De Wetshof Estate launched its first Celebration of Chardonnay event in 2006. This was held until 2018, but since then the Chardonnay Forum has been active in spreading the gospel of Burgundy’s great grape in a Southern shroud. And through its annual Chardonnay Colloquium, Elgin continues to confirm its pride in the region’s commitment to growing Chardonnay, as well as making distinctive and diverse offerings from its 130ha under cool-climate Chardonnay vines.

The most recent Colloquium was held on South Hill Vineyards, one of the region’s 20 wine producers, and besides the variety of wines appraised and discussed, my take-out was that Elgin’s human capital has played, and continues to play, a major part in the establishing of the region as a force in Chardonnay, local and other. The team’s collaboration in sharing a common value of commitment to Chardonnay as a communally loved variety, together with a belief in the ability Elgin geography has to honour the grape through a ream of diverse excellence, is as attributable to the success here as are the cool, elevated vineyards growing on Bokkeveld Shale soils and the resident gifted winemaking skill.

Paul Clüver addressing the Chardonnay Colloquium.

Paul Clüver, MD of Paul Clüver Family Wines, who pioneered Elgin Chardonnay in the early 1990s, proudly asserts that Elgin Chardonnay leads the way when it comes to garnering awards for this category, outshining Stellenbosch, Robertson and Hemel-en-Aarde in appraisal from both local and international critics.

“With only 130ha of South Africa’s over 6 000ha under Chardonnay, I think Elgin can feel justifiably proud in what we have achieved in only 30 years of making wine from this grape,” he says. “This confidence has led to a real bullish feeling among Elgin producers who are now more than ever on a quest to show the world that not only Elgin, but South Africa is capable of making some of the best Chardonnay in the world. The more we get this message out there, the better for the South African wine industry as a whole.”

At the Colloquium, other notable personalities and Chardonnay acolytes included Andries Burger, Clüver’s winemaker from the outset, the commanding presence of Andrew Gunn of Iona and Richard Kershaw MW, who is the region’s local savant, information resource and, of course, a fine winemaker himself.

Joris van Almenkerk, Rudi Schultz from Thelema and Neil Ellis’s Warren Ellis are international wine voices in their own right. And throw in the youthful eager eyes of Jacques du Plessis of Oak Valley and Werner Muller, Gunn’s winemaker, and one has a pretty competent team of homo sapiens to espouse the gospel of Elgin vitis vinifera Chardonnay along with the overall brilliance of the wines.

Some 12 Elgin wines were shown at the Colloquium, with Margaret River, California and Burgundy thrown in to spice things up. The Elgin grouping reminded me of commentary from an American importer at last year’s Cape Wine, who said that he found a “lack of diversity in the overall style of South African Chardonnay”.

Going through the Elgin line-up, my view was of exactly the opposite – and here I am talking about 12 wines from one region. In the four flights, of which three wines originated from Elgin, there was a discernible and intriguing degree of variation, yet all harnessed by a thread of vivid varietal expression and accurate cellar-work.

The wines on offer were:

Highlands Road 2020

Idun Callipyge 2020

Paul Wallace Reflection 2021

Paul Cluver Estate 2020

Neil Ellis White Hall 2021

Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021

Iona Highlands 2021

Oak Valley Groenlandberg 2021

Thelema Sutherland 2020

Almenkerk 2019

Kershaw Clonal Selection 2019

Tokara Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs 2014

While there were and subsequently have been lofty and enlightened appraisals of each wine, my joy in the Colloquium lay in being reminded of the unbridled deliciousness good Chardonnay offers, and how tasty the wines from Elgin are.

Almenkerk 2019 and Highlands Road 2020 are short-skirted seductresses, fleshy curves and sculpted muscles allowing flavours to reach the parts where other wines don’t, thanks to their proactively personable engagement. I have always been a huge fan of Joris’s wines for this very feature, finding a honey-suckle and floral nectar to the Chardonnay that is truly delightful.

I would single-out Highlands Road as the most audacious wine of the day. Deeper in its golden hue than the other local Chardonnays, the flavours of golden apple, warm hay and lime sherbet – all drifting lazily on a dark and threatening thundercloud of spice and fynbos – was truly exciting.

Tasted blind, one wine had me writing the simple descriptor of “This is Chardonnay”, which turned out to be Paul Clüver’s Estate 2020. For here all the varietal descriptors were ticked with a double-weight fountain pen dipped in Burgundian free-run juice. There was citrus-peel, of the thick Cape lemon variety that offers an engaging pleasant bitter grip to the finish. Flame-charred almonds lurked, broodily, while flutters of white peach, Packham pear and white flowers made the wine sing. But the greatness lay in the texture, a corralled focus with ripples of alert energy throughout.

Burgundian expert Remington Norman complemented proceedings with his presence.

Known for the graceful power of its Merlot and Pinot Noir, Shannon had me surprised with a Shannon Oscar Browne Chardonnay 2021 so delicate it was on the edge of being coy. Cool and long on the palate, there was shyness and restraint in the fruit, which was wrapped in a fragile floral coating, perked by an acidic sparkle that grew on the finish.

And Kershaw, of course, was as meticulously assembled as one could expect from Sir Richard. Clonal Selection 2019 was the wine, a pretty loud and powerful number thundering along through a cold field dappled with various sensorial offerings. A crunchy pear was off-set by rows of butter-cup, and just as the salt-green tang of a Granny Smith apple makes an appearance, a scented meadow-breeze calms the senses, finishing a primal gravelly grip reminiscent of wilderness and big skies broken by wind and ocean spray.

Whoever, thus, takes command of South African wine, welcome to Elgin Chardonnay country. It is going to be a great journey, this is for sure.

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Let’s Go Merlot

South Africa has a number of wine groupings each representing and promoting specific grape cultivars, the activities of whom vary from blossoming and busy to cold and dormant. On the blossoming side, the Merlot Forum is headed up by an energetic bunch of wine makers keen to underscore the fact that Merlot is not only South Africa’s most-consumed red cultivar, but also one deserving a reputation as a variety of quality.

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Chicken’s Gotta Go to Roast&Co

Chicken is the number one source of protein for those of South African descent, and I’ll fly by that. Having recently become a member of Dias Tavern’s exclusive 150 Club, an honour bestowed upon those who have consumed a century-and-a-half of the Tavern’s legendary peri-peri chickens, I have taken the modest liberty of calling myself an expert on chicken-serving restaurants. This excludes the KFC chain, as I still have to be convinced that the putrid stringy pale flesh lurking under the scab-like crust of vile spices is, in fact, chicken and not some sort of medical waste.

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Death with Sheep and Chardonnay

When my hero died, I hit the freezer seeking a bag of dead sheep stomach. Jim Harrison, the last of the great red-blooded male American writers, passed over Easter. And with Jim having been a bit of a gourmand, I decided to make a big pot of something meaty, hearty and comforting, something the great man would have approved of. Remember, this is the guy who once wrote: “Men were not born to eat small portions.”

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Dry Encounter of the Thirst Kind

In a lingo filled with guttural sounding words to the tune of “achtung”, “mein Gott” and “Schweinehund”, the noun “Riesling” is one of the German language’s more joyous components. I have always found Riesling to be a precise, pure sounding word evoking images of brisk forest streams full of clear water foaming over clean white pebbles, a pristine green mountain forest lying beneath glaciers and a blond German damsel, straight from her fortnightly shower, picking daffodils next to a Gothic cathedral.

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Chardonnay Bell Tolls at Almenkerk

Despite my unashamed propaganda-mongering for the French Huguenots, you have to hand it to the folks from Dutch-land. Messrs Malan, Joubert, Du Toit and Du Preez would still be growing melons and raising goats in Franschhoek if the mighty Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) had not thrown a lifeline in the late 1600s by offering them the opportunity to give up their national identity and swap croissants for stroopwafels and “voilà” for “heel leuk”.

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Paul Cluver’s Andries Burger Taking Chardonnay to Another Level

If you don’t like the results of wine competitions, don’t enter. Simple as that.competition season having just ended with this year’s Platter’s revelation, I have of late been privy to some unprecedented bitching from within the wine-making fraternity as to the credibility of results and the status of wine competitions-awards-judging and so on.

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Elgin Chardonnay Cool Enough for a King

 

Steve McQueen, the King of Cool.
Steve McQueen, the King of Cool.

In the good old days the boasting of gentlemen would mostly be confined to matters physical or material. Serious guy-stuff. Like who does the best air-guitar to “Stairway to Heaven”, which of you can consecutively inhale two Gauloise unfiltered and who can give the most graphically enthralling description of what it really was like getting to first base with the vampish Veronica Dimpelbosch.

But now everybody seems to spend time bragging about how cool the area is in which they make wine. Cool as in low temperature chilliness and not trendy.

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King of the South Hill

If God was a wine lover, the Grabouw-Elgin area would be his kind of place. In a country blessed with arguably the most splendid wine-land scenery anywhere on earth, this region of valleys, mountains, rocks, orchards and lakes must count among South Africa’s finest. It is also producing some pants-wetting gorgeous wines, with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling having thrust Elgin into the fore.

Oak Valley also produces a passable Bordeaux-blend, and Shannon has caused a few rattling Zimmerframes and pacer-recharging with its bulky Merlot. And then there are the brisk, refined bubblies produced by the late Ross Gower, wines whose legacy is fortunately still with us.

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