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Chardonnay is the world’s favourite white wine.
In the late 90s – the early days of South Africa’s relationship with Chardonnay – wine drinkers adopted the international shorthand of A-B-C: Anything But Chardonnay. Time and fashions change, and the ABC is back but as Absolutely Beautiful Chardonnay.
“Chardonnay is a wine you need to build,” said Jacques Steyn, managing director of Jordan wine estate in Stellenbosch, at a recent harvest event.
“It’s not like sauvignon blanc. It immediately lets you know what to expect because it has such expressive and overt aromas and flavours – even before you ferment the juice.” Steyn, who is also a Cape Wine Master, said the grape was obvious, offering up bright lemony citrus, or asparagus or blackcurrant leaf and then following through with those flavours on the palate.
Chardonnay is not like that: it needs a bit of intervention such as the use of oak or even the role of oxygen and lees. “It needs fermentation to develop those typical citrus flavours you associate with chardonnay – or the creaminess from time on lees or the vanilla and butterscotch that the barrel contributes.”
Writing in his blog Wine Goggle, Emile Joubert said the illicit importation of chardonnay cuttings from Burgundy was done out of frustration at the red tape and intransigence of the SA authorities at the time.
Joubert noted that in the 1960s and 1970s the SA 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 those was Danie de Wet of De Wetshof, who had returned to the family farm in Robertson after studying winemaking at Geisenheim in Germany.
De Wet, and fellow pioneers Sydney Back of Backsberg, Frans Malan of Simonsig and Jan Boland Coetzee of Vriesenhof, released their first few wines in the early 80s. South Africa had a grand total of 30 hectares of chardonnay vineyard.
Fortunately, South African winemakers have walked back the oaking and learned a lot of lessons in the intervening decades. In fact, South African Chardonnay has twice been deemed the best example overall out of thousands of entries at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London, the single biggest competition of its type in the world.
Renowned wine writer Andrew Jefford said in his keynote speech at the De Wetshof celebration of Chardonnay some years ago: “Chardonnay loves to travel – and it does so well. I mean that it retains its agreeable varietal character, yet can also derive complexity, intrigue and singularity from local growing conditions.”
“At the same time, the great lesson of the global chardonnay revolution of the last 30 years is that any lack of subtlety or excess of ambition in one’s approach
South African Chardonnay has never been better – and more and more wine drinkers are returning to it. They’ve never had it so good.