It’s 08:30 on a Monday morning and I’ve been relegated to a small table in the communal area as my tasting venue had been overrun by sommelier students and I’m too lazy to carry 25 bottles of chardonnay up to my office. There is a constant stream of people shuffling by, the first chill of autumn adding an extra layer of discontent to their regular Monday scowl. I become increasingly aware of the strange looks I’m getting. Ranging from mild interest to general confusion and even one lady who actually showed some exaggerated displeasure. Seriously, would I be getting plastered on a Monday morning in full view of the public? It’s hard not to though, when you’re privileged enough to be tasting some of the best chardonnays SA has to offer side by side. And I must confess, I do love chardonnay. It’s very un-somm-like of me I know, wine nerds are supposed to get all hot and bothered for some obscure grape varietal, or riesling, it’s fine to go on and on about riesling, but chard, how insufferably conventional. How wrong you are.
I admit I love few things more than poking fun at Francophile’s obsession with terroir and their exaggerated attempts at making farming sound poetic, yet there remains a lot to be said for the deceptively neutral and highly malleable chardonnay’s ability to express itself in a multitude of unique ways, based on where it was grown.
Starting off at the entrance to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and a honorary mention of Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2017. With aromas or ripe, bright, yellow lemons, a touch of floral perfume and that characteristic, almost textbook, flinty, lanolin character, so akin to Burgundy that it seduced an international audience and helped put South Africa on the world map for premium chardonnay production. Newton Johnson, slightly richer. Ataraxia, tight, flinty and structured, Creation, The Art of Creation, world class. As I tick of the who’s who of chardonnays I become increasingly aware of a very clear thread throughout all of these wines. A bit richer here, more restrained there, but all of them with that characteristic bright and perfectly ripe lemon backed up by an almost old worldly charm of lanolin and flint.
Our next wine takes us inland, to Villiersdorp, where high up in the mountains with warm sunny days and starkly contrasting cool nights, Bouchard Finlayson have crafted the unmistakingly continental Kaaimansgat. With a slightly riper expression of citrus in its nuanced grapefruit nose complimented by an unrivaled acidity and freshness. Heading out to Greyton next, on the outskirts of the Cape South Coast, and the most unique wine thus far. Powerful and expressive with candied orange rind and potpourri, perfectly balanced by a slightly more liberal expression of smoke and toast, not lacking a grain of freshness.
And then there was Elgin. The small valley nestled atop the mountains were vines compete for space with row upon row of orchards, often perched precariously on near infinite slopes and aspects that make up this tiny area. After the precision of the Hemel-en-Aarde and the power of Greyton, here the wines show a midway between both and segue in flavour profile. Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay serves as the first reference point with ripe lemon and pear as well as that beautifully crunchy acidity but to really understand the region one must look at wines like Migliarina, Iona and Almenkerk. Ripe and expressive with aromas of candied orange rind, fleshy white pears and an unmistakable earthy perfume held together with poise by that lip smacking mountain acidity.
As a lover of all things chardonnay and at least somewhat schooled on the topic I’m not surprised at all in the diversity between these wines, what did surprise me however was the similarity, the uniformity, the precision in which they express their terroir if you will. Precise, well defined lemon and lime in Hemel-en-Aarde with chalky flinty acidity and just a hint of lanolin. Pronounced dried orange peel and potpourri out towards Greyton and Bredasdorp. Candied orange rind with fleshy orchard fruit and earthy perfume in Elgin.
Standout wine of the day has to go to Migliarina. Standing shoulder to shoulder with to some of the biggest names in the business while sporting that tiny price tag. Carsten, you can send me a case please. But outright quality must go to Stonebird Chardonnay 2016. That’s a bold statement to make in such company as The Art of Creation, but even criminally young to serve, tight and closed it remains a world class wine. It’s only when you slow down a little and really pay attention to it, that you notice the concentration and the near infinite finish. Time will tell on that one.