By Angela Lloyd | 1st November 2023
During a recent tasting of South African wines in London, Jancis Robinson introduced her first chardonnay tasting note by observing; ‘Chardonnay is very rare at this tasting.’ White wines were, indeed, dominated by chenin blanc, which continues to steal the limelight.
If chardonnay appeared to take a quantitative back seat (in SAWIS’s 2022 statistics, chardonnay covered 6547ha; chenin blanc 16,484ha), quality and individual expression deserve more attention. Today, quality starts with the correct site.
As non-vineyard owners, the goal of five friends behind Draaiboek when searching the Cape winelands in 2019, was to produce a premium chardonnay. In this exploratory year, they selected vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde, Paarl and Robertson. Only the 15-year-old Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge site met their goal and has provided fruit ever since. Stephanie Wiid, of Thistle and Weed, is winemaker; she explains, depending on vintage, several pickings are required; the grapes are wholebunch pressed, the juice settled and fermented with a slow-fermenting yeast in oak, choice of cooper being made to suit the wine.
The success of the first three vintages of Onskuld (meaning innocence and referring to the friends’ inexperience with winemaking), emboldened a search for other, cool-climate areas. A perfect site was found in Elgin, where the new wine called ‘Kinkel’ shows pure, brighter fruit, requires less oak and no batonnage to best reflect its origin.
Dave and Felicity Newton Johnson purchased their current Upper Hemel-en-Aarde property in 2001; it was then virgin land, the first chardonnay was planted the following year. These were still early days in the valley’s development, the learning curve was not always straightforward. The Newton Johnson’s younger son and winemaker, Gordon, says both virus and clonal material have hindered progress; changes in viticulture also have been necessary as understanding of local conditions grows.
Progress in the cellar has seen incremental improvements as the vines have aged and revealed their personalities. From 2007, complete natural fermentation was adopted. Burgundy barrels, a percentage new, are used, the chardonnays being left on their gross lees for a year. The Family Vineyards is a blend of parcels on decomposed granite; to maintain purity, no battonage is practiced; juice settling was dropped in 2019, the wines are fermented with dirty juice, sulphur being added just before bottling. The CWG Sandford chardonnay is from a single, cooler south-facing vineyard. A similar vinification but with occasional battonage and a light filtration.
As the vines mature, so has the Newton-Johnsons’ understanding of the style produced from each vineyard; vinification is adapted accordingly. It’s a painstaking process but one that delivers well-rewarded results. The mature 2012 chardonnay is still fresh, elegant with great acidity. Similarly the elegant, fresh 2022, has greater depth and texture.
Close by, Craig and Anne Wessels of Restless River are celebrated for their Ava Marie Chardonnay, a 2ha block planted before they bought the farm at the start of the century. Row direction is north-south; ‘not ideal,’ Craig admits, ‘due to the north-westerly [wind] which can batter young shoots. East-west would be more favourable,’ A subsequent, contiguous block has been established, also in a north-south direction. Craig explains why; ‘We were afraid of changing the character of Ava Marie if we’d changed to east-west.’
There are three or four pickings, each focusing on specific sections and required component, eg acidity, mouthfeel, structure, fruit. Vinification decisions are made for each batch; vessels include 500 litre barrels and two 500 litre Italian amphora, ‘4 cms thick to allow the wine to age the same as in the two new barrels.’ The blended wine is left to settle in tank for around three months, resulting in less fining. There’s far more to Craig’s detailed approach ensuring Ava Marie regularly achieves consistency and impressive quality.
Wine is a journey rather than a destination; chardonnay is hugely benefitting from the journey.