Chardonnay kings

  • Saturday 1 December 2001

South Africa is now producing headline grabbing, award winning Chardonnays, thanks to a number of canny producers making the most of their country's desert climate. STUART PIGOTT reports back.

South Africa is now producing headline grabbing, award winning Chardonnays, thanks to a number of canny producers making the most of their country's desert climate. STUART PIGOTT reports back.

Look, a leopard!' exclaims Abrie Bruwer of the Springfield wine estate close to Robertson, excitedly pointing to tracks in the dusty soil. Suddenly I really feel in Africa.

In the semi-desert conditions of Robertson, viticulture would be impossible without the waters of the Breede River – attractive also to the leopards. Despite the extreme climate, Springfield's 1999 Chardonnay 'Méthode Ancienne', which I tasted before our Land Rover tour of the estate, was concentrated and elegant with discreet oak, almost masked by a rich orange-peel character. The choice of the French name was no mistake either, for the style of this wine, if not the aroma, was entirely Burgundian.

I would have been surprised to find such a elegant Chardonnay in South Africa had not a recent blind tasting of the wines made me aware of the leap in quality that Cape winemakers have recently made. I, like the other members of the international group of tasters, felt sure that the wines we had rated highest were all white Burgundies. As their identity was revealed, one shock followed another. Fifth place went to the 1999 'Five Soldiers' Chardonnay from Rustenberg in Stellenbosch, South Africa; fourth to the 1997 Chardonnay 'Tiglat' from Velich in Burgenland, Austria; third to the 1996 'reserve' Chardonnay from Rochioli in Sonoma County, second place to the 1998 '100% barrel fermented' Chardonnay from Mulderbosch in Stellenbosch, and first place went to the 1996 'Ashbourne' Chardonnay from Hamilton-Russell in Walker Bay, South Africa.

the heat is on

This proved to me that great Chardonnays are being produced in South Africa, but did not explain how Bruwer can make such elegant wines in an area where emu farming is big business. 'The desert climate is actually an advantage, for while it can get real hot during the day, the temperature plummets at night,' explains Bruwer. 'Those cool nights prevent the aromas and acids being burnt out of the grapes.' To make his Méthode Ancienne though, Bruwer has to take big risks, and not just because of the leopards. 'Wild yeast fermentation can take months and can be very sluggish. During that time bacterial spoilage is a real danger as the wine is un-sulphured. In 2000 we had so many problems that there will be no Méthode Ancienne.'

Chardonnay in South Africa has come a long way since it arrived during apartheid, brought by vintners anxious to beat the government's policy that effectively banned the import of new vine varietals. It was Bruwer's near neighbour, Danie de Wet of the De Wetshof estate, who made the first successful South African Chardonnays a decade ago. Then the variety accounted for just 1.5% of South Africa's vineyards compared with 5.5%, or roughly 5,060 hectares now. The most obvious reason for the recent leap forward in quality is that South Africa's leading winemakers have begun taking the same kind of risks in the cellar as Bruwer, instead of getting the wine into the bottle as fast as possible, as most used to do five and more years ago. Wild yeast fermentations are increasing aromatic complexity and the longer barrel-ageing of the wines on the lees has resulted in better integrated oak aromas; both prerequisites for great Chardonnays. These changes are the result of better winemaking, and cellar practices that are more in tune with the grape's personality. But what makes the new South African Chardonnays stand out in a global context has nothing to do with winemaking.

The most striking things about the new wines are their effusive fruit aromas – even after a full year in barrel – most notably of peach and passion fruit, but also orange, banana and mango. That might sound tutti-frutti, but wines like the top bottlings from Glen Carlou, Mulderbosch, Rustenberg and Springfield are anything but kitsch. Indeed, for all their effusiveness and expressiveness these are very elegant wines. Most have between 13.5° and 14° natural alcohol, yet they don't taste at all alcoholic, big or overbearing. Indeed they are fresher and sleeker than many Californian, Australian or Italian Chardonnays with a comparable alcoholic content. Everything suggests that these wines will age very well, in contrast with most South African Chardonnays of the past.

'There is no excuse for producing Chardonnay that will not hold for a few years in bottle, and a decade ought to be no problem with the healthy natural acidities we get if we pick at the right moment,' says Mike Dobrovic, the fanatical winemaker of Mulderbosch in Stellenbosch. The 1993 Mulderbosch Chardonnay was his first experiment with new winemaking ideas and it was still full of life. His 1998 Chardonnay 100% barrel is explosively fresh, with a dried peach character and a long, lithe finish. It should easily live up to Dobrovic's goal of surviving a decade in bottle. 'The quality of the grapes is the most important thing,' he continues, 'and though the climate is basically Mediterranean we benefit from cooling sea breezes almost every afternoon. That makes this kind of wine possible.'

On the beach at Hermanus, an hour's drive east of Cape Town, the sea breeze has the force of a modern air-conditioning system. This leads to the crispest and most taut South African Chardonnays, most notably at the Hamilton Russell estate whose vineyards are separated from the ocean by just one ridge. 'People always told us we make very Burgundian wines, but when we examined the climatic statistics back in 1993 we were surprised to find that it is much warmer here than in Burgundy,' says owner-director Anthony Hamilton-Russell.

Hamilton-Russell, 40, was a merchant banker in London before returning to South Africa after the fall of apartheid in order to run the estate his father established during the 1970s. The most important change he made to the Chardonnay production was pulling out all the vines not planted on clay-rich, shale soils. His 2000 Chardonnay is the best the estate has ever made, a world-class wine in a unique style. The tension, vigour and pronounced acidity are reminiscent of a great Chablis, with extremely vivid lemon, smoke and hazelnut aromas that leap out at you.

I have a similar experience with the 2000 and 2001 vintages I taste from cask at Rustenberg in Stellenbosch, suggesting that South Africa's top winemakers are beginning to discover the potential of their Chardonnay vineyards. Rustenberg's new winemaker Adi Badenhorst shares Hamilton-Russell's belief that the secret to making great Chardonnay is to grow it in the right place, then 'pick fully ripe grapes and capture all that's good in them'. Rustenberg's 1999 'Five Soldiers' is a rich, grand single-vineyard wine packed with passion-fruit aromas, and a long, clean aftertaste. The wine is named after the five cypress trees on the site, which is situated on the Heldenberg, much closer to the ocean than Stellenbosch. When the spectacular 2000 and 2001 'Five Soldiers' march out of the Rustenberg cellars there are going to be more upsets in Chardonnay blind tastings.

Stuart Pigott is a freelance wine writer

n neil ellis

In spite of its smoky oak, the 1999 Elgin Chardonnay has a fresh, supple passion fruit character. The 1999 Stellenbosch Chardonnay is a little broader and more obvious, but also a fine wine.

Rai

n Glen Carlou

The 1999 'Reserve' is quite oaky, but has enough power to carry this and already drinks well. The 2000 'Reserve' is riper, more succulent and floral with a long elegant finish.

Odd, CPy, Pip

n Hamilton-Russell

The 1999 vintage is richer but looser knit than the 2002. Already drinks very well.

Ave

n Mulderbosch

The 1998 100% Barrel Fermented Chardonnay is one of the greatest Chardonnays ever made in South Africa.

The 1997 is slightly less

concentrated, but also has an extremely long, clean finish and many years ahead of it.

Arm

n Rustenberg

The 2000 'regular' Chardonnay is the best vintage ever of this wine, very rich and succulent, the core of acidity covered by rich tropical flavours. The 2001 'Five Soldiers' was extremely subtle and minerally when tasted from barrel.

Mog

n Springfield

The 2001 'Méthode Ancienne' should make a worthy follow-up to the superb 1999. The regular 1999 Chardonnay 'Wild Yeast' has rich pear and lemon flavours and a clean finish.

Bib

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