NO ONE who is serious about South African wine is surprised when Cape Chardonnay features prominently in the positive reviews of the international wine press.
We may believe our strength lies in our red wines and our Sauvignon Blancs (just as we believe that the natural position of the Springboks is number-one rugby side in the world — despite all the evidence to the contrary). The truth is we do a considerably better job in this rather less fashionable category.
It’s not clear why our modern-era red-wine producers have taken so long to achieve the quality standards of earlier generations. (This is not nostalgia, by the way: the surviving wines from the 1950s and 1960s show that those largely intuitive wine makers were often world-class artists.) A possible explanation may relate to ease of sale: because the punters believe in our reds and our Sauvignons, they obviously buy them in preference to the Chardonnays.
If there is a single explanation, it could be as simple as the old Avis campaign: when you’re number two, you have to try harder. Selling wine into an unreceptive market requires that extra effort.
I recently assembled a few dozen present-release Chardonnays from a number of producers. They ranged in age from less than a year old to one that was about to celebrate its sixth birthday, though mostly they came from the 2010 and 2011 vintages.
Not all of the top names were part of the line-up: there was no Jordan, no Chamonix, no Uva Mira, no Vergelegen. Accordingly, this could never be the definitive South African Chardonnay tasting. Just the same, in the group there were no bad wines, and very few ordinary ones. (Ordinary means solid and commercial, rather than memorable.) I use a 100-point scoring system in which the "medal-quality" wines are spread across a 30-point spectrum: 90-plus is a gold; 80-89 a silver; and 70-79 a bronze. (Less than that, 60-69 is considered "good, commercial", while 50-59 is "very ordinary".)
Out of 25 wines, only four didn’t make the medal cut. Of the others, three (or 12%) were comfortably in gold, about three times my average across all categories when I do an extensive industry-wide tasting. The lowest score was 67 and this went to the Meerlust 2010, probably the most expensive wine in the line-up. It has a very funky, oxidised style, which obviously has its followers: I found it disappointingly flat and tired.
A few were largely (or entirely) unoaked, relying on fruit freshness and intensity rather than a platform of wood to get the message across. The Rustenberg unoaked was a solid silver, while the Dewetshof Limestone Hill was one of the three golds. Neither is expensive and both would also appeal to Sauvignon drinkers, who prefer purity and minerality to the weight and viscosity of a barrel ferment.
Among the silver medals, several were wines of classical elegance, rather than the big showy style that no doubt contributed to the lemming-like flight to Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s. The 2010 Buitenverwachting was exceptionally fine, as were the regular Mulderbosch 2011 and the Anthonij Rupert Cape of Good Hope Serruria 2010. The Delaire Graff 2011 was another of the 80-plus scores in which the oak was evident but restrained. The Dewetshof The Site 2010 showed lovely minerality, notwithstanding the barrel fermentation. My two best wines were stylistically vastly different. One was the 2010 Paul Cluver, a slow developer that appears to be following the now legendary 2009 in terms of fruit weight and balance. The other was the 2007 Mulderbosch Barrel-Fermented, a wine that in previous vintages has been just a little too overdone to be really enjoyable.
In its latest incarnation, it is both sumptuous and restrained, massive yet uncloying, textured but not indigestibly viscous — the kind of wine that would send a shiver of fear through even the best producers of white Burgundy.