Voting the Cape’s top white wines


The result of a poll for the top South African white wines shows a marvellous mix of the established and the new, the traditional and the innovative. The winner by a fraction is Hamilton Russell Chardonnay (12 votes out of 26), long one of the most highly regarded chardonnays in the country, a pioneer of fine Cape whites dating back to the early 1980s. Under the regime of current winemaker Hannes Storm its reputation has, if anything, increased.

The voting panel was the same team whose opinions on the Top 20 South African Wineries were revealed first in the Mail & Guardian a few days ago, (although 3 panellists did not submit votes for the individual wines, for various reasons).

HRV Chardonnay just pushed Alheit Cartology and Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh into joint second place (11 votes each). Isliedh is, of course, Duncan Savage’s maritime blend of sauvignon blanc with semillon, which debuted with the 2004 vintage and has been regarded as a stylish leader of this successful classic blend ever since.

Joining the two well-established wines at the top is Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s chenin-based Cartology. The first vintage was 2011, received with huge enthusiasm not only here but internationally. Just last month I was prompted by the release of the 2013  to wonder if Alheit is not rapidly becoming the Cape’s first genuine cult winery. Interestingly, Alheit also received 4 votes for the Radio Lazarus chenin blanc from a returned-from-the dead Stellenbosch vineyard. So, a total of 15 votes.

But if we play this totalling game, then joining Alheit with 15 votes as the top producer of white wines in the Cape is Eben Sadie, whose Sadie Family Vineyards was named the top Cape winery in the same poll. His Palladius, the pioneer of the great chenin-based blends most associated with the Swartland, received 8 votes – but 3 of his Old Vine Series wines got votes: Skurfberg (a chenin) and Skerpioen (palomino and Chenin from an extraordinary West Coast vineyard – see here) one each, and the ‘T Voetpad, a chenin-based field blend from one of the country’s oldest vineyards (see here) got 5.

Reinforcing the strength of chenin blanc in the estimation of the voters was Beaumont Hope Marguerite, which tied with Palladius for absolute 4th place.

Just outside the top 5 was the Tokara Director’s Reserve White, another Bordeaux-style blend.

As with the Top 20 wineries, the real winner is Cape wine and its diversity, its tradition and its innovation. Chenin Blanc did brilliantly, but the winner was a chardonnay, with sauvignon-semillon blends also to the fore. It’s perhaps notable that 3 of the top 5 are varietal blends.

Cool and warm climates both fared well (we really must abandon the obsession with coastal influences as vital for quality!), with the 5 wines all coming from different areas: Hemel-en-Aarde, Olifants River (with a Franschhoek contribution to Cartology), Cape Peninsula, Swartland, and Bot River (and Stellenbosch just behind) – a remarkable spread.

Another aspect of interest is that the panel of voters here named, in their top 5, the wines of two producers who didn’t make it into the Top 20 Wineries – Beaumont and Alheit (though Alheit was only just outside, and also topped the up-and-coming list.

A total of 42 white wines were named – but nearly half of them got only one vote each.

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