A chardonnay international test match

It somehow came to my attention that there is a real and no doubt admirable woman in California named Chardonnay Hooker (she was commenting earlier this year on the wildfires there). If I were called Chardonnay, I reckon I’d change my name to Riesling, but still. It strikes me (with respect) that Ms Hooker could have lent her name as a symbol of how the great white grape variety of Burgundy became overwhelmingly associated with rather “tarty” stuff from New World countries in the past few decades.

On the whole, Cape chardonnay has improved a lot of late. While there are still plenty of over-oaked, over-sweet wines, there are numerous serious examples, and their local and international standing is high. A recent comparative sampling of some top examples from South Africa and Australia showed, in fact, just how good they are.

The ostensible idea was the high-minded one of examining how well New World chardonnays develop in bottle over a few years. Inevitably, though, a competitive spirit hovered around the formal, “blind” tasting of 26 wines (in random order, their identities unknown). There were seven producers from each country represented, each (bar two) with one wine from 2005 or younger and one wine from 2004 or older. There were a few 2008s and one 1994, but most were this century’s.

If there was a winner it was certainly South Africa – although the Australian Pierro scored the highest average for its two vintages. The top scorer was Mulderbosch Barrel Fermented 2006, just pipping Chamonix Reserve 2005 and Pierro 2008. The next seven were, in order: Pierro 2003, Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2009, Ataraxia 2008, Mulderbosch 2003, Paul Cluver 2008, Shaw & Smith M3 2008 (Australia), and Chamonix 2003. Mulderbosch and Chamonix were, then, the only two Cape wines with both vintages in the top ten. Ataraxia, of course, being the baby producer here, didn’t have an old enough vintage to submit a wine in the pre-2005 category.

So, out of the top ten places, there were seven South Africans. Conversely, there were seven Australian wines amongst the bottom ten. This did not reflect local bias – one judge was Australian Grant Dodd, CEO of Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch, but also a wine exporter based in Queensland. His ratings were fully in line with those of the rest of the tasting team: journalists Michael Fridjhon, Christian Eedes and myself, and Haskell winemaker Rianie Strydom.

(In the photo, taken at lunch at the restaurant at Haskell Vineyards following the tasting, Grant Dodd is standing; representatives of the local wineries were invited to join the judges for lunch, and in the picture are Anthony Hamilton Russell, Andries Burger from Paul Cluve, and Gottfried Mocke from Chamonix.)

It was Dodd who selected the Oz participants, and Eedes the local ones. Perhaps idiosyncratic choices – I myself would not have chosen Hartenburg’s The Eleanor as a local contender (it didn’t really show well here, and was one of only two labels with both wines in the bottom ten, the other being Voyager Estate from Australia). Perhaps Vergelegen Reserve or Jordan Nine Yards would have been more plausible, but still. The other local wine, plum in the middle of the rankings, was Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat – including a remarkably alive 1994.

Two significant questions got some sort of useful answer from this experience, I’d say. Firstly, there’s not an immediately obvious general difference in style between top Oz and local chardonnays. We were all agreed on that after the tasting. Looking through my notes, though,  there is a pattern of finding more over-oaking and excrescent sweetness on the Australian wines. (The oakiest of the South Africans for me was Hamilton Russell 2009 – the youngest wine on offer, which is some excuse perhaps, though I rather doubt if it will ever be fully in balance; I did score it amongst my top ten, however, in hopes that it would integrate and harmonise.) It would take a more searching tasting than a big sniff-swirl-spit affair to tease out subtler differences in national styles, let alone terroir differences.

As to ageing: going by this tasting, the New World chardonnays that benefit from more than five years in the bottle are few, but the benefits are magical. However, all the good ones do gain interest and complexity if you restrain yourself even for a few years. Hold those corkscrews. Or, in the case of the majority of Australian chardonnays, even at the most exalted level, resist unscrewing the caps.


– There will be full comment on the tasting by Christian Eedes in the October issue of Wine magazine.

This is a longer version of the article published in the Mail & Guardian, 27 August


The full results
(with averaged scores out of 20 given in brackets; there was remarkably little significant variation between the tasters with regard to either the top ten or the bottom ten, in fact.)

  • Mulderbosch Barrel Fermented 2006 (17.9)
  • Chamonix Reserve 2005 (17.8)
  • Pierro 2008 (17.8)Pierro 2003 (17.1)
  • Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2009 (17)
  • Ataraxia 2008 (16.9)
  • Mulderbosch Barrel Fermented 2003 (16.9)
  • Paul Cluver 2008 (16.7)
  • Shaw and Smith M3 2008 (16.6)
  • Chamonix Reserve 2003 (16.3)
  • Giaconda 2004 (16.1)
  • Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard 2008 (16.1)
  • Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat 1994 (15.9)
  • Hamilton Russell Vineyards 2003 (15.8)
  • Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2007 (15.8)
  • Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat 2008 (15.5)
  • Hartenberg The Eleanor 2007 (15.5)
  • Giaconda 1999 (15.5)
  • Voyager 2007 (15.4)
  • Voyager 2004 (15.2)
  • Yarra Yerring 2008 (15.2)
  • Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard 2005 (15.1)
  • Hartenberg The Eleanor 2004 (14.8)
  • Paul Cluver 2004 (14.5)
  • Shaw and Smith M3 2001 (14.2)
  • Yarra Yerring 2004 (13.5)

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