Is chardonnay more exciting than I think?

grapes-chardChristmas and chardonnay begin with the same few letters – sufficient pretext, I hope, for finally getting down to writing something for this blog, as Cape Town similarly sluggishly enjoys the December sunshine and the excesses of the season.

Not that I’ve been celebrating with chard – if I’ve done anything remotely like Christmas celebration it was with a bottle of riesling last night (Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Spaetlese 2004) – and chard is a variety about which I have mixed feelings. Even white burgundy as a category I find I could manage without, far more than, say, German and Austrian riesling, or chenin from the Loire and South Africa, or blends from various quarters. A recent tasting with my wine club of premier cru burgundies showed a few that were almost sublime, but too large a proportion that were pretty dull, though with very brilliant prices.

The tendency of New World chards, including Cape ones, is, thankfully, to move away from the big, buttery, frequently overoaked versions that have dominated recent decades. In fact, what I’ve tasted of Australian chardonnays recently shows that many producers there are hurtling at such speed away from that style that they’re overshooting the mark and making wines that are almost anaemic in their austerity.

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve tasted half a dozen local chardonnays in the last week or two, some of them supporting the dismissive attitude offered by Oz sommelier David Clarke as a guest columnist here a few months back; some not.

Four of these wines I tasted alongside  Angela Lloyd. Neither she nor I have ever shown much admiration for the wines of Groote Post – though on this occasion I though the Sauvignon Blanc 2013 in the top Kapokberg range very good). The Kapokberg Chardonnay (R123) not, unfurtunately, for either of us: I found it heavy and lacking any real freshness, with a strange sweet-sour finish.

Bloemendal in Durbanville has been undergoing something of a makeover, with Francois Haasbroek, formerly of Wateerford, now as guiding consultant. My first thought on sniffing the Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 was, “just another bloody chard!”, and the feeling persisted. It’s perfectly good, decent wine, with typical citrus fruit, a little oak showing still, with a high but balanced acidity; but for me a touch too much leesy richness, and the finish sweetish. On the whole unexceptional (in both sense of that word), but hardly worth R175.

A good bargain, though, from Muratie, with the Isabella Chardonnay 2012, at R95. A rather livelier nose, with a bit of characterful interest – centred on what Angela has taught me to recognise as pickled lime, a character which carried through to the fresh palate – lighter and less rich than the two others tasted so far (to its advantage, in my opinion). Fresh and unimposing; a good bracing acidity, but very drinkable, though it could do with a year or two in bottle.

kershawThe most startling thing about the maiden release from British-born Master of Wine Richard Kershaw is the price – R290 puts it at the top end of local chards pricewise. Kershaw is based in Elgin, though, which is increasingly showing itself as, perhaps alongside the Hemel-en-Aarde, arguably the Cape’s best region for chardonnay.

Initially I felt a little lukewarm about Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin Chardonnay 2012; it came across as very correct, and only a little more than that – harmoniously oaked, with a vibrant acidity finely in balance; not too showy and well pitched between richness and austerity. But I took the wine home with me and two nights later (the first chance I had to spend more time with it), I was more convinced by its subtly persistent, well-bred virtues. Time (some oxidation, that is) had brought out hints of incipient complexity in the flavours, and made it even more harmoniously pleasing. Clearly it’s a wine with some good develoment in bottle ahead of it – five to ten years at least, I’d guess, but on the night it was a pleasure to finish it with my dinner. I’m still not entirely convinced by the price, however, in terms of value for Cape white wine – but that’s a big and exciting field, in which I don’t find many chardonnays near the front. (See here for Richard’s good website.)

A few other chardonnays tasted recently must wait till I gather more energy and report on very happy visits to Glenelly and Vergelegen.

Do enjoy what’s left of the holidays.


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