A fine new chardonnay, if not a new era

You can set up your wine launch in a rich man’s seaside villa, Clifton’s white sands stretching out below to the blue sea, and my grumpiness might remain as intact, along with my socialist rectitude. You can import Margot Janse and team from Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek to prepare an exquisite meal, and I’m not yet entirely yours. Tell me that South Africa’s internationally best-known viticulturist, Rosa Kruger, looks after your vines while Graham Weerts is hard at work in the cellar, and, yes, indeed, things are looking interesting. Buy up all the local supplier’s stock of Zalto glasses, so that the tasting table is awash with their fragile bowls swaying weightlessly on those exquisitely slender stems (I, who remained for decades immune to the science and the blandishments of Georg Riedel, find them irresistible) – do that, and I’m more than ready to entertain the idea that you’re taking your new chardonnay seriously. Even before I blink at the price.

CapensisCapensis Chardonnay is a joint project of two friends, Antony Beck, American-based director of the local Graham Beck Wines, and Barbara Banke, owner of the substantial US company Jackson Family Wines. The latter has bought a high-lying property in Stellenbosch’s Banghoek Valley, from which 60% of the maiden 2013 Chardonnay is sourced, the remainder coming equally from the renowned Kaaimansgat vineyard in lofty Elandskloof (Overberg) and Robertson.

Weerts (Jackson Family Wines’ “Senior Vice President and Winemaster” – eat your hearts out for such a grand title, local guys) is originally a local boy. He will be coming out here three times a year to make the wine in Graham Beck’s Robertson cellar.

Capensis, according to the smart PR material, is “bringing in a new era of winemaking” to South Africa. Sigh. I wish they hadn’t said that. I can forgive them for suggesting that Kaaimansgat should be pronounced “kaya•MANS•got”, despite the ludicrousness of that, but not easily the suggestion that we’re simply waiting for Californians (even if some of them are local-born) to show us how it should be done.

What of the wine? Marker of a new era? No, but it’s very good, and certainly up there among the top flight of locals (along with Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Crystallum Clay Shales, Kershaw, Iona, Paul Cluver Wagon Trail, Chamonix and perhaps a few others). Despite a touch of oakiness (Weerts was unwilling to bring in used oak to the cellar, but subsequent vintages will probably have less new wood), the wine is beautifully balanced, fresh and silky, the acidity firm and integrated, with fruitiness subsumed into a potentially complex whole, hinting at citrus, stonefruit, etc. There’s a nice, alert tension to it, and it’s properly dry. A very handsome, grown-up wine, in fact. It should unquestionably develop over the next five to ten years, gaining in complexity and depth, and thus some consolation for the price.

What of that price? Marker of a new era? Perhaps we should hope so, in some masochistic way, if we want to measure the success of Cape wine by the prices it can reach. A figure of something over R800 a bottle was mentioned today at the launch, but the publicity material gives a suggested retail price of R935 – nearly three times what you’d pay for, say, the splendid HRV example.

But let’s certainly welcome another bit of California to the local winemaking scene. Quite apart from anything else, it is possible that the latest entrants have brought a new era of wine-launch elegance and lavishness. I’ll happily admit that.

5 thoughts on “A fine new chardonnay, if not a new era

  1. By international standards, Andrew, chardonnays like yours are way too cheap. (Fortunately for us here, and those that care more about intrinsic quality than the fashionability of the label.) The vicious circle means that you can’t get higher prices because your lower prices are too easily associated with lower quality. How to break out? If Capensis can get away with it, it will certainly help others like you to get better prices.

  2. Having spent two harvests in California, I am very sceptical of hailing in a “new era” in winemaking. Of course you cannot take American PR too seriously and by that they probably mean picking at a reasonable sugar and not watering back! (new era from an American perspective as thats most likely where it will sell)

    I jest but it is the mark of Jackson wines.

    On that point though, I do believe that an exchange would be great for both counties, the Viticulture there is unbelievable with a vast number of Rosa Krugers and Johan Reynekes and a vast amount of accumulative knowlege. on the other hand, I think we should send a couple young guns over there to show them how its done. Too many times I watched the most beautiful fruit hang until the berries raisin and the birds feast before the winemaker is ready to pick.

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