From sparkling and dry wines to fortified and dessert-style selections, South Africa’s winemakers produce a wide range of styles from a vast array of grape varieties. But think “South African wine,” and you’re likely to conjure ideas of a lush, smoky Pinotage, a flavorful Cape blend or, possibly, a spicy Syrah.
Unfortunately, it’s not common for a white wine to be top of mind. But there’s a world of white-wine wonder just waiting to be explored, from terroir-driven Chardonnays and pristine Chenin Blancs, to refreshing Sauvignon Blancs and much more.
Since these underappreciated bottlings fly under the radar of many wine lovers, they’re priced reasonably relative to other quality whites from around the world. Beat the rush: Snap them up before South Africa becomes synonymous with extraordinary white wines.
Chardonnay is planted in almost every major wine-producing country. It can be produced in a range of styles, from lean and unoaked to ripe and rich. It can even express a range of presumably terroir-influenced elements, from stony minerality to salinity and even herbal tones.
As a result, Chardonnay often yields wines that speak volumes of terroir. And many consider the greatest examples to be those that best express their sense of place.
“Chardonnay is one of the varieties that’s most influenced by soil,” says Johann De Wet, proprietor of De Wetshof Estate, the first registered wine estate in Robertson Valley and a noted Chardonnay house. “That being said, the winemaker can also manipulate it to his wish and style. A gifted winemaker can reflect his site in this variety more so than any almost any other variety.”
Robertson is one of the top appellations (called a WO, or “Wine of Origin”) for Chardonnay in South Africa. Conditions in the region are characterized by cold winters and dry, sunny summers, while cool afternoon breezes from the Agulhas coast deliver significant day-night temperature shifts. Soils high in limestone and clay assist in water retention. Together, these factors result in slow, steady ripening and high natural acidity.
“We have six different Chards, each with its own personality and style dictated by the site it stands on,” says De Wet.
Approximately 40 miles southeast of Cape Town is Elgin, a cool-climate WO nestled in the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, at elevations between 820–1,300 feet above sea level. Elgin was traditionally an apple-farming region and is situated fewer than 10 miles away from the South Atlantic Ocean. Today, it’s also home to benchmark Chardonnay producers Iona, Lothian, Paul Cluver and Richard Kershaw Wines. All produce elegant expressions of great balance and freshness, marked by white-fruit flavors.
“At the end of the day, each vintage - and, importantly, in a cool climate like Elgin, there is noticeable vintage variation - will tell a story, so the wine should reflect that vintage, rather than simply let winemaking practices alter the wine in order to chase a style,” says Richard Kershaw, MW.
“Don’t impose your desires onto the fruit,” says Chris Williams, winemaker at Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch. Its Chardonnay marries New World panache and Old World charm. “My winemaking style is to try and figure out what not to do [with] the grapes, must and wine. They say Chardonnay is a winemaker’s grape, in that there are so many techniques that it responds to, so the temptation is to do too much, but often choosing what to leave out defines the ideal character of the wine.”
While the Loire Valley may be the viticultural birthplace of Chenin Blanc, the variety has found a second home in South Africa. Chenin Blanc is the country’s most widely planted grape, representing about 18 percent of the total acreage under vine. (Cabernet Sauvignon is second, at 11.3 percent.)
Chenin was traditionally known as a workhorse variety, thanks to vigorous, high-yielding vines suitable to a variety of climate conditions and soil types. But today, the focus has shifted from volume to quality, with the aim of producing complex, site-expressive wines.
Chenin’s bright aromas and flavors can range from tart apple, green plum and lime to more robust notes of ripe stone or tropical fruit, melon and clementine, always framed by lifting acidity. There can also be hints of slate, chalk and flint, as well as lively herbal or floral characters. Those include nuances of fynbos, the Afrikaans term for the natural shrubs and vegetation that stretch across the Western Cape, which adds a distinctly South African character to the bouquet. Oak influence can range from nonexistent to moderate levels, although current fashion is to allow the grape to speak louder than any wood.
“You want to express and capture the essence of the grape from where it is grown,” says Sebastian Beaumont, winemaker for Beaumont Wines in Bot River. “For me, it is about letting these grapes express themselves in a pure and natural way: Fermented in oak with only 15 percent new wood, natural yeast and very hands-off winemaking.”
How does 2017 look?
The 2015 vintage is largely regaled as a Goldilocks vintage, where everything seemed just right, and its wines will stand the test of time. The 2016 growing season was more difficult, as drought and heat will likely result in wines that will be more accessible upon release. Here’s your early report on 2017.
“We have not really had two consecutive hot days and the nights have been really cold… so the grapes that have come in came at optimum temperature and chemistry. 2017 is going to be a vintage to keep and put away.” - Johann De Wet, proprietor, De Wetshof Estate
“The grapes are looking fantastic, with nice high levels of malic acid, giving them a real crunch along with some peachy tropical flavors. This harvest really looks great.” - Sebastian Beaumont, winemaker, Beaumont Wines
“2017 is another extreme vintage. Once again, the Cape is experiencing water shortages, but this time ’round, the summer is cool, with fresh nights. Fruit intensity is amazing, plus we are seeing a vast variety of flavor characters coming through.” Lars Maack, managing director, Buitenverwachting
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