Chardonnay, a generous grape

The most grown white grape on earth, Chardonnay is an eager-to-please cultivar that grows in almost any soil and provides enjoyment at every level. Emile Joubert ponders the qualities of this most versatile of wines.

If you’re looking for the finest Chardonnay wines outside Burgundy, you’d better head towards the southern tip of Africa. Picture by Bruce Tuck

If I had to select a single superb feature of a wine and a grape called Chardonnay, I’d say that generosity would go to the top of the list. The world loves Chardonnay and in return it appears to love the world, offering enjoyment that can be appreciated at different levels, as well as an uncanny ability to make good grapes for fine wine almost anywhere that a patch of suitable vineyard soil is available.

Chardonnay is the most grown white grape on earth. Its ancestral home is in Burgundy, France, where the variety’s finest wines continue to be made, but today it is grown in wine countries ranging from the famous – America, Australia, New Zealand and Chile – to the lesser known, including China, Israel, Canada, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey. It has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the geographical features of myriad countries whose winemakers wish to grow this great white grape. And the reason for this wishing leads to its other level of generosity: the deliciousness it offers to those who enjoy drinking wine.

No matter where it originates and no matter what its price or the level of its winemaking heritage, Chardonnay wishes to charm and satisfy, to seduce and beguile. It’s a dry white wine for sure, but with inherent complex flavours ranging from fruit and spice to flowers, nuts and butter, complemented by a balance between fruit and acidity that gives it presence and beauty in the mouth.

This versatility is one of the features of South African Chardonnay too. The grape grows in most of the country’s winemaking regions and is made into anything from quaffable, volume-driven wines priced at less than R80 a bottle to vineyard-focused and carefully crafted masterpieces that nip at the R1 000-a-bottle price tag.

The other feature of the Cape’s Chardonnay is that the inside word in the wine world says that South Africa is currently making some of the greatest wines from this ubiquitous variety. Some international commentators have even suggested that if you’re looking for the finest Chardonnay wines outside Burgundy, you’d better head towards the southern tip of Africa.

Recognition such as this is great. But what makes it more astounding is that what is today internationally recognised as great Chardonnay is only just over 40 years old. And getting to where South African Chardonnay is today has been quite a story.

After studying in Europe, Danie de Wet returned with a vision to establish Chardonnay.

An underhanded history

The illicit importing of Chardonnay vines into the country has become part of South Africa’s vinous history, but if you were to look at the effect of this underhanded agriculture action on the country’s wine industry, it deserves more than a brief reference to ‘Chardonnay smuggling’. The fact is that in the 1960s and ’70s the South African wine industry was dominated by three grape varieties: Palomino and Chenin Blanc on the white side and Cinsaut on the red. As the industry was controlled by the KWV, farmers had to obey the wishes of this official body, which restricted them to growing certain cultivars, making those of an adventurous spirit and with a more global outlook on wine feel restricted and confined.

As MD of the family business, Paul Clüver Jnr continues the tradition of producing exceptional Chardonnays.

One of these farmers was Danie de Wet, who in 1972 returned to the family farm, De Wetshof in Robertson, after studying viticulture and winemaking at the famed Geisenheim Institute in Germany. “One of the grape varieties that I studied at Geisenheim, and which my professors recommended as being suitable for planting in South Africa, was Chardonnay,” says Danie. “That suited me, as I had visited Burgundy and fallen in love with the wine Chardonnay makes. When asked why I chose to help introduce specifically Chardonnay to the Cape, I simply answer, ‘My palate and my tongue led the way’.”

On his return to South Africa, Danie put what he had learnt at Geisenheim into practice. He managed to procure a Chardonnay vine cutting from the Nietvoorbij Agriculture Research Centre in Stellenbosch – with the assistance of one Desiderius Pongrácz – but once planted, this specific clone did not deliver the desired result. So Danie went to the next option, circumventing the official channels by having Chardonnay cuttings flown into South Africa and planting the material on De Wetshof. “I did it for the industry,” he says.

Elgin’s mountain setting makes for cool-climate wines.

“Back then, if you wanted to introduce a new grape variety into the country it would take 20 years or more to establish it due to the rules of officialdom. We simply did not have this time. In the 1970s and ’80s we were lagging behind other New World wine countries such as America, Australia and Chile, which were offering Chardonnay and new grape varieties and gaining international recognition.”

With the contraband jetted in, planted and propagated, a few Chardonnay vineyards took root in the Cape. And from 1980 a handful of Chardonnay wines began finding their way onto the market, with Backsberg in Paarl, Stellenbosch’s Simonsig and De Wetshof being the pioneering troika.

“If I look back at the way Chardonnay was received, I can only say it was the right grape variety at the right time. Consumers instantly found they had a liking for the wine. True to the magic that Chardonnay is, it offered them a white wine of depth and complexity they had not been exposed to in terms of the local offerings,” recalls Danie. He and his fellow pioneers – including Sydney Back (Backsberg), Frans Malan (Simonsig) and Jan Boland Coetzee (Vriesenhof) – had their spirits dampened in 1985 when the Klopper Commission was established by the government to investigate the illegal importing of agricultural plant material. After lengthy testimonies, the ‘importers’ were found guilty. However, the commission recommended that a working group be established to look into ways of creating a quicker and more streamlined system of introducing new vine material into the Cape Winelands.

Anthony Hamilton Russell introduced the cultivar to the area.

This can be seen as a seismic shift in the fortunes for South African wine, which now saw not only Chardonnay, but also other varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot having a less red tape-entangled ride into the vineyards of the Cape.

Looking back at the trials and tribulations associated with establishing Chardonnay, one can’t help but recall De Wetshof’s achievement in 1985 – the year of the Klopper Commission – at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux, the world’s largest and most important international wine showcase. Of all the wines on show, from all the countries in the world,
De Wetshof Chardonnay was announced the Best Wine at Vinexpo.

Riding the wave of regional diversity

If the grape of Chardonnay, which loves expressing itself in different landscapes, soils and climates, is going to find happiness in one country, South Africa could just be the one.

“No other white wine grape expresses its place of origin – the terroir – in the way Chardonnay does,” says Paul Clüver from Paul Clüver Family Wines, who pioneered the variety in the Elgin Wine Valley in the late 1980s and today offers one of the Cape’s finest Chardonnay selections.

“In Elgin we find the ultimate cool-climate Chardonnay with a firmer acidity and sterner backbone than the quirky charm of wines of warmer areas. And it is this regional diversity that makes South Africa’s Chardonnay category so exciting. The wines from Elgin and Robertson vary immensely, as do those from the Hemel-en-Aarde and Stellenbosch. One fabulous grape cultivar, but due to its ability to take on the particular features of the region where it grows, Cape Chardonnay offers spectacular variation.”

A grape-skin’s throw to the south-east of Elgin lies the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near the town of Hermanus, which has taken the importance of terroir expression to a new level. The division of this 20km stretch of vineyards into three appellations – Valley, Upper and Ridge – was the brainchild of Anthony Hamilton Russell from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, who introduced vines and Chardonnay to this region in the late 1970s, launching the first Chardonnay here in 1983.

“Hemel-en-Aarde is blessed with three distinct borders of geographical differentiation,” says Anthony, “and due to the expressive nature of Chardonnay and our other signature grape, Pinot Noir, the three parts of the valley display a variety of specific features in their wines. Chardonnay is an amazing vehicle to show this variance in soil composition and climate. Promoting South Africa’s regional diversity has of late given the country a degree of sophistication in the wine world and, with its ability to show specific terroir, quality South African Chardonnay has been a great vehicle for this.”

Stellenbosch, South Africa’s leading wine region, has an enviable reputation for being good at everything it does, and Chardonnay is no exception. One of the first Cape Chardonnays was made at Simonsig Estate and today the list of excellent Stellenbosch Chardonnays is as long as it is varied.

“There is a lot of talk about geography and terroir and regional diversity when it comes to Chardonnay,” says Sjaak Nelson, the winemaker at Jordan Estate, which is one of Stellenbosch’s leaders in this variety and was named Best White Wine Producer at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge in 2022 for – among other wines – its Chardonnay. “For me, Chardonnay is about the deliciousness of a good rendition of this wine. There is satisfying completeness to it, a white wine that offers depth and complexity and fulfilment, as well as tasty rivets of citrus, white fruit and spice. That’s why it’s the world’s most famous white wine – drinkability and taste. Fortunately, in South Africa we as winemakers are able to make this quality of Chardonnay due to the regional terroir, but also because we simply love the grape and the wine.”

Johann de Wet, the current CEO of pioneering producer De Wetshof, is also chairman of the South African Chardonnay Forum.

Johann de Wet, son of Danie and the current CEO of De Wetshof Estate, concurs with Sjaak’s emphasis on the role of the winemaker. “The one thing that unites us is our pure love for Chardonnay and the joy the wine gives us,” he says. “It also has a lot to do with respect. The provenance, history and legacy of Chardonnay makes us realise we are working with a very special grape variety representing a specific piece of earth – in this case a vineyard – which only you have the honour and privilege of making wine from. This is the kind of spirit and commitment that unites Chardonnay producers and has, along with the diversity in terroir the Cape offers, helped to achieve the standing we now have with regard to our wines. There is no doubt in my mind that Chardonnay has played a major role in the reputation for excellence the South African wine industry has attained over the past few years.”

Chardonnay’s generosity, it seems, can affect the fortunes of an entire industry too.