South African Chardonnays Defy Expectations
• 2009 Neethlingshof Estate, Unwooded, Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa
• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Bright floral aromas with hints of lemon and lime. Similar flavors with zippy, refreshing acidity and tastes of ripe pear and apple. Fun spice notes with a hint of ginger root swiringl in the background.
• 2008 Muratie, Isabella, Chardonnay, Stellenbosch, South Africa
• Two Thumbs Up
• Pleasant aromas of lemon and orange zest are fortified by hints of butterscotch. Very elegant and inviting. Flavors of green apple, lime and poached pear were evident and harmoniously balanced against cinnamon, bay leaf, toffee, bananas and a subtle smokiness.
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Overgeneralizations always get me in trouble. So, I gotta scratch my head when I say things like: South African red wines don’t really turn my crank. They tend to have an iodine characteristic that reminds me of a Band-Aids and they have a dusty, old quality.
The above statement is a great example of an overgeneralization, since there are plenty of South African wineries, such as Bon Cap, Vilafonte and Ernie Els, that offer wonderful cabernet sauvignons, merlots and shirazes that I like a lot.
Next: Chardonnay-based wines are over-oaked and excruciatingly predictable. Wow! Two grand overgeneralizations in three paragraphs. I’m on a roll.
My second proclamation somehow seems a little more palatable than the first. Beating up on chardonnay has become a spectator sport for wine writers in the past decade or so.
But I’ve not come to bury chardonnay or South African wines; I’ve come to praise them.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about organic, environmentally conscious wineries that are sincere. As I accumulated information and wines for the piece, I stumbled upon two chardonnays from South Africa. They were lovely. Nothing predictable about them.
The wines, Neethlingshof (Unwooded) and Muratie Isabella, have credible and sincere organic winemaking programs, but they don’t flout it. They also have credible and sincere chardonnays—a grape I go bonkers for when it’s made with care. After all, chardonnay is too noble of a grape to completely cast a cold, wet blanket over.
What I found exciting in these wines, which I tried on successive nights, is that they show the two great faces of chardonnay. First, the Muratie from Stellenbosch, South Africa, has an elegant creamy style with strong flavors of pears and apples. This style is often referred to as Burgundian and has been poorly imitated the world over for the past 20 years. (There I go again with the generalizations.) But when the balance of fresh fruit and subtle, smoky oak—the hallmark of chardonnays from Burgundy—is maintained, the result can be transformative.
Just up the road from Burgundy lies the town of Chablis. They, too, are renowned for their chardonnay. Their stock in trade, however, is purity. New oak and buttery flavors have no place in Chablis. This cool region of rolling hills and rocky, limestone soils produce wines that plumb the mysteries at the heart of chardonnay. They have fresh, lime-laden citrus qualities, searing acidity and something called flint-like minerality. This is the other face of chardonnay and Neethlingshof has clearly read from the Chablis playbook.
Overgeneralization is easy, but it has its risks, especially with wine. Every vintage brings a new interpretation to the same grapes and standard operating procedures in all regions change and evolve over time. Overoaked, unimaginative chardonnay may soon be a thing of the past, as Neethlingshof and Muratie show. And it is about time I revisited South African reds in a serious way.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators and teaches in-home wine classes. You can reach him at Gil.Kulers@WineKulers.com.