Fizz and Chardonnay 15 May 2019

In the past few weeks a couple of categories of Cape wine have really caught my attention. One is unwooded chardonnay, which appears to be booming – perhaps as a result of a little ennui with sauvignon blanc. The other is Cap Classique (MCC), where volumes have been growing for some time, as have the number of producers.

Bottle-fermented fizz must be made in accordance with the rules established in Champagne for Champagne: wines must derive their bubble from a second fermentation in the bottle in which it is sold, and not from carbonation. This makes them more labour and capital intensive than most other wine styles. All the product must be purchased and financed in advance. Bear in mind that ageing for MCCs is probably as long as for most red wines. Fizz also attracts a higher excise duty. Taking all this into account, many are real bargains

Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira points out that the bubble serves to magnify everything, including the faults, making it impossible to conceal any wine-making defects. Once the wine goes to bottle ahead of the second fermentation, the die is cast. Only the final tweak of the liqueur d’expedition, the 25ml addition to replace the fluid lost at disgorging, offers any prospect of adjustment.

Two recent tastings come to mind: the first is the maiden release of Ferreira’s first MCC under his own label (though he remains cellarmaster at Graham Beck). It’s a Blanc de Blanc from the 2012 vintage and it is set to become something of benchmark in the category. For a start, it is really very fine, very considered, very compressed and very restrained. The chardonnay imbues it with an almost sprung-steel edginess: pure citrus, intense and precise and still way off its peak.

The other is the Krone 2001 RD – a late release from the Tulbagh cellar, 18 years old and only now properly evolved. The two wines are completely different, showing the breadth of the category. The Krone has been on its yeast lees from when it went to bottle in 2001 until its recent disgorgement. It exudes baked bread aromas, and delivers ample volume on the palate. The Pieter Ferreira is all about purity and linearity. Both however bear all the hallmarks of the fizz-maker’s art, and – despite their significantly more attractive retail prices – should be treated as seriously as many of the brands produced in the cellars of Epernay and Reims.

The same truth – fabulous quality at a perfect value nexus – is evident in the unwooded chardonnay category. Ten years ago you could hardly give the stuff away: it seemed a safe assumption that the reason people drank chardonnay is that they needed the flavour components contributed by the oak to make the varietal character palatable. Tasting notes were littered with terms such as “marzipan/almond,” “caramel/fudge” or “charry vanilla.” All these, together with textural clues such as “creamy” were evidence of the role played by the cooper in the final flavour profile of the wines.

Nowadays it’s the purity of the varietal character which is being sought, and this means minimising – or preferably eliminating entirely – the extraneous oak notes. Since chardonnay’s flavour spectrum is largely about citrus characters – lemon or lime, grapefruit or even pomelo/pineapple – its appeal without oak has been largely to that segment of the market that enjoyed the freshness of sauvignon blanc but wanted a more nuanced alternative.

Not that most unwooded chardonnays (especially those fresh to bottle) offer any more complexity or detail – though at least they deliver a different taste experience, at much the same price as a decent sauvignon blanc. There are several worth tracking down. All are youthful (in some cases the 2019s are already in the market), precision-made, expressive and refined. Dewetshof’s Bon Vaillon, Jordan and Vriesenhof have the longest track records. They now share shelf space with some worthy competitors, of which the Glenelly and the Diemersdal most deserve discovery.

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