A surge of creativity from the country’s wine producers over the past fifteen years has seen forgotten vineyards and neglected appellations brought back into the limelight. Inevitably one region’s (or style’s) gain is another’s loss, at least in terms of media interest, though not necessarily in terms of volumes consumed.
Cap Classiques (bottle-fermented sparkling wines made in accordance with the rules established in Champagne for Champagne) are selling well enough, averaging around R120 per bottle – they’re just not getting much attention. Generally they represent great value, considering they cost more to produce than most other wine styles and attract higher excise duties. They also require better, healthier fruit and more technically correct winemaking. As Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira points out, the bubble serves to magnify everything, including the faults, so it’s almost impossible to conceal production 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 – one sampled blind, the other at a wine show in Pretoria. The former turned out to be the maiden release of Ferreira’s own MCC – under his own label. Though he continues to be cellarmaster at Graham Beck, Ferreira has finally produced his own fizz – after more than three decades in the bubbly business. It’s a 2012 Blanc de Blanc and it’s 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.
This much was clear looking at the Krone 2001 RD – a late release from the Tulbagh cellar, 18 years old and only now approaching its peak. There are many differences: the Krone is not all chardonnay, and it’s been on its yeast lees from when it went to bottle in 2001 until its recent disgorgement. At present the Pieter Ferreira cannot deliver the same baked bread aromas, just as the Krone RD will never express the same linearity. Both however bear all the hallmarks of the fizz-maker’s art, and should be treated as seriously as many of the brands produced in the cellars of Epernay and Reims – despite their significantly more attractive retail prices.
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 that most chardonnay drinkers were attracted to the flavour elements contributed by the oak rather than the intrinsic notes of the fruit. Tasting descriptions included 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 taste 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 found itself increasingly bored with the lack of complexity of most of the readily available examples.
Not that many unwooded chardonnays (especially those fresh to bottle) offer more nuance 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, though they now share shelf space with some worthy competitors, of which the Glenelly and the Diemersdal most deserve discovery.