South Africa is currently in a big pickle when it comes to our wine industry. Due to Covid 19, exports of our wine came to a grinding halt for 3 months. We were then allowed to proceed for a few weeks, until the sales of alcohol was banned AGAIN!
While exports have been continued, regular consumers are unable to buy any form of liquor – including off license sales. This means there’s also little reason to visit the estates, which is a huge dent on Cape Town lifestyle from both a consumer and brand perspective.
Not one to waste time, while separated from my favourite drink, I decided to take the time to learn about South African Chardonnay.
South African Chardonnay Wine Estates
While there are hundreds of chardonnay producers and estates around the country, I’d like to thank the following brands for their assistance in helping me learn more.
From just outside Stellenbosch in the Devonvalley: Louisvale. From popular wine district Stellenbosch, Dombeya, Haskell Vineyards, Jordan Wines, Thelema Mountain Vineyards and Vriesenhof. From a little further north, in Paarl, Vondeling Wines. Franschoek’s La Bri, Robertson’s Lozarn and from over the hills and not too far away, Elgin Vintners. And from a little closer to home: Klein Constantia.
Here’s what I’ve learnt about chardonnay to date:
South African Terroir
I remember going to Ellerman House and seeing their stunning terroir wall in their downstairs cellar. They had taken cross sections of the earth from wine estates and mounted it into a “wine” wall. You could see how each estate differed and I found it most interesting to see the variations.
Each estate has its own terroir that affects the wine they produce. There are a number of common factors that influences the grapes including sea air, light, soil and rain:
Klein Constantia: With a constant sea breeze above 150 meters, temperatures remain cool, preserving the fruit during ripening.
Thelema: Situated on the South Easterly side of the Simonsberg Mountain (with elevations 530m above sea level), with mainly south-facing slopes, the high altitude and the rich red soils are ideal for premium quality wine grape production.
Vriesenhof: Situated at the foothills of the Stellenbosch Mountain, Vriesenhof is where the ever-changing climatic effect of the Atlantic Ocean is evident throughout the year.
Elgin Vintners: Elgin is located 350m above sea level and a stone’s throw distance from it, making it the coolest climate wine region in South Africa.
Jordan: Unique by nature’s design, the Jordan slopes face North, South, East, and West, with vineyards lying at differing altitudes from 160 to 410 m above sea level. The vineyards with their close proximity to both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans benefit from coastal fog and cool breezes. A mild Mediterranean climate with a maritime influence minimizes the risk of frost damage.
Louisvale: The vineyards are all east-facing and planted in an east-west direction. The Bottelary Hill to the west offers welcome shade in the peak of summer when the sun sets behind it allowing for slower ripening and richer fruit development.
Thelema: Cool nights throughout the growing season with dry warm days resulted in healthy grapes with smaller berries with great intensity of flavour.
Dombeya: Grown in “block 11”, it was planted in 1988. Although the harvest from this block is very low because of the dry land, it still produces good quality grapes, which is all used for the Anvil Chardonnay.
Louisvale: Deep, well-drained Hutton and Clovelly decomposed granite soils ensure that the vineyards remain ‘dryland’ until after the harvest, after which the vines are irrigated.
Jordan: The soils at Jordan have evolved from 600 million-year-old Cape Granite, and range from deep, well-drained clay-loam to gravelly and sandy duplex soils situated on clay.
Wind & Rain
Klein Constantia: With the ocean a mere 10 kilometers away, the wind plays an important factor, often stressing the vineyard and resulting in an increase in concentration and flavour in the fruit.
Elgin Vintners: Because of our unique, cool elevation and maritime environs our grapes ripen on the vines for longer. Longer than local in-land and many of the world’s most famous wine regions too!
Vondeling: The vineyards run off the South-facing slopes of the Paardeberg Mountain. The decomposed granite soil, along with habitual afternoon South Westerly winds, give our wines a vibrancy in an otherwise warm climate area.
Acidity – A Short Note
The acidity listed on the side of the wine bottle has nothing to do with how acidic the wine will taste. This was one of my first questions to the wine makers and, fortunately, the only way to know if you will enjoy a wine is by tasting it.
Can Chardonnays Mature?
Yes, many chardonnays are able to be matured between 2 – 5 years. Check the labels of each bottle to see how long you can keep the wines for before consuming. Please note that barrel maturation and maturing your wine isn’t the same thing! Barrel maturation speaks to how long the wine was matured before being bottled, maturing wine is how long you can keep it before it can no longer be consumed.
The Beauty of Each Estate
There’s no bad wine farm. Each estate has it’s own unique character and history, old or new, that tells the story of the farm and what makes it unique. Here are some of the nuggets of what makes these estates unique.
900 Species: Vondeling
Following a fire on the Paardeberg in January 2011, a botanical survey was commissioned by the Paardeberg Sustainability Initiative (PSI), in collaboration with Vondeling Wines, to record the plant species growing on the mountain. The post fire fynbos regrowth was documented for 18 months through plant collections and photographic records. To date, over 900 species in over 70 families have been collected. Approximately 10 per cent of these species are listed as threatened.
Pear Farm: Dombeya
The original farm Dombeya (referring to the many Wild Pear trees on the property) was once a citrus farm, which later included a small coffee shop and a barn where local ladies produced hand-woven blankets and jerseys.
History: at La Bri
The original grant of La Bri is one of the oldest Huguenot-allocated farms in the Franschhoek Valley. The farm is situated in the valley previously known as Olifantshoek. The name is probably derived from outlying town of Brie, which was the stomping grounds of the de Villiers family in the early 13th century. L’ Abri is also French for “the refuge or Haven”.
Reviving Carménère: Lozarn
The Smuts family who are nurturing this exotic cultivar far from its adopted home. The grape is likely to be well-known to travellers who have sampled the wines of Chile where, in 2012, winemaker Salóme was enjoying a fine Chilean Carménère with husband, Sybrand. It was love at first sip,which led to the planting of a Carménère vineyard two years later on Doornbosch.
History of the Cape: Klein Constantia
In May 1778 George Washington is sent ‘one dozn Bottles of Constantia Wine’ for which he conveys his ‘sincere thanks’. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson records a payment of 24 pounds for ‘Cape Wines’, later classing ‘Cape’ among the world’s most expensive wines, alongside Hock, Tokay and Malmsey.
Here’s to Chardonnay
I put together a wine wine specials list during the initial lockdown with some fantastic offers. Some of these are still available so be sure to check it out and pre-order your wine (T’s & C’s apply per estate as per their site).
For now, that’s it! Happy drinking and if you have a favourite South African chardonnay, please be sure to leave me a comment below so I can check it out. Cheers!