Just say ABC in wine circles and within seconds someone will have blurted out: “A-ha! Anything But Chardonnay…” And there was good reason for folks signing up as members of the Anything But Chardonnay club: Chardonnay was associated with huge, in-your-face, over-oaked, buttery-vanilla-toast wines. They were chewy, bold, overblown, exhausting and offered scant drinking enjoyment.
As a reaction, the pendulum swung totally the other way – to very lean, angular lemon and citrus styles that also offered little pleasure.
The annual Nederburg pre-auction tasting for the media took place in Paarl this week – and the category that elicited the most favourable response? Yup, Chardonnay! Who would have thought five years ago that a roomful of wine writers would be extolling the virtues of the wine?
Granted, the six Chardonnays put before the press are among the country’s best examples: Mulderbosch 2006, Ataraxia 2007, De Wetshof Bateleur 2006, Jordan Nine Yards 2006, Uva Mira single vineyard 2009 and Nederburg’s Private Bin D270 from 2003.
Industry commentator Michael Fridjhon noted: “Perhaps in this regard, the ABC lobby has done Chardonnay a favour.” His point was well made: that when a wine style is out of vogue and difficult to sell, winemakers are forced to focus their efforts in order to ramp up its commercial appeal.
The points in Chardonnay’s favour are that the above examples are restrained and elegant. Fruit and wood are in sublime harmony. Gone are the days of huge dollops of toasty vanilla oak – used for both fermentation and maturation. The fashion – and winemaker enthusiasm – used to demand 100% all new oak. Nowadays, there’s wonderful subtlety in oaking: a portion of the wines tend to be barrel fermented or matured with the rest spending time in second- or third-fill barrels.
These wines are nuanced and speak proudly of their origins. The more modern examples – Uva Mira and Ataraxia – showed great lime zest and freshness while being superbly structured. Sommelier Miguel Chan described the latter as ‘svelte’… The Nederburg was given the works – barrel fermented, 13 months in all new oak – but the quality of the Durbanville fruit stood up to that, making for a really impressive balanced and elegant wine.
And the Jordan, Mulderbosch and De Wetshof’s track records speak volumes. It’ll be interesting to see what the buyers at the auction on 16 and 17 September think.