Our strength lies in our Chardonnays

Friday, 1 March, 2013
Michael Fridjhon, BDLive
NO ONE who is serious about South African wine is surprised when Cape Chardonnay features prominently in the positive reviews of the international wine press.
We may believe our strength lies in our red wines and our Sauvignon Blancs (just as we believe that the natural position of the Springboks is number-one rugby side in the world — despite all the evidence to the contrary). The truth is we do a considerably better job in this rather less fashionable category.

It’s not clear why our modern-era red-wine producers have taken so long to achieve the quality standards of earlier generations. (This is not nostalgia, by the way: the surviving wines from the 1950s and 1960s show that those largely intuitive wine makers were often world-class artists.) A possible explanation may relate to ease of sale: because the punters believe in our reds and our Sauvignons, they obviously buy them in preference to the Chardonnays.

If there is a single explanation, it could be as simple as the old Avis campaign: when you’re number two, you have to try harder. Selling wine into an unreceptive market requires that extra effort.

I recently assembled a few dozen present-release Chardonnays from a number of producers. They ranged in age from less than a year old to one that was about to celebrate its sixth birthday, though mostly they came from the 2010 and 2011 vintages.

Not all of the top names were part of the line-up: there was no Jordan, no Chamonix, no Uva Mira, no Vergelegen. Accordingly, this could never be the definitive South African Chardonnay tasting. Just the same, in the group there were no bad wines, and very few ordinary ones. (Ordinary means solid and commercial, rather than memorable.) I use a 100-point scoring system in which the "medal-quality" wines are spread across a 30-point spectrum: 90-plus is a gold; 80-89 a silver; and 70-79 a bronze. (Less than that, 60-69 is considered "good, commercial", while 50-59 is "very ordinary".)

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Chardonnay is still king!
Chardonnay is still king!

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