Seven styles of Chardonnay

Thursday, 13 June, 2013
Graham Howe
“How do you stand out in a crowded marketplace? By telling your story, by making wines with personality” says Philip Jonker, fourth generation winemaker at Weltevrede.
When you celebrate a centenary, you reflect on the past … on where you come from” muses Philip Jonker whose great-grandfather Klaas Jonker bought Weltevrede in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. A century later the Jonker family enjoys telling visitors the story with a chuckle.

Lourens Jonker adds that he, in turn, bought the farm from his father the year of the great 1969 earthquake in the Cape. Lourens recalls, “We thought the world was coming to an end in Bonnievale. We could hear it coming. It sounded like a runaway train rumbling through the valley!”  

We are standing in Oupa se Wingerd, the first vineyard declared a national monument - the exact spot near the banks of the Breede River where pioneer Klaas Jonker planted 16 000 bush vines of red muscadel in 1926. Only a few vines remain today - producing some of the Muscat de Frontignan which goes into Oupa se Wyn - a luscious red dessert wine, the first single vineyard estate wine launched in South Africa back in 1976. Ouma se Wyn came later to honour Lourens’ mother, a teetotaller who preferred to make vinegar then wine. Another ironic story.

Watching father and son Lourens and Philip Jonker go down on their knees to inspect the venerable vines, you get the feeling their respect for the land is spiritual. The Jonkers of Bonnievale remind me of the sociable weavers in the giant nest outside the old cellar. After climbing a koppie overlooking the oxbow of the Breede River, Philip points out the farms settled by sons, daughters and cousins over the decades: Janeza, Jonkheer, Mooiuitsig … “When we marry, we have to marry outside the valley” he quips.

One hundred direct descendents got together to celebrate the centenary of Weltevrede in 2012. A carved barrel in the cellar carries the family crest and legend, “Sing van die wyn and drink op die lied”. Philip, the current winemaker, declares, “I know the soil of Weltevrede. I grew up playing in it, as did my father and his father before him, ever since my great-grandfather bought the land in 1912. He was obviously well-satisfied with the soil and climate, our terroir, and named it Weltevrede”.

The terroir is sacred - inspiring a new generation of wines which originate in the very shale soils, the secret to wines like Bedrock Black Syrah, Place of Rocks Chardonnay, Travelling Stone Sauvignon Blanc and River’s Edge. Philip sees himself as a custodian of the land. I watch him plant a new Syrah vineyard in the broken shale using his grandfather’s antique theodolite. He knows every inch of the soil. He points out plants in the renosterveld with evocative names like “voeltjie kannie sit nie” and the baboon claw - and wonders what the farm will look like a hundred years hence.

Philip Jonker is a winemaker, poet and visionary
. He has taught nuns from Uganda how to make wine at Weltevrede, assisted the Weltevrede farm workers empowerment association to make wines from old vines on Robben Island, presented a bottle to Nelson Mandela on his 94th birthday - and played peace broker in farm worker disputes in the valley.

He says, “When the soil is broken like freshly baked bread we are there to kneel behind the plough, to feel the soil, to smell its fragrance. A new vineyard is like an empty canvas. A winemaker gets one chance every generation to get it right when he plants a new vineyard. The vines work hard to push deep roots into these rocky soils”.

That evening, we head into Bonnievale for the annual NGK church bazaar where we buy pancakes for three rands, bredies, boerewors rolls, melk tert and Herzoggies. Philip warns, “No-one can buy anything until the dominee opens the bazaar - but the tannies hold onto a corner of the tarts until he does, so the best are already taken!” And on Sunday, we join hundreds of impoverished farm children from throughout the valley attending one of “the self-realization lesions” of Edge of Life, a community project funded partially by a percentage of every bottle of Weltevrede’s export sales.       

In-between we sit down to a candlelit tasting of Philip’s acclaimed Poet’s Prayer Chardonnay, terroir wines and Cap Classique in the old underground kuipe built by his grandfather in the 1930s. Weltevrede, the first winery to bottle estate wines in the valley in the early 1970s - and one of the few estates in the first Platter wine guide in 1980 - is still at the forefront of wine trends - developing new entry-level “simplicity” brands like Vanilla Chardonnay, Tropico Sauvignon Blanc and Cherrychoc Merlot. He says, “Vanilla Chardonnay changed the way we thought about wine.”

With seventeen vintages at Weltevrede under his belt, Philip says, “We wanted to tap into what consumers expect of varieties like Chardonnay and Merlot. We did a huge media search for primary descriptors, to make wines of striking simplicity. The new brand led new drinkers and connoisseurs to rediscover Chardonnay - and ticks all the boxes in a wine with personality and minerality that makes you crave the next sip”.

“Weltevrede has a proud history of innovation. We don’t only farm with vines - we farm with ideas. A love of the soil is the golden thread that runs through the history of the farm. We all want to look back and say ‘I made a difference. It was a life worth living’.”

Philip Jonker is one of the dedicated winemakers who has helped to make Chardonnay a signature grape in the Robertson Wine Valley - along with pioneers like Danie de Wet. The former convenor of the Veritas Chardonnay panel says reaching consensus on expressions of the variety is a tough job. The winemakers behind The Chardonnay Initiative aim to educate consumers by leading tutored tastings of seven defined styles or categories - citrus, tropical, spicy, wooded, unwooded, still, sparkling … with food pairings at the Wine on the River Festival. He declares, “We’ve moved away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster styles”.

The pursuit of “true Burgundian flavours” is a quest for the winemaker with a passion for the great white grape. He says he dreams of making Chardonnay on four continents under his mentors - under Bob Cartwright at Leeuwen estate in Margaret River (who made Chardonnay at Weltevrede), at Clos du Val in the Napa Valley, and at Flavigny sur Ozerain (the medieval village where the film Chocolat was set) - where Philip made his own Bourgogne Blanc in 2010 - and of course at Weltevrede.

Philip concludes, “The challenge in South Africa is to make sure wine does not develop too quickly in the bottle. Making younger, fresher wines with natural acidity and minerality give wines longevity.  You can over-oak wines - but you can also under-wine oak!” talks to Lourens Jonker about making memories, lasting impressions and taking the bull by the horns

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."