Power of The Plank

© Cape Times Friday 30th November 2012

Unwooded chardonnays – good, but are they good enough? This is the question I found myself asking after the marvellous De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay the other week. Danie de Wet is generally considered the Father of Chardonnay in South Africa, being one of the very first people to plant it, to recognise that the chalky soils of Robertson suit it and that South Africa has great potential for making world-beating wines from the variety. In a bid to benchmark and to also keep pushing the envelope when it comes to Chardonnay, he organises a biennial event of local and overseas wines and generously invites a wonderful mix of winemakers, journalists, retailers and other wine-lovers to a tasting and lunch on the farm.

A scorchingly sunny day saw 150 Chardonnay-fans converging on Robertson to taste some fantastic wines. Local stars included Glen Carlou’s Quartz Stone 2010, Paul Cluver 2011, Hamilton Russell 2011 and De Wetshof’s own The Site 2009, whilst the outstanding overseas wines came from France’s Domaine de Montille Puligny-Montrachet Les Cailleret 2007 and Australia’s Cullen’s Kevin John Chardonnay 2010. Discussions of clones, oak and Nomblot eggs (What? I hear you cry! Large, concrete, fermentation vessels, that’s what!) abounded and then right at the end, someone asked ‘Why are there no unwooded chardonnays in this line-up of South Africa’s best?’

A very good question indeed – why are there no unwooded Chardonnays winning top accolades and awards. France manages to produce very successful unwooded Chardonnays in Chablis so why can’t we here in SA? The answer to that, I think, is that we do produce some delicious unwooded Chardonnays – it’s just that our wooded ones, these days, are even better. For many years, people have been ABC’ers – Anything But Chardonnay – and the main reason for that has been that people don’t like too much oak. Putting wine in an oak barrel, or adding creamy/toasty/buttery/oaky flavours by some other method, has not always been done with a light touch and the backlash against drinking wines which make you feel as if you are chewing a plank has rebounded on poor old Chardonnay, with people choosing unwooded Sauvignon Blancs instead.

Luckily, most people are moving away from plank-like Chardonnays in favour of wines with more elegance and balance – qualities which were present in abundance at the Celebration last week. For those that don’t like even the merest of woody whiffs, here are a few suggestions. The newly-launched Glen Carlou Unwooded is a zesty affair with a creamy undertone from lots of lees-stirring in the Nomblot egg. Or if you like it tangy, then Groote Post 2011 is full of refreshing citrus fruit whilst De Wetshof themselves do the delicious Bon Vallon 2012 which is packed with flowers and crisp, crunchy green apples.

My favourite wines are those which use oak with delicacy and discretion – so you hardly taste the wood, it just rounds out the wine and makes it more satisfying. Lightly wooded wines I’ve enjoyed recently include Zonnebloem’s Chardonnay 2011 which has only 10% of oak and Winter’s Drift Chardonnay 2011 which is a 50/50 wooded/unwooded wine, whilst elegant, full-wooded versions include Seven Springs Chardonnay 2011 which only uses older, larger barrels in their delicate, creamy wine and the Edgebaston Chardonnay 2011 made by David Finlayson and which balances first, second and third-fill wood with zesty acidity. Will an unwooded Chardonnay ever beat a wooded version in a competition? If we continue to make wooded wines like these, and as long as people can get over the badly-wooded wines of a decade ago, I’d say it’s probably a question we shouldn’t waste our time asking anymore. According to David Finlayson, the ABC of yester-year has now been replaced by “Always Buy Chardonnay” and whatever kind you buy, that sounds like very good advice to me.