Tasting a wine that’s covered up, so the taster can’t know what it is, represents democracy in action; it helps to smash preconceptions. The late writer and critic Steven Spurrier demonstrated this brilliantly during the legendary Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. He organized an event with nine French experts, sampling a range of top Bordeaux and Californian wines blind. To the astonishment of almost everyone — especially the French — the gathered experts agreed that the American wines were better. In fact, quite a lot better. It turned the wine world on its head.
More recently, a private wine club in Wales pitted a smorgasbord of New World Chardonnays against the best of super-expensive white Burgundy. In this case, it was the South Africans who emerged triumphant. Four of the five top-scoring bottles were made in the Western Cape’s premier vineyards in Stellenbosch, Elgin, and Hermanus. Every wine was structured, refined, and complex.
The competition revealed what wine experts already know — Chardonnay from South Africa offers one of the best price-to-quality ratios of any wine category right now.
A breakout wine
“Cape Chardonnay is often better than anything else coming from the New World — you will be hard-pressed to find too many high alcohol buttery Chardonnays in South Africa now,” says Spencer Fondaumiere, chair of the South African Sommeliers Association.
Kristen Goceljak, wine director at SAGA restaurant in New York, is another fan.
“Winegrowing regions like the Cape are benefiting immensely from the ever-increasing prices of Burgundy,” she says. “When that bottle of Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet is too expensive for our guests, I happily direct them to places like South Africa where top producers are really blurring the lines between Old World and New World. It’s always such a treat introducing a Burgundy lover to some of the best New World wines and catching them off guard.”
Of course, there are no end of superlative Chardonnays being made today, in regions as diverse as Chile’s Patagonia, Australia’s Margaret River, and indeed France. U.S. consumers have a plethora of domestic options to choose from, particularly in the Golden State.
However, Miles Morley, sommelier at 7908 Supper Club in Aspen, Colorado, argues that South Africa has an edge on the competition.
“Top Cape Chardonnay has advantages compared to other countries that may only be rivaled by choice vineyards right along the Sonoma Coast,” says Morley. “For Burgundy lovers, the Cape style is much more approachable than the bigger oak bombs you’ll get out of Napa and certain styles in the warmer climates.”
Affordable but in demand
The stumbling block is supply. According to Fondaumiere, Chardonnay accounts for less than 10% of the total vineyard area in the Cape. South Africa’s signature white grape, Chenin Blanc, trounces Chardonnay in terms of vine acreage.
Yet it’s the latter grape that commands widespread global recognition; Chenin’s fan club is minuscule in comparison. In 2014, Jackson Family Wines entered into a partnership with Antony Beck of Beck Family Estates. Today, they jointly manage the Fijnbosch farm in Stellenbosch, with the goal of making Chardonnay wines that can rival the top Grand Crus of Burgundy. Released at $80, their inaugural 2013 vintage of Capensis thrilled the critics with its crystalline fruit, subtle oak, and delicate textural richness. It is a brilliant wine, although Capensis is something of an outlier; the vast majority of Cape Chardonnay is never that expensive.
Meanwhile, the affordable Chardonnays are getting better and better with each vintage.
“A combination of high altitude, southerly facing, and cool sea breezes mean that our Chardonnay are some of the most consistently cool sites in Stellenbosch. This gives unparalleled ripening conditions that provide perfectly ripe fruit with exceptional natural acidity,” says DeMorgenzon winemaker, Alastair Rimmer.
He adds that Cape Chardonnay grown on granite soil gives a wine that reminds him of Meursault, acknowledged as one of Burgundy’s finest whites. “It’s not as broad and round as Napa, nor is it as lemony as what one sees coming out of modern-day South Australia,” is Rimmer’s personal take. “It matures faster than Burgundy but shows that fine balance of ripeness and freshness with a flinty backbone.”
The American author E.B. White once noted that “Prejudice is a great time saver — you can form opinions without having to get the facts.” But it would be hard for even the Burgundians to dismiss the quality and refinement of top Cape Chardonnay. Listing these wines is a no-brainer for sommeliers; they vastly over-deliver, in relation to their modest price tag.
3 Cape Chardonnays to try:
The Hamilton Russell family have been making excellent Chardonnay in the cool climate region of Hermanus for decades. The 2020 is another standout vintage: lovely peachy and toasty aromas give way to a restrained, elegant palate with stone fruit, good balance, and a nice minerality. Understated and complex.
Grown on mountain vineyards, DeMorgenzon’s signature Chardonnay is undoubtedly one of the Cape’s best value whites. It offers an enticing bouquet of stone fruit, marzipan, vanilla, and lemongrass. The upfront generosity of the ripe fruit steals the show, yet the structure and acidity are no less impressive. This wine will definitely improve in bottle.
Another landmark Chardonnay from the cool-climate vineyards of Elgin, located southeast of Cape Town. Complex, with exceptional length and finesse, this honeyed Chardonnay easily rivals the best examples from the Cote d’Or. The length across the mid-palate is particularly impressive — grilled nuts, citrus, almond, vanilla, and quince all vie for your attention.