Balance is key to producing a great chardonnay

What does a rock scramble on the Twelve Apostles have in common with a wine varietal? The answer – they both have wood in them.

Woody Buttress has a couple of tricky chimneys and is possibly why someone designed an alternative way. Known as Not Woody Buttress, it avoids the chimneys but does not necessarily mean it is easy.

The same goes for chardonnay. Some don’t mind drinking what can be described as the opulent, heavy, oaky and cloying style of chardonnay while others may be thrilled to hear that winemakers have taken heed in response to the market.

To wood or not to wood, that is the chardonnay, with respect to the bard, William Shakespeare. With help from Google, four of us set out to taste Constantia Valley chardonnays which coincidentally grow on neighbouring farms.

What better place to start than Groot Constantia which won the Best Chardonnay in the World award (among others) from French Chardonnay du Monde for their 2013 vintage (“National treasure’ brings home trophy”, Bulletin, April 2, 2015). It was a great way to celebrate this national treasure’s 330th year of wine production.

Gavin Fortuin gave us a tasting in their recently rehabilitated Cloete Cellar. Once a dark dusty place filled with old wagons and cobwebs, it is now concrete and stark, lacking in atmosphere.

According to Gavin the secret to a good chardonnay is balance – balance between fruit, wood and acidity, none overshadowing the other.

He says some wine estates use oak chips or American barrels or a mix. Groot Constantia’s chardonnay has two vineyards, one behind the cellar and one closer to Pagasvlei Road, each getting wind from both oceans. Grapes spend 10 months in new and used French barrels. What I liked in the tasting notes is “a hint of smoke”, reminiscent to the big veldfire of 2015.

Next stop was Klein Constantia where Kirsten Forshaw, from Tokai, described their 2015 chardonnay as easy drinking, tending towards a lighter style. The grapes are grown in a low-lying block opposite the manor house and spend six months in new oak barrels.

Winemaker Matt Day also produces a Methode Cap Classique (MCC) brut chardonnay 2013 with grapes sourced from a single block located on the lower slopes of the estate. Kirsten says three different batches are harvested between January and February, then aged in a combination of barrels and stainless steel tanks for seven months before blending. It ranks among South Africa’s top 10 sparkling wines.

However, Klein Constantia is known for its iconic Vin de Constance, a dessert wine from muscat de Frontignan spending about 54 months in 60 percent new oak barrels.

At the neighbouring estate we had a treat. Aware that we might visit, Lars Maack of Buitenverwachting left a bottle of their 2015 chardonnay at their cosily renovated tasting cellar. One of the first bottles opened, it was bottled two months ago and poured by Thinus Botha. He says their chardonnay grapes are grown in granite soil, a mixture of quartz and chalk, at the top of the farm where the land dips into the forest. He says these vines took a knock in the fire but created a well-balanced wine having ripe fruit, restrain and great for aging.

Buitenverwachting received a five-star Platter rating for the 2014 vintage chardonnay, and 92 points with American Wine Spectator.

Lars says the same about a good chardonnay, it’s all about balance and not about adding oak flavours to the wine. It’s about good structure and the oak maturation allowing the fruit to dominate. It’s about the natural environment with wood enzymes, no temperature control and the evaporation from the barrel that allows the wine to develop in a different way.

Thinus grew up next door to Buitenverwachting. His dad, Martin Botha, was headmaster of what was then Constantia School and is now the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology. He would run onto Buitenverwachting to eat the grapes and now lives in Bergvliet and is the farm’s marketing and brand manager having started out working in their cellar four years ago.

Speaking about the 2015 veldfire, Thinus says Buitenverwachting’s vineyards survived because the fire went over the top. He adds that this is important as
fire form a waxy coat over the skin of the grapes, tainting the taste especially after fermentation.

Filled with good cheer, our final destination was Constantia Uitsig. The farm’s new cellar, tasting and sales venue is under construction with wine presently produced at Steenberg Estate. Tasting is presently done at the Open Door restaurant.

Pouring their 2014 flagship chardonnay, Richard Mbangu says only uses their best grapes are used and in 50 percent new oak. Their 2015 unwooded chardonnay is grown in a block planted in 1990 in coarse, sandy soil of the Clovelly formation.

If we had more time we would have visited Steenberg to taste their MCC chardonnay and Sphynx which is sold in-house and at the tasting room. Winemaker Jolette Steyn says the key to using oak is integration and balance. Her recipe is to have beautiful, pure fruit and a medium to high acidity in which the wine will be able to withstand a stronger oaking regime. Soil should be calcareous-clayey, winter should be very cold and the vines must be treated delicately.

Time to go home. As for our preference it was difficult to decide with three of us voting for Klein Constantia’s chardonnay closely followed by Groot Constantia with its subtle oakiness. The fourth person enjoyed all of the chardonnays. At the end of the day, wine is a personal choice, a personal taste. Now who makes merlot.