Editorial: In two minds about Chardonnay

By , 30 April 2024



Worth a punt.

Wine distribution and marketing company Vinimark recently sent a selection of 16 examples of Chardonnay with the intention of demonstrating the “depth and breadth” of its portfolio. However, while there were a some very good wines, I found others confounding. Chardonnay’s potential to make truly great wines is not in question (see columnist Fintan Kerr on the subject here), but it must be acknowledged that the variety is also capable of being a source of major disappointment, and there are a few reasons why this might happen.

Chardonnay is produced in various areas around the country, leading to a wide range of quality levels and any letdown might simply be due to lower quality grapes. I think the De Krans Wild Ferment Unwooded 2023 from Calitzdorp (87 pts – R85 a bottle) is exceptionally neutral and I’m not sure Chardonnay should be cultivated in the semi-desert of Klein Karoo.

As we all know, Chardonnay is a versatile grape that can be made in various styles, from crisp and unoaked to rich and buttery. That’s all very well but producers sometimes come up short in attempting to cater for the tastes of a particular market segment. Take Fat Bastard 2023 from Robertson, which is so lean and green as to be Sauvignon Blanc-esque (87 pts – R120). Rustenberg Wild Ferment Unwooded 2023 (87 pts – R120) is perhaps also attempting something inspired by Chablis but the result is altogether too bland and it’s perplexing that the property that also produces the hugely accomplished Five Soldiers feels compelled these days to operate towards the bottom end of the market.

Conversely, the 2023 from Simonsberg-Paarl property Glen Carlou (87 pts – R190) is predictable and undistinguished in terms of its citrus-vanilla flavour profile and creamy texture. Lanzerac 2022 (89 pts – R195) is also oak-driven but has slightly more detail.

There is also the issue of expectation bias. The Cap Maritime 2022 from Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley as made by the talented Gottfried Mocke of Boekenhoutskloof was the most expensive wine in the set at R445 and I had high hopes of it but ultimately found it sound rather than thrilling – I rated it 91.

Lastly, technical correctness is relevant and while there is lots to like about Groot Constantia 2023 (R290), I have a small concern about bacterial spoilage (which I have raised with the winery) and consequently won’t be rating it for now.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Part of the commercial success of Chardonnay is it makes easily accessible wines at an affordable price and particular credit to Darling Cellars for the Quercus Gold 2023 for over-delivering at R75 a bottle. I liked its generous fruit expression, texture and tangy acidity, rating it 89. In a slightly more exotic style, Vineyard Selection 2023 from Stellenbosch cellar Kleine Zalze also offers quite good quality relative to price – I rated it 88 and it sells for R82 a bottle. Perfectly drinkable but costing more are Rietvallei 2023 from Robertson (89 pts – R150) and David Finlayson 2023 from Stellenbosch (88 pts – R175).

In ongoing effort to resist score inflation, I will continue to insist that 90 points on the 100-point quality scale is an important threshold and, apart from Cap Maritime, another five of the Vinimark wines make this level, these being:

Shannon Oscar Brown 2022 – Elgin (previously reviewed here)
Price: R345

Lismore 2021 – Cape South Coast (previously reviewed here)
Price: R320

La Bri 2022 – Franschhoek (previously reviewed here)
Price: R180

Sutherland 2021 – Elgin
Price: R200

Creation 2023 – Cape South Coast
Price: R260

The average price of the six wines to rate 90-plus is R292 a bottle whereas that of the other 10 is R148 which suggests that you get what you pay for, and I suppose that’s not so confounding, after all. If you want to drink really outstanding Chardonnay, then look to the likes of Crystallum, Leeu Passant, the Estate Reserve from Lismore, Restless River and Storm but expect to pay over R500 a bottle.


9 comment(s)

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    Kay muir | 9 May 2024

    Please please have an article that identifies the rich buttery traditional chardonnay. Almost all chardonnay now seems to aspire to be sauvignon blanc

    Donald Griffiths | 6 May 2024

    Plenty of other examples of high scoring Chardonnays in the 2023 Prescient Report that cost significantly less than R500…? You don’t have to spend R500 to drink outstanding Chardonnay.

      Christian Eedes | 6 May 2024

      Hi Donald, There are bargains to be had and long may that be the case but it should be pointed out that the average price of the 43 wines to rate 90-plus in the Report was R286 a bottle and of the Top 10 was R306. SA’s top wines are increasingly no longer cheap or finally demanding their rightful price, depending on how you look at it.

    GillesP | 1 May 2024

    I would add Holden Manz chardonnay to the list of excellent chardonnay produced in South Africa. As well as Buitenwervarthing which has never changed their style for the better. Both still reasonably priced versus the names mentioned above R500

    Mike Froud of Top Wine SA | 1 May 2024

    In being dismissive of Chardonnay from the desert-like Klein Karoo, are you talking about the entire region or just/mainly the Calitzdorp district?

      Christian Eedes | 1 May 2024

      Hi Mike, I am somewhat guilty of a sweeping statement. Joubert Tradauw outside Barrydale makes serious Chardonnay – I had a bottle when visiting in Montagu recently and it wasn’t necessarily classic but it was delicious. Of course, Radicales Libres from Leeu Passant is from those vineyards. Open to hear about other cracking Chard from KK.

      Christian Eedes | 1 May 2024

      Another though: The Portuguese red varieties show much promise – not just when it comes to Port but also table wine – in that part of the world. Those producers should really commit. I appreciate generic white wine is an easy sell but stay true to what distinguishes you from ever other producer.

    Hendrik Louw | 30 April 2024

    Thank you for this article.
    Unfortunately I cannot disagree regarding Chardonnay quality in general vs some other cultivars in SA.
    I do however disagree to some extent regarding quality vs price. I personally buy only wines below your avg low quality price and there are most definitely some that’s absolutely worthwhile. De Wetshof Limestone Hill, KWV Cathedral Cellar, Alvi’s Drift Reserve. Yes, you have to be very careful when you cannot afford better and that especially with Chardonnay, but if you have to, then are are many that’s excellent value and high quality drinking.
    Thanks again for all the great articles!
    Cheers! To love and life!

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