Greg Sherwood MW: SA performs well in icon Chardonnay taste-off

By , 6 September 2023



So the new Tim Atkin South Africa Special Report 2023 is finally out and importers, agents, merchants and of course consumers are scuttling about trying to work out which of the new 95+ point wines they might have access to in the coming months and which ones they can even afford. September and October certainly reaches fever pitch when it comes to new fine wine releases from the Cape, though it’s important to point out that many of the wines scored in Tim’s report may only make it to the UK and wider EU markets in up to a year’s time, and by then, he will already be showering praise on another select group of producers in his 12th annual report.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the 95+ point tasting hosted recently in Cape Town and Johannesburg included 29 Chenin Blancs from around the Cape, confirming this cultivar’s quality and standing in the general South African fine wine landscape. But equally of interest, the  tasting featured a whopping 20 Chardonnay whites, making it the second biggest awarded white category after the Chenin Blancs. As Tim and other commentators now liberally point out, South Africa has undoubtedly overtaken France and the Loire region as the most lauded, successful, and sought-after dry Chenin Blanc producer in the world.

Chardonnay from the Cape, on the other hand, has the considerable might and prestige of Burgundy to compete with, and then, just when you think you are gaining ground on this undisputed world market leader, collectors and afficionados are quick to rattle off another incredibly impressive list of producers from California, Australia and New Zealand that are making some very highly rated, eminently respected Chardonnay’s that South Africa’s top producers still need to contend with in international markets.

For those of you familiar with my own website, A Fine Wine Safari, you might remember an incredibly insightful and challenging tasting that a bunch of fine wine afficionados in London pulled off in June 2018. It was born out of the lunch-time banter between some good fine wine friends who quickly aligned themselves as either New World Chardonnay afficionados or consummate Burghounds. The competitive nature of fine wine does this to grown adults… and so was born, the concept of a New World versus Burgundy Chardonnay shoot-out. Each team of tasters would run several rounds, and through a series of blind, scored tastings, they would select their top 10 wines, without budgetary restrictions, to compete against each other in a grand blind taste off. See the results here.

The results of this tasting were indeed fascinating but also served to confirm that yes, white Burgundy even five years ago was still prohibitively expensive from the top producers and even more so now, and yes, the New World could undoubtedly produce wines that rivalled the very best of France. I was of course lucky enough to serve as one of the New World team members on the June 2018 tasting alongside global heavy-weight journalist Neal Martin, who was there to help oversee the proceedings and to help make it a bit of a legendary tasting event… never to be repeated. Well, they do say, never say never!

In early 2023, one of the fine wine judges on our now famous “Judgement of Wimbledon” Grenache blind tasting panel raised the feasibility of presenting another blind Chardonnay Challenge, but this time not pitched against Burgundy directly, but merely featuring some of the best and most highly rated Chardonnays in the world in another blind, judgement-style tasting… this time not in Wimbledon, but in neighbouring Surbiton. Now, I will be the first to admit that “The Judgement of Surbiton” does not quite carry the same gravitas as “The Judgement of Paris”… however, the fine wine aficionado and obsessive South African wine collector behind the idea, Riaan Potgieter, single handedly organised one of the most impressively slick blind tastings I have attended in many years, featuring a line-up of wines from around the world that any Chardonnay fanatic would give their eye teeth to taste individually, let alone altogether. The wines were as follows:

Rest assured, tasting so many incredible wines was positively gruelling, not in a bad way but in a mentally sapping way. When confronted with so many individually brilliant wines, it is always going to be hard work separating the merely good from the truly great. Among the 19 wines tasted by seven expert tasters, there were four wines from Australia, three from France, one from Germany, one from Italy, two from New Zealand, four from the USA and of course four from South Africa. Wines were generally all rated 97+ from critically acclaimed international reviewers but the range also included two blind hundred pointers from recent releases, namely Giaconda 2021 from Australia and Kistler Laguna Ridge from Sonoma County, USA.

Where the June 2018 Chardonnay Challenge selection failed to include any South African wines, (not for a lack of trying), this tasting featured four wines stunning wines that performed incredibly well considering the competition. These included a fabulous Kershaw Wines Deconstructed Lake District Bokkeveld Shale CY95 Chardonnay 2018, a Leeu Passant Chardonnay 2020, a Lismore Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2021,  and an Onskuld Chardonnay 2021 from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley made by Stephanie Wiid. On the day, six of the seven tasters certainly did not know what the final line up of wines would be, let alone that it would include four South African wines!

But boy did they perform, with the astonishing final Top 5 line-up including:

  1. Littoria BA Theriot 2020, USA
  2. Kistler Laguna Ridge 2019, USA
  3. Giaconda Beechworth 2021, Aus
  4. Leeu Passant 2020, SA
  5. Onskuld 2021, SA

Followed by in order of score assessment:

  1. Furst Franconia R 2020
  2. Tolpuddle 2021
  3. Shaw + Smith Lenswood Vineyard 2020
  4. Cullen Kevin John 2021
  5. Ramey Hyde Vineyard 2019
  6. Domaine de Montille Puligny Montrachet Les Cailleret 2019
  7. Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Les Folatieres 2013
  8. Kershaw Decontructed Lake District Bokkeveld Shale CY95 2018
  9. Lismore Estate Reserve 2021
  10. Kumeu River Mates Vineyard 2020
  11. Gaja Gaia & Rey 2020
  12. Blank Canvas Reed Vineyard Marlborough 2021
  13. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 2019
  14. Coche Dury Bourgogne 2013

With the current state of ascendancy of South African wines, it seems obvious that this type of blind judgement tasting is going to be repeated regularly in the years to come. Whether they will all feature this calibre of competition from around the world, is another question altogether. I have it on good account that assembling this selection alone was a fairly laborious, arduous and long-winded affair. For starters, the Giaconda 100-pointer was flown out of Australia as European stock is only going to be released through the Bordeaux Place in the Autumn and the Kister Laguna Ridge cuvee is only available in magnum format at great expense. Needless to say, an absolutely phenomenal result for South African Chardonnay!

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years traveling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. Earlier this year, he moved across to South African specialist merchant Museum Wines to become the Fine Wine Director. He qualified as a Master of Wine in 2007.


2 comment(s)

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    GillesP | 6 September 2023

    Great reading and very interesting results. I love that number 1 and 2 are from the US as much as I am surprised. Only tried Kistler once and that amazing. Congrats to Leeu Passant and I am glad I bought Ondskull on your advice. Surprise the US came 1st and 2nd because nowadays if you make chardonnay which is rich, bold and buttery you are not in fashion. People want to pay top money for Burgundy of purity and dare I say minerality. That is not my taste but I find it reassuring that there are still some judges on my side of the taste profile.

      Greg Sherwood | 7 September 2023

      The US wines were all very good as were the Aussie Chardonnays, thought they can tend towards the more reductive style. Bit surprised the Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay didn’t perform better, but that is the thrill of blind tastings. In General, top South African Chardonnay has a fine balance of freshness, oaking and textural richness without over stepping the mark (or certainly the top cooler climate expressions do!) They can perform very well in blind tastings… and I think our best South African Chardonnays lie ahead of us and are still waiting to be made!

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