Greg Sherwood MW: How to break the Chardonnay quality glass ceiling?

By , 5 April 2023



The Onskuld vineyard,Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge.

Looking purely at recent figures, the plantings of Chenin Blanc in South Africa currently weigh in at a whopping 17,500 hectares compared to 9,800 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and circa 7,100 hectares of Chardonnay. But plantings only tell one side of the story while consumer demand and varietal recognition tell another more nuanced tale. With so many column centimetres written about Chenin Blanc of late, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that it is the dominant white varietal wine category in the South Africa market.

Of late, Chenin Blanc has arguably done a lot of the hard yards for most elevated and aspiring premium grape variety on the market. Indeed, I’ve regularly punted premium old-vine Chenin Blanc as the perfect counterfoil to traditional barrel aged Chardonnay in the eyes of the consumer, with its weight of fruit, textural complexity and affinity to oak all playing a significant part in its recent ascendancy. But all this has undoubtedly been done under the very watchful gaze of many premium Chardonnay producers…

Chardonnay is of course a much more generic and widely planted global variety that is not easily matched in quality outside of Burgundy, which understandably has allowed Chenin Blanc to steal a bit of hometown advantage in South Africa and stake its claim for representing a more unique expression of local terroir. It just seems that looking at recent ratings from the past three to five years, a top old-vine Chenin Blanc is far more likely to crack a 95-to-98-point score from international wine critics than any premium Chardonnay produced on the South African market. The opportunities for Chenin Blanc seem almost boundless despite Chardonnay being well established on the local fine wine scene since the mid-1980s.

Having recently review the excellent Draaiboek Wines Onskuld Chardonnay 2021, my mind has been preoccupied with South African Chardonnay and the general status of this grape variety in not only the local South African marketplace but also on the global stage.

Coincidentally, one of the co-owners of the Draaiboek Wines brand happens to live in the UK not too far away from me in West London and during the height of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic lock down, the winery enquired whether I would be prepared to review the maiden Chardonnay vintage release of their new wine brand.

Despite knowing nothing of the Onskuld label, I agreed. With a strict no household mixing directive still in place by the UK government, a couple of bottles of the maiden 2019 vintage where hand-delivered to me and left on my doorstep, with the part owner, Pieter Lemmer, standing a safe distance away in the pouring rain attempting to explain the significance of the wine and how this new brand was established. In hindsight, it all seems a bit comical, but these were indeed testing times for all.

In all honesty, I have to admit that I did not expect much beyond the ordinary when tasting the 2019 release. However, as the provenance of the grapes became clearer and who exactly their consulting winemaker was, it is fair to say my interest was substantially peaked.

The maiden Chardonnay was of course made by accomplished winemaker Stephanie Wiid of Thistle & Weed fame, from grapes sourced in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge from the La Vierge farm. For a maiden release and a new brand on the market, I scored this wine an admirable 92/100. But even more impressively, it was the second vintage of this wine that I scored 95/100, a wine that only narrowly missed out on 5 Stars (95/100 points and higher) in the Platter’s blind tastings. To complete the trio, I recently tasted their 2021 Chardonnay release, scoring it an impressive 96/100 points, which coincidently matches the blind 96/100 point score it achieved in the 2022 Platter’s blind tasting panel review.

The questions this new wine brand raises are plentiful. How has a totally new wine been able to rise to such fame (and quality) within only three vintages? Winemaker talent? Undoubtedly. But then again, there are a lot of very good winemakers in South Africa. Of course, having premium grapes to work with from an ideal terroir like the high-altitude Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, complemented by 2021 being one of the best South African white wine vintages in a decade or more, also surely played a significant part. One just needs to look at the incredible quality of the Chardonnays coming from Ridge neighbour Creation to know that this is indeed a special Chardonnay terroir.

All these factors might suggest that too many other examples of aspiring Chardonnay in South Africa are made from grapes sourced from vines grown in less-than-ideal sites or on the wrong terroir altogether, in regions where the temperatures are maybe less than ideal for premium Chardonnay.

Is this the case, though? Obsessive attention to detail combined with the very best fruit will almost certainly achieve special results. The recent high ratings of Hannes Storm’s incredible new 2022 Chardonnays are a case in point (see here), to which you can surely add the creations of Craig Wessels of Restless River, the deconstructed expressions of Richard Kershaw MW in Elgin, the Mullineux’s Leeu Passant project in the Helderberg, and Uva Mira’s impressive premium examples made from vineyards not much more than a stone’s throw away from one of the Mullineux Helderberg blocks.

What all the producers mentioned above have in common (and of course I could add several more like Newton Johnson, Hamilton Russell, Iona and Paul Cluver) is their unwavering focus on excellence combined with a disproportionate amount of time dedicated to the Chardonnay variety.

Having personally seen first-hand the blending trials, blind tastings and winemaking experimentation that Stephanie Wiid has carried out in the name of perfecting the Onskuld brand while simultaneously developing their second premium regional Chardonnay label made from Elgin fruit in the 2022 vintage that is due to be released later in 2023, it is clear that the amount of effort invested into striving for some kind of perfection, is directly proportional to the final end quality in bottle… and in all likelihood, elevated critical ratings.

For now, it is becoming clearer and clearer what Chardonnay producers need to do in order to increase quality and achieve a more precise quality aesthetic. As the status quo currently stands, Chenin Blanc still leads in the ratings race by a head. As time passes, though, this race between different premium Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay producers looks set to become a more closely run affair. Which horse are you going to back?

  • 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.


5 comment(s)

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    GillesP | 7 April 2023

    Hello Greg. Thank you for putting Draaiboek Chardonnay on my radar. I didn’t know about it before your column. Bought 6 bottles yesterday at Wine Cellar. Let’s see about it.

      Greg Sherwood | 7 April 2023

      Hope you enjoy. It’s very unusual for such a new venture to reach such high quality heights so quickly. But do give the wines plenty of decanting or drink over 2 or 3 days. They are very well constructed. I for one am a big fan! But who doesn’t love top quality Chardonnay from the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge? It’s a superb terroir making epic wines.

    Tim Parsons | 6 April 2023

    It’s wonderful to see Onskuld gaining the recognition it deserves. Your original review, that highlighted tasting it over a three day period, resonated with us as, while we are great wine drinkers, never in large amounts. After three days we put it next to a Latour Chassagne Montrachet, which it wiped the floor with! A great review at the time and an example of why reviews need to be human as well traditional in their context!

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 5 April 2023

    Greg, you judge on Decanter panels. Last year, SA Chardonnay outscored SA Chenin 10:5 in respect of wines rated 95+ at the World Wine Awards. Of the wines scored 96+, SA Chardonnay was ahead 5:2. Your comment?

      Greg Sherwood | 6 April 2023

      Mike, Decanter Mag and DWWA competitions are a little different to the critical sighted reviews and ratings I was more referring to from people like Tim Atkin, Neal Martin or indeed Christian Eedes. Funny enough, when it comes to blind tasting, maybe the ground between Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay is a little more even? Or Chardonnay may even have an advantage?

      But Chardonnay, like Pinot Noir, has such high standards to live up to globally as all producers ultimately live and produce wines in the shadow of Burgundies great achievements. Whereas with Chenin Blanc, there are not that many commonplace yardsticks to which Eben Sadie, Ian Naude, Chris Alheit, Bruwer Raats or David & Nadia can be held up to in comparison. Chenin Blanc producers are more masters of their own destiny and success than Chardonnay producers are?

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