James Pietersen: SA vs Rest of World Chardonnay tasting

By , 24 March 2016



Last year saw the “Great Syrah Challenge” take place at Lismore Estate Vineyards in Greyton, an exercise which saw some of South Africa’s top examples of Syrah pitched against top international wines, the latter line-up put together by Tim Atkin MW. South Africa fared well (see here) and it was decided to do similar tasting on an annual basis, Chardonnay selected as the relevant category for 2016.

It has long been held in wine circles that Chardonnay is our strongest category of wines, especially in terms of depth. On 19 March, I joined 12 other tasters at a blind tasting of 35 wines, 21 from South African and 14 international examples, the local wines curated by Samantha O’Keefe of Lismore and the international wines again selected by Atkin.

The wines were tasted blind in three flights of nine and one of eight, identities only revealed at the very end. The scoring was done according to the 100-point scale and averaged to get to a top ten. Once scores were gathered, wine makers exchanged ideas and thoughts on the various wines.


Top dog.

Best wine on the day was from South Africa, the Richard Kershaw Clonal Selection Chardonnay 2014 (buy now) and six of the top 10 wine were home-grown. In the top ten we had one each from Canada, Chile, New Zealand and France. The SA component was nicely spread out, with one each from Elgin, Franschhoek, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge and Stellenbosch and two from the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

Salient points from the discussions were as follows:
– Although wine styles differed from region to region, they were nuanced and subtle, whilst the very best wines showed a uniformity of high quality wine making.
– I felt that outside of Burgundy, wines from different countries were not that easily distinguished, especially from a qualitative point of view.
– That the manner in which malo-lactic fermentation is approached has an important influence on the acid profile of wines – it has contributed a great deal to fresher styled wines, not exclusively though.
– The best chardonnays have moved away from heavier toasted barrels and blond toast or light toast is now the norm.
– Over-oaking was not an issue on any of these wines.
– In general there was a like-mindedness or philosophy behind the wines tasted and this was evident amongst the wine makers present; in short the wines were more ‘European’ in style, more focussed, leaner, more savoury/saline and more complex.
– Can chardonnay be too lean? This was another question, although there were few examples in the tasting, it is an aspect of great Chardonnay to keep an eye on.
– There was a great deal of precision to some of these wines, leading to comments by some that they would have liked more ‘dents and scratches’ to the wines. Personality was an essential ingredient to great wines. Complexity and personality should not be sacrificed in favour of leanness and precision.
– South African chardonnay offers incredible value.

The top ten wines from this tasting were as follows, with average scores that ranged from 92.93 for the winner to 90.92 for no 10.

1. Richard Kershaw, Clonal Selection 2014, Elgin, South Africa
2. Norman Hardy, Unfiltered 2013, Ontario, Canada
3. Sumaridge 2013, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
4. Warwick, White Lady 2012, Stellenbosch, South Africa
5. Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca 2013, Limari Valley, Chile
6. Newton Johnson Family Vineyards 2015, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
7. Kumeu River, Hunting Hill 2011, Kumeu, New Zealand
8. Joseph Drouhin Perrieres Meursault 2013, Burgundy, France
9. Crystallum, Clay Shales 2012, Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge, South Africa
10. Chamonix Reserve 2014, Franschhoek, South Africa

I joined the following tasters:

Tim Atkin – timatkin.com
Nadia Barnard – Waterkloof
Andries Burger – Paul Cluver
Peter-Allan Finlayson – Crystallum
Richard Kershaw – Richard Kershaw Wines
Adam Mason – Mulderbosch and Yardstick
Gordan and Nadia Newton-Johnson – Newton Johnson
Samantha O’Keefe – Lismore Estate Vineyards
Donovan Rall – Rall Wines
Duncan Savage – Savage Wines and Cape Point Vineyards
Hannes Storm – Storm Wines

Special thanks to Samantha O’Keefe, and especially her team for the logistics, Tim Atkin for contributing the international wine and winemag.co.za for the opportunity to take part in this tasting.

  • James Pietersen manages the South African wine portfolio at Wine Cellar. He is permanent member of the winemag.co.za panel and has also tasted for Platter’s South African Wine Guide and the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show among many other assignments.

Read Tim Atkin’s report on the tasting here.


2 comment(s)

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    Anetha | 24 March 2016

    Hello James

    Great to see the SA wines doing so well!

    Is it normal practice for people to taste on a panel when their own wines are in the line-up? Surely this could potentially benefit their own wines?

      Christian | 24 March 2016

      Hi Anetha,

      Unfortunately I wasn’t at the tasting but I have been privy to the thinking behind both this and the Syrah tasting. These aren’t intended as conventional wine competitions but rather as discussion forums to facilitate learning.

      In terms of the actual outcome, it should be noted once again that there were 13 tasters so a huge averaging effect comes into play. Two of the local winemakers to have wines in the top 10 were not present while conversely quite a few who were present, did not have wines in the top ten.

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