Tim James: Heroes and fools and the story of South African chardonnay

By , 28 March 2022

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De Wetshoft in Robertson – owner Danie de Wet was a central figure in the smuggling of Chardonnay into SA.

A vertical tasting of Paul Cluver Chardonnay recently (see Christian’s tasting notes), reminded me of the thoroughly odd history of the variety in South Africa. It’s a story still partly buried in uncertainty – despite an official commission of enquiry into its most lurid moment – and needs some more digging, and more information to be gathered from some of those involved.

Those people directly implicated, especially in the latter 1970s, in illegally importing chardonnay material – and other varieties – have been called “fools and heroes” by an Oxford historian, Gavin Williams, who looked into some aspects of the story. “Fools” because some of the imports of chardonnay turned out to be a less prestigious burgundian variety called auxerrois, “heroes” because they acted out of a determination to get better quality varieties and clones into the country for their vineyards in the face of apparent KWV reluctance (another instance of the all-powerful KWV’s then concentration on quantity over quality) and laborious import and quarantine procedures.

The oldest Paul Cluver vines date from 1987 plantings on the De Rust estate in Elgin made in collaboration with Nederburg (Cluver was not then making its own wine). Andries Burger confirmed that grapes from these old vines go into the Estate chardonnay, but from them the Seven Flags and Wagon Trail bottlings also come. As far as I know, these and De Wetshof’s Bateleur vineyard, planted the same year, are the oldest surviving chardonnay vines producing a varietal wine. As I described a while back, there’s a surprising chardonnay vineyard on Lammershoek in the Swartland that dates back to 1981, but the grapes go into a blend. There are a few vineyards in Stellenbosch planted in 1988 – including at Haskell and Waterford – as well as the famous Kaaimansgat vineyard in Elandskloof in the Overberg.

I’m told by Emile Joubert that Attie Louw of Opstal in the Slanghoek Valley reported having chardonnay vineyards planted in 1955. Perhaps somewhere there is still some chardonnay going back to before the illegal imports started in the 1970s. But at the time there was very little in the ground, and the material available for planting was badly diseased – hence the need for the new, smuggled material. Danie de Wet of De Wetshof tells me that the first chardonnay vines in the Cape were probably brought in by Professor Perold: “After establishing it on De Wetshof, I was not happy with the result and progressively had material brought in from Europe”, he says. (Danie was a central figure in the smuggling scandal.)

The first locally-made varietal chardonnay on the market was Backsberg 1980. There was also a DeWetshof 1980 – but that proved to be from the mistakenly (foolishly!) brought in auxerrois. De Wetshof did bring out a (genuine) 1981, and so did Simonsig. Others were soon to follow – including Blaauwklippen in 1982, Hamilton Russell in 1983 (called Premier Vin Blanc), Nederburg in 1984 (pre-Cluver grapes, of course). The Platter’s guide of 1990 lists about 40.

Interestly, 1990 was the year when Sydney Back remarked that more than half of the chardonnay produced the previous year came from “smuggled vines”. Those 1987 plantings at De Wetshof and Cluver? – probably not. By this time, import procedures, still tightly controlled as they must be, were more streamlined. The scandal had achieved that much. Even by 1986, Distillers had a permit to import 18 000 grafted vines each of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Says Gavin Williams: “The number of chardonnay vines planted trebled from 1985-1986 to 949,216 vines (8% of all vines) in 1986-1987.”

By 2020, chardonnay was the sixth-most-planted variety in the country, a whisker ahead of pinotage. The quality of the fairly plentiful best is now, unquestionably, high by any international standard, particularly remarkable for a variety with such a short history in the country. Auxerrois – which produces some very decent wines in Burgundy – was, probably unfortunately, never granted status as an official variety in the country and exited with ignominy. As far as I know, there is none now planted here – though just perhaps somewhere there are some of those scandalously smuggled vines, their fruit going into an anonymous Dry White.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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