Getting to Know Chardonnay

Words: Julie Velosa

Chardonnay has always been a divisive varietal; one that seems to have gone out of and come back into fashion a few times over. This, we suspect, may have something to do with pop culture surrounding it that made it seem entirely passé to drink it (think Bridget Jones ruminating over a big glass of it and the less than classy character on Footballer’s Wives named after it). Pop culture notwithstanding, South Africans have often favoured Sauvignon Blanc as their white wine of choice but Chardonnay is an ever growing category that’s continually gaining fans.

Chardonnay is divided into two main groups, the unoaked version, which is lighter, more citrusy and crisp and the oaked version, which has more pie crust, nutty and buttery flavours that hit the mid palate. Some would even say a slightly oilier mouthfeel.

There was a trend for some time to ‘over oak’ Chardonnays (we’re looking at you California), which led to these wines being termed butter bombs. If you are a fan of a buttery Chardonnay then this may seem crazy to you, but if you’ve favoured drinking, say, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, then you could find this over oaking to be a polarising factor.

It is, in fact, a common misconception that oaking is what gives a Chardonnay its buttery flavour.
Oak will add vanilla notes, as well as toasty and nutty notes too, so perhaps this is an easy assumption to make. The truth though, is that it’s actually a process called malolactic fermentation that adds this flavour profile. Malo…whaaat? Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is in fact not really fermentation at all but is a process that happens after the wine has fermented, when it is being barrel aged. MLF is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid (via the addition of a very helpful bacteria), which softens the overall acidity of wine (malic is derived from the Latin word malum meaning apple, and lactic from the word lactis meaning milk, so you see the softening of flavour profiles connection). Diacetyl is a by-product of malolactic fermentation and is one of the chemicals that gives butter its delicious buttery flavour, and hence gives big, oaked Chardonnay’s that signature flavour. Mystery solved.

3 facts you should know about Chardonnay

  • It originated in the Burgundy region of France and, as such, became known as White Burgundy.
  • It does well in both warmer and cooler climates reflecting its terroir in both with different flavour profiles.
  • Chardonnay is a major component in Champagne and MCC.

Pairing

  • Lighter Chardonnays (often unoaked or lightly oaked) are crisper and fruitier and pair well with seafood, roast chicken and vegetables.
  • Buttery Chardonnays stand up well with rich buttery foods such as lobster, steak béarnaise and scallops.

A Selection of Great South African Chardonnays

Boschendal 1685 Chardonnay

Chardonnay grapes for this wine were selected from three areas: Stellenbosch, Elgin Valley and Boschendal farm, from vineyards planted on well-drained soils. The variety of clones within the selected vineyards gives complexity and character to this wine. The final blend of this wine consists of 70% oak-fermented and matured and 30% stainless steel fermented Chardonnay.

Winemaker: Lizelle Gerber

On the nose: this statement wine is big on aromas & flavours and has a lemony, cinnamon and nutmeg nose.

On the palate: zesty citrus and ripe tropical fruit flavours. Well-balanced with a soft, buttery character add to the complexity and roundness of the wine.

We love it with: a gorgeous fish dish such as this Angelfish With Grilled Asparagus and Roasted Garlic & Parsley Dressing

Price: R149

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De Grendel Op Die Berg Chardonnay

The grapes used to make this wine, as its name suggests, thrive high on the Witzenberg Mountain range in Ceres, at an altitude of 960 meters above sea level. This unique appellation exhibits South Africa’s only truly continental climate with winter temperatures frequently dropping below freezing. The daily temperature fluctuation at altitude, with cooler night time temperatures and hotter daytime temperatures during the growing season, results in slower ripening, more concentrated fruit. Op die Berg Chardonnay was recently voted internationally by The Drinks Business Global Chardonnay Masters 2016, as one of the best-performing Chardonnays under £20. Winners included wines from Sicily, to Israel and Australia.

Winemaker: Charles Hopkins

On the nose:  floral orange blossom with enticing layers of butterscotch and pithy grapefruit zest.

On the palate: subtle lemon flavours enveloped in a creamy richness that ends with a surprisingly dry, crisp, saline minerality.

We love it with: chicken or fish in cream based sauces to compliment the buttery richness of the wine. Seared or grilled shellfish such as crayfish or scallops complement the nuances of the wine beautifully. The full fruit of the wine can serve to cut through the acidity of a fish ceviche. Try this Dusky Cob Ceviche.

Price: R175

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Cape of Good Hope Serruria Chardonnay 2015

Produced from vineyards planted on the farm Altima (situated in the Elandskloof) this terroir-specific wine forms part of Cape of Good Hope range created in recognition of South Africa’s 350-year-old vinous heritage, aptly known as the Old Vines Initiative.

The Altima vineyard is situated in a pristine valley north of Villiersdorp, also known as the Kaaimanskloof area, and is surrounded by a steep mountain range that rises 1km from the valley floor. During the winter months, these mountains are typically covered with snow and, coupled with the elevation of 600 to 700m, equates to a very cool climate. This unique terroir produces wines with a high natural acidity and upfront aromas.

Winemaker: Mark van Buuren

On the nose: a shy orange blossom bouquet with hints of spice.

On the palate: fresh with lively orange and citrus flavours, cloaked with a creamy vanilla oak.

We love it with: light prawn and coconut Thai curry, succulent roast chicken, and seafood dishes such as Paella, Bouillabaisse or cold poached salmon served with a lemon and fennel sauce. Try this Seafood Paella.

Price: R155 per bottle at the Tasting Room

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Hartenberg Eleanor Chardonnay

Eleanor Chardonnay forms part of Hartenberg Wine Estate’s range of Super Premium wines. It pays tribute to the matriarch of the Finalyson family who, with her husband Maurice, owned the farm (then known as Montagne) from 1948 to 1977. A strong and resolute woman, yet always sophisticated and poised, the Chardonnay is her perfect partner in wine.  Previous vintages of the Eleanor Chardonnay have received notable recognition in the industry, which include 412 stars in the internationally recognised Platter Wine Guide, as well as a gold medal at the 2012 International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Winemaker: Carl Schultz

On the nose: perfumed, nutty with vanillin notes.

On the palate: complex and rich with a tangy finish.

We love it with: rich, decadent food such as oysters, scallops or Cape Line fish or a delicious cheese board. Try this Salmon and Scallop Ceviche.

Price: R325

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Glen Carlou Quartz Stone Chardonnay

The Glen Carlou name has become synonymous with Chardonnay in South Africa, with the winery producing some of the best the country has to offer. Quartz Stone Chardonnay is a single block wine from the estate’s oldest vines which were established in 1989. The name stems from the fact that this particular vineyard’s soil is made up of decomposed granite with a presence of quartz. It is naturally fermented and does not go through the malolactic process (as mentioned above); the resulting wine has a beautifully balanced acidity.

Winemaker: Johnnie Calitz

On the nose: Aromas of honey blossom, pineapple and pear.

On the palate:

We love it with: scallops, langoustines, seafood or quail. Try it with this Prawn and Avocado Ritz.

Price: R275

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