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.


Understanding Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay

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.

Malolactic Fermentation

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.


  • 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

De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay 2017

De Wetshof in Robertson is one of the few third generation wine estates in South Africa. Here Danie de Wet, proprietor and cellarmaster, is assisted by sons Johann (viticulture and marketing) and Peter (winemaker). Danie is a pioneer of noble white wines in South Africa and has also introduced superior red cultivars to the Robertson Wine Valley.

A graduate of the Geisenheim Institute in Germany, one of the world’s leading centres for the study of viticulture and cellar technology, De Wet’s wines express the uniqueness of the soils of De Wetshof and meticulous attention to detail, while state-of-the-art technology ensures that the work in the cellar complements the gifts of nature’s vineyards.

The wine matures beautifully, the years adding dimension and complexity.

WO Robertson
TASTING NOTES Nutty flavours and pronounced citrus finish which consistently characterises the wines produced from this vineyard.
WE LOVE IT WITH Cumin Spiced Lamb Koftas

Rietvallei JMB Chardonnay

Rietvallei Wine Estate counts among South Africa’s oldest family-owned wine estates, and was one of the first wine farms established in the picturesque Robertson Wine Valley. Rietvallei lies in the Klaas Voogds ward, a region with unique soil structures and climatic influences ideal for wine grape cultivation.

With more than 150 years of ownership under one family, the Burger family has contributed to Rietvallei’s reputation of excellence in viticulture and winemaking. Intimate knowledge of the soils and an understanding of the interaction between nature and vine, along with visionary winemaking practices, lie at the heart of Rietvallei’s status for premier winemaking over generations.

WINEMAKER Kobus Burger
WO Robertson Valley
TASTING NOTES  A complex nose rich in citrus aromas complemented by some spicy, toasted oak notes. The palate is rich and creamy with a mixture of ripe orange, lemon and lime flavours. The oak is well integrated and only evident on the background and together with a firm acidity makes for a lingering finish.
WE LOVE IT WITH Duck Heart Tartare


Rietvallei Natural (Unwooded) Chardonnay

WINEMAKER Kobus Burger
WO Robertson Valley
TASTING NOTES An elegant, fruity Chardonnay. The nose explodes with flavours of fresh citrus and orange blossom. The palate reveals green apple flavours and is full-bodied with a good balancing acidity and finishes with a lingering, yeasty aftertaste.
WE LOVE IT WITH Crudité Salad With Hummus & Cracked Chickpeas
PRICE R85, Michelangelo Double Gold award


 Rietvallei Classic (Wooded) Chardonnay

WINEMAKER Kobus Burger
WO Robertson Valley
TASTING NOTES This is lightly oaked but fruity Chardonnay. On the nose is ripe citrus with a touch of toasted oak. The palate is rich and creamy with a good balance between fruit, oak and acidity and finishes with a lingering aftertaste.
WE LOVE IT WITH Dusky Kob Meunière With Lyonnaise Potatoes
PRICE R95, Veritas Silver award 

Uva Mira Single Tree Chardonnay 2015

This Chardonnay is a single vineyard wine, named after the stately tree that graces the centre of the Chardonnay block. A powerful and appealing style of Chardonnay produced in their traditional style.

WINEMAKER Christiaan Coetzee
WO Helderberg Stellenbosch
TASTING NOTES The intricate nose is layered, displaying vibrant aromas of white peach, jasmine and citrus rind with subtler notes of lime, light spice and earthiness in the background. On the palate are elegant stone fruit flavours, chalky minerality and fresh linear acidity are perfectly complemented by a soft, creamy texture and culminate in a dry, lingering finish.
WE LOVE IT WITH Duck Confit With Olive & Red Onion Marmalade

De Meye Unwooded Chardonnay 2017

De Meye Vineyards are situated on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. Farmed and owned by Philp Myburgh, who is the fifth generation to be farming in the area. Philip and Marcus (winemaker) have been working together since 1999, to try and produce the best possible examples of a few focused cultivars, that Stellenbosch has to offer.

Their aim is to do this with as little interference with nature as possible, with a hands-on approach, to produce wines expressing Stellenbosch quality. They believe by keeping things simple and but with focus, from vineyard to bottle, ensures world-class quality.

WINEMAKER Marcus Milner (since 1999)
WO Stellenbosch
TASTING NOTES  Subtle floral undertone and tantalising aromas of pear, melon, banana and hints of minerals characterise this wine. On the palate is clean and fresh with melon and green apple following well from the nose onto the palate, ending with a hint of butterscotch. Well-structured with a long finish.
WE LOVE IT WITH Wild Mushroom ‘Ragù’ With Homemade Pappardelle



Ataraxia Chardonnay 2016

As has become the norm in crafting Ataraxia Chardonnay, a minimalist, non-interventionist winemaking approach, geared to reflect a sense of place and expression of terroir, was adopted. This wine is 100% barrel fermented and carefully matured in specially selected small French oak barriques sourced exclusively from Burgundian coopers.

Fortnightly batonnage was employed throughout the 10-month maturation period. The result is a Chardonnay that is New World in provenance but Old World in stylistic leaning. A chiselled, focused wine that effortlessly manages to be both subtle and intense.

WINEMAKER  Kevin Grant
WO Hemel-en-Aarde, Hermanus
TASTING NOTES Pair Chardonnays in the leaner Burgundian style with roasted chicken or seafood; the more voluptuous New World Chardonnays pair well with pasta dishes made with cream or cheese, with crayfish or other rich seafood and with Asian dishes that include coconut milk. Chardonnay also works well with spicy foods like curries. The wood can carry the spice.
WE LOVE IT WITH Thai Mussels



McGregor Chardonnay

You can find the Mcgregory winery nestled between the hills of the Riviersonderend mountains, just outside the charming village after which it’s named.  The winery was established in 1948, and is owned by the 33 farmers who produce around 14 000 tons of wine grapes annually. The sun-soaked soils result in flavourful grapes, which in turn make delicious wines.  The relaxed pace of life and serenity of the village are reflected in the style of wines produced. The Winery continually strives to deliver high standards of product and service excellence.

WINEMAKER  Elmo Du Plessis
WO Robertson Valley
TASTING NOTES The wine has a bright yellow/green colour complex flavour of butterscotch with a characteristic hint of citrus contribute to the full-ness and freshness of this wine.
WE LOVE IT WITH Prawn & Mussel Linguine



Now that you know more about Chardonnay, why not increase your wine knowledge and get to know  Red and White Blends | Shiraz | Chenin Blanc | Cabernet Sauvignon | Merlot Pinotage | Rosé | Unusual Wine Varietals

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