Three Chardonnays

The physical diversity of our wine regions is fantastic. From steep mountain slopes with the endless views beloved by coffee table book photographers, to semi-desert swathes or vineyards at the sea, the small band of land where vines thrive plus the rugged terrain makes for a visually exciting match.
Apart from this boon, a number of wine outings also offer an interesting trip through time and the history of South African winemaking (not forgetting Nederburg’s museum where you can explore this journey through their displays). On a recent wine tasting day, we set off for the morning and it was only later that I realised we had moved, in sequence, from the earliest moments of Cape winemaking, represented by Meerlust, to the start of our “new” industry in the late 1980s/early 1990s at Thelema, and into the 21st century at Tokara. For all the differences between these wineries, there is, interestingly, one commonality: Chardonnay.
Meerlust’s many generations of Myburgh “curators” have, over the painstaking course of time, created a Cape icon wine estate. The farm is beautiful in the honest way that only time and sensitive human intervention can achieve. The world-class wines are still led by the Bordeaux blend, Rubicon, and there are many fans for their great Merlot, so it’s easy to forget the fleshy and delicious 2003 Pinot Noir that’s available. Then there’s the famous yellow-label Chardonnay, which has recently changed its style from the buttery-wooded richness of yore to be fresher with good mineral textures.
At Thelema, the 2003 Merlot Reserve is exquisite. Fruit density married to elegant tannin – if wine could always achieve this, we wine writers would have little to comment on. A curious wine to try here is “The Mint” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Palpably scented with this herb, the jury is still out where this scent comes from. Some suggest it’s the particular grape clone, others say that eucalyptus trees impart a residue that flavours the grapes. At Thelema, a painstaking study is now underway to get to the bottom of this debate. Their Chardonnay is elegant (something of a house style) with less new wood used to avoid too much “toast and cream”.
Tokara, a worthy new Cape showpiece, makes a flotilla of wines, and makes all of them very well. A Sauvignon Blanc specialist, you can compare their Walker Bay edition to their Elgin to their easier-priced Zondernaam. The Walker Bay is classy and well-rounded, while Elgin takes no prisoners – for lovers of powerful, zingy Sauvignon. And then the ubiquitous Chardonnay. The 2006 is well-bred, pure fruited, and again restrained in its alliance with the French oak barrel, which is clearly the modern direction for this variety.