Vintage, winemaker, chardonnay

The question of whether vintage is important in South African wine comes up every so often. My standard answer is yes, vintage is important, but arguably not as vitally important as it is in Europe.

The preceding winter plays its role in allowing the vine to rest (so much the better when the weather is cold and wet), the growing season dictates the ripening curve and influences quality in endless ways – and of course weather is reliably inconstant. We do have better and worse seasons, for example 2002 is now considered a lesser vintage. That being said, the Cape certainly has more reliable sunshine than Europe has (though this may be historic with climate change) and it is generally true that our ripening season, and wine, is more consistent in style.

One factor that is crucial, yet often forgotten, is the hand of the maker. Although most wine farms now preach the gospel of terroir, the influence of the people who make the wine – and no more so than the winemaker – is vital. Estates with the most consistent style often down-play the personality of the winemaker in order to let the estate personality shine, because, after all, a wine farm can live for centuries but not the maker.

But the hand of the maker is powerful. I was reminded of this the other night when I ordered a bottle of 2005 Meerlust Chardonnay to show to some American guests. They had previously professed a deep love for rich chardonnay, so I thought a few of the Cape’s icons were in order. I can now tell you with certainty that Chris Williams, since taking the reins from Giorgio Dalla Cia, has modulated the Meerlust Chardonnay style quite firmly away from the rich and wood-driven to a fresher, fruit-driven position. He had explained this was his intention, and there it was: not the perfect wine for my oak-loving friends (but very agreeable to me).

By the way, if you like your chardonnay well-wooded and seriously rich, Longridge still specialise in this approach and judging by the award stickers on the bottle, this is still a universally loved style. Another goodie in a soft but less wooded guise is De Wetshof’s Finesse, while my favourite from this stable is the Limestone Hill Chardonnay which is actually unwooded but gets oodles of richness from concentrated fruit flavours.

Speaking of vintage, with many 2005 reds now already appearing on the shelves, the jury is poking its head out over 2004 (famously, every vintage is great until the wine is safely sold). Turns out that 2004 is uneven in quality, and I suspect it will not be a famed vintage in years to come. But if you stick to producers with good track records, you’re doing fine.