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The Story of How Chardonnay Came to South Africa

As a nation, South Africans share a close bond with the land and agricultural production. As a result, much of our shared wisdom – our idioms, proverbs and sayings – takes on a pastoral character. One such pearl of enlightenment comes in the form of the old Afrikaans adage “‘n Boer maak ‘n plan” (translated literally as “a farmer makes a plan”), which evokes a certain upward-and-onward, can-do attitude – an innate chutzpah of sorts – with which South African farmers have often been associated. It was precisely this attitude and penchant for practicality that first brought the noblest of the white wine grapes, namely Chardonnay, to the country. Today, South Africa is considered one of the world’s undisputed leaders in producing high-quality and original Chardonnay wines. But the grape’s journey to the southern tip of Africa was rife with obstacles…

WORDS BY EMILE JOUBERT

THE BEGINNINGS OF A PLAN

These days it would be nearly impossible to imagine a local wine landscape without the Chardonnays of Hamilton Russell, Jordan, Hartenberg, Ataraxia, De Wetshof or Bouchard Finlayson. And yet, had it not been for a few farmers determined to “make a plan”, South Africa would probably not be the established Chardonnay producer it is today.

The most well-known of these pioneers was Danie de Wet from De Wetshof Estate in Robertson. But before reviewing his contribution to the grape variety’s establishment in South Africa, let’s explore his motivation. 

“It was my palate, my tongue that set me on a quest to getting the Chardonnay grape growing in South Africa,” says Danie. “It still is, and will always be, the greatest white wine in the world.”

But when Danie began tasting Chardonnays, mostly from the wine’s ancestral home of Burgundy in east-central France, this variety was foreign to his homeland. Between 1968 and 1971, Danie took leave from the family farm of De Wetshof to study winemaking at the famous Geisenheim Institute in Germany. Upon returning to South Africa as a qualified wine farmer, his romance with Chardonnay abruptly turned to frustration as he realised how much ground the country still had to cover regarding its paltry wine offering.

“When it came to white wines, the South African wine industry was basically offering only two varieties, namely Chenin Blanc and Cape Riesling (Crouchen Blanc),” recalls Danie. “Great European grape varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhine Riesling – to name a few – were finding their way into the winelands of Australia, Chile, New Zealand and America. If South Africa did not establish new grape varieties soon, it was obvious we were going to be left behind – both as a wine exporter and as a local producer able to offer wine drinkers a proper selection of quality wines.”

A ROAD ABUNDANT WITH OBSTACLES

Preventing this incorporation of new and different grape varieties was a great obstacle set by the South African wine industry under the auspices of mega-producer KWV, which also served as a regulator in the 1970s and 1980s. They called the shots, and wine farmers had to follow orders. 

As such, establishing a new grape variety in South Africa required farmers to overcome various administrative challenges: 1) Plant material had to be approved, imported under strict conditions and planted in a regulated environment; 2) Only after three to five years could the grapes from this plant be harvested and wine made; and 3) The wine had to be approved by the powers that be. Only then could this new plant material be propagated for commercial use, the vines planted and – after another three to five years – the wine made.

“If South Africa wanted to have a competitive, world-class Chardonnay industry, we producers who wanted to grow the grape could not wait 15 to 20 years before our wines were commercially available,” says Danie. “But the authorities were dead-set in their ways, and so, some other farmers and I began to look at alternative methods of establishing Chardonnay.”

AN ALLIED FRONT

And so began the journey of what is today a part of South African folklore, at least in the wine world. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Danie and a number of other impassioned Chardonnay-loving winemakers took it upon themselves to circumvent the authorities by illegally bringing Chardonnay vine-cuttings into the country.

Danie found a formidable partner in his Chardonnay-smuggling venture, namely Jan Boland Coetzee, the former Springbok rugby-player who had also put the Stellenbosch wine estate Kanonkop on the map.

Jan had left Kanonkop to work in Burgundy, the home of Chardonnay, where this grape had been growing since the 14th century. The region’s wines are still considered the gold standard for any winemaker attempting to produce Chardonnay today.

“In 1980, I was working for Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s leading producers of Chardonnay. When Danie called from South Africa to say he was looking for some cuttings, I knew just the vineyard for him,” recalls Jan. “It was the Clos des Mouches vineyard, just outside the village of Beaune in Burgundy. I cut Danie some shoots on a nice cold day, ensuring the plants would be fresh to travel. Then, I sent the parcel back to South Africa with a journalist who was visiting me in Burgundy.”

Danie and the other winemakers, including Jan himself, planted the material on their farms. Once this contraband Chardonnay came to the wine authorities’ attention, the government ordered an investigation. Danie and Jan were both hauled before the commission; in an uncharacteristic twist of fate, however, the decision was in favour of the defendants. To everyone’s astonishment, the commission found that South Africa needed solutions to introduce new wine varieties into the industry in a less cumbersome manner than the process recommended by the wine authorities.

This is not where the story of South African Chardonnay ends, however, but rather where it begins…

THE BEGINNING

In the forty years (a mere nanosecond in the ancient world of wine) since first experimenting with the world’s most famous white grape variety, South Africa has garnered a reputation for creating Chardonnay wines of riveting quality and the remarkable ability to express the geographical landscape of the Cape winelands.

Emul Ross, winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, says Chardonnay is all about the soil, climate and topography – the terroir – where the grapes are grown.

“No other white wine expresses its address the way Chardonnay does,” says Emul, who is considered one of the young stars of the South African wine industry. “The best job South Africa’s Chardonnay producers have done over the past four generations is to create a portfolio of wines encapsulating the unique features of the Cape’s various regions. From the chalky soils of Robertson and the cool climates of Elgin and Hemel-en-Aarde to the rocky valleys of Stellenbosch…. The country’s Chardonnay offering is one of diversity; something which the world finds enormously exciting.”

Despite this diversity, most top South African Chardonnays have one thing in common: a refined elegance more akin to the wines of the Old World than the new wine cultures of America, Australia and New Zealand. One of the reasons for this sophisticated character is the extra care taken to select the right oak barrels for the wine-maturing process, with an emphasis on French oak. South African winemakers’ respect for Burgundy traditions is another reason.

“But it is what happens in the vineyards that determines your ability to make good Chardonnay,” says Johann de Wet, son of Danie and current CEO of De Wetshof. “Understanding your soils, your region’s climate and the world in which your grapes grow is key to making fine Chardonnay.”

In the end, it is all in the hands of the farmer, who, in our country, has certainly always got a plan.

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