Celebrating chardonnay

There is something just so rewarding about listening to a great writer, reading what they have written. You know, like those rare occasions when a great writer, having released a great book, does those appearances at great book stores, where an enraptured audience sits and absorbs every word, as they read an excerpt from the latest great book?

Two weeks ago, listening to American novelist and wine writer, Jay McInerney, speaking about chardonnay at the biennial Celebration of Chardonnay, hosted by the De Wet family on their Roberston wine estate, was one such experience.

This was no speech written specially for the occasion, rather it was magnificent prose, romancing chardonnay, every word, every phrase, crafted with meticulous care.

I realised just how captivated I was, when I caught myself sitting, chin cupped in hand, pen set aside, listening, as I journeyed with him, on his chardonnay odyssey.

One of two famous Burgundy grapes, chardonnay has had a rough ride over the years, and not least here in South Africa. The huge, over-oaked, buttery monsters of the 1980s were well nigh undrinkable, resulting in the damning mantra ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), which put a huge dent in chardonnay’s popularity, particularly from New World wine-producing countries like South Africa, Australia, America and Chile.

Of late, we have seen chardonnays of far greater elegance, finesse and focus, gracing the shelves.

It started for me in 2008, the massively popular Chablis-style when Ashton Cellar in Robertson won a gold medal at the 2008 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show for its Unwooded Chardonnay, but of course De Wetshof has been crafting fine Chablis-style chardonnays for years, from grapes grown in the very same limestone-rich soils that grace the Robertson Valley.

It is this immense versatility that makes chardonnay the darling of the wine drinking world and, for many winemakers, the grape that can either express faithfully where it is grown, or reveal in its depths, the hand of the winemaker.

With his opening words, Jay masterfully captures chardonnay’s versatility and mystery thus: “Chardonnay is the great chameleon of viticulture, or to put it in a slightly less flattering light, more than a bit of a trollop. It’s the world’s most famous and beloved white wine grape. It’s a superstar, beloved of drinkers and growers, famous all over the world. But it’s also an enigma wrapped in a mystery.”

And he concludes his fascinating ode to chardonnay thus: “It is a bit of a contradiction, given its ability to produce wines of crystalline purity on the one hand and Baudelarian decadence on the other.”

We tasted 20 chardonnays, ranging in vintage from 1993 to 2015, and at the extremes of the age spectrum, chardonnay revealed its capacity to make exceptional wine.

The 1993 vintage, a lightly wooded chardonnay, won for Danie De Wet the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award in 1995.

It is still as fresh, elegant and poised as a fine chardonnay no more than year or two old, demonstrating this remarkable grape’s ability to make wines that age magnificently.

The 2015 Demorgenzon Reserve Chardonnay was awarded best chardonnay of show over £15, at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, and although it is drinking magnificently, it too, will age with grace.

Chardonnay is back with a vengeance.