At the end of last year one of the key points we made was that Chardonnay was going to be an important topic in the wine world, but “not the Chardonnays you think”. A lot of folks here are moving past the biggest and blowsiest wines stylistically, and a number of newer California bottlings are showing much more precision and verve. Oregon is making Chardonnays like they never have before. But it seems, for the time being, the biggest news is south of the Equator.
The critics will continue to buzz about those $100+ ‘drama’ California Chardonnays that ring up 99 points every year that you can’t buy. Hey, that’s what critics do. But for real people who have to spend their own money, there is a lot more to like and better value from places like Australia, Argentina and the origin for today’s compelling value offer, South Africa.
Most people may not realize it, but the closest climate to California on the planet can be found in…South Africa. Lots of sunshine, warm days near the coast but never scorching. The temperatures and soils make for Chardonnay that manifests like some of the finest from California and France, but with their own unique edge. It’s all about the limestone, that definitive dirt that has much to do with the vinous success of estates in both Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as very specific sites in Mount Harlan (think Calera), westside Paso, and parts of the Santa Rita Hills. Of course the price tags for things from those magical soils can be a bit dear. Character costs.
But that’s what makes knowing about little secrets like De Wetshof all the more exciting. If we can get both the sunshine, and the stones, combine that with perfect vines and top winemaking, and good things are likely to happen.
The De Wetshof Estate is, in fact, one of the pioneers of Chardonnay in South Africa. We fondly remember looking back and tasting some of the very first South African wines to arrive here post-apartheid and even back then we noted that De Wetshof was one of the labels to watch. The family continues to pioneer Chardonnay, with no less than a half-dozen different site-specific bottlings. All are noteworthy, but it is easiest to make the case for the purity and definition of the De Wetshof Estate Chardonnay Bon Vallon Robertson 2018 at a sub $15 fare.
What a wine for the money! The vines are 10-20 years old and sit in soils of broken mountain rock and limestone with a little bit of clay that aids in water retention. The resulting juice has surprising palate authority and tension that whisks the palate clean with every sip, but still has enough mid-palate weight to deliver in an aperitif role. It’s the perfect fusion of old world and new world styles. This particular rendition also sees no oak, which is an additional plus for some folks.
We offered with the DeWetshof’s Lesca bottling not long ago and, like we said, have worked with these wines for a long time. We actually tasted this little number alongside the newest Lesca (2018, we still have a little of the 93-point 2017). They were both excellent examples of terroir driven, clean Chardonnay and both of these 2018s got 92 points from Wine Spectator. However, the price difference made our choice clear. The ‘delta’ was strong with this one (WS 92 points, $14.98) and it is a fantastic candidate for house Chardonnay particularly given its food versatility.
Wine Spectator’s succinct prose tells a pretty concise story, “A flash of matchstick gives way quickly to a bright core of green and yellow apple flavors laced liberally with honeysuckle and verbena notes through the nicely detailed finish. Very, very solid. Drink now through 2021.” We’d also note a subtle streak of minerality running through the wine adds more dimension. We’d have to say the Bon Vallon 2018 is one of the better unoaked Chardonnays out there and pretty much unequalled for style and character in the price range.
Most people don’t think of South Africa as a ‘hotbed’ for Chardonnay. But offerings this good for this kind of price will do a lot to change that.