The story of Chardonnay starts in South Africa in the 1970s. The South African wine industry had a paltry offering back then, with basically only two white wine varieties; Chenin Blanc and Crouchen (Cape Riesling).
Everything was done under the strict auspices of mega-producer KWV, which exercised quasi-state influence over the industry and regulated the importation and supply of vine material. Limited Chardonnay stocks were disease-ridden to the point of being unplantable and KWV had an aversion to introducing new stock as part of its strategy to maintain control and power.
While Australia, New Zealand and America were busy planting the likes of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, wine farms in SA, eager to introduce new plantings, were faced with a daunting 15 to 20 year bureaucratic process:
- Plant material, importing conditions and planting environment had to adhere to strict regulations
- Wine could only be made from grapes grown on the vines 3 to 5 years after planting
- The final product had to be given the green light by the powers that be
- Vines could only then be commercially planted and wine made with the fruit 3 to 5 years later
With such a pathetic supply of healthy vine material and an unviable route to import, a small group of independent estates decided to take matters into their own hands.
Among the group, one Danie de Wet, of De Wetshof Estate in Robertson, recognised the pressing need for the South African wine industry to introduce new varieties if it were to have any hope of competing on the world stage.
Chardonnay – “It still is, and will always be, the greatest white wine in the world.” Danie
Realising how much had to be done to advance the country’s wine offering, he partnered with a number of Chardonnay-loving winemakers to bring in vine-cuttings illegally.
He teamed up with wine legend Jan Boland Coetzee, former Springbok player turned winemaker, who put Kanonkop on the map. Jan had gone to work in Burgundy, Chardonnay’s ancestral home, when he received a call from Danie. Looking for some cuttings he identified the perfect vineyard, Clos des Mouches just outside of Beaune, and cut some shoots on a nice cold day.
“I sent chardonnay back in my son’s nappies, disguised in a chocolate box, in a friend’s handbag, in the lining of a jacket… in any way I could.” Jan
Danie, Jan and the other rebel producers, including Peter Finlayson and Anton Rupert among others, planted the vines on their farms. These illegal imports didn’t stay secret for long, resulting in a state sponsored report with the eminent figures involved called to testify before a Commission.
In a surprising twist of fate, and thanks to their honest engagement with the Commission, the decision was cast in their favour. Ironically, the enquiry even led to the formation of the Vine Improvement Association in 1986 and the lifting of strict import restrictions which had caused the illegal imports in the first place.
South African Chardonnay 40 years on
Four decades have now passed since first Chardonnay cuttings were smuggled into the Cape. In that period, South African winemakers have traversed a steep learning curve, discovering not only where best to grow vines but also how to treat the grapes in the cellar.
Like much of the New World, many South African winemakers have learned the lesson of the global Chardonnay revolution over the last 30 years, whereby heavy-handed use of oak saw the grape fall from grace.
“In the old days we had way too much wood; today South Africa has moved to a fresher, more refined style,” Andries Burger, winemaker at Paul Cluver Wines
Today, new generations of winemakers are turning heads around the world as their Chardonnays improve year-on-year. They continue to push the boundaries with refined wines that retain a uniquely South African imprint.
So the next time you enjoy a glass of South African Chardonnay, spare a thought for Danie, Jan and the other pioneers that helped make it as delicious as it is today.
RAKQ is a specialist in premium South African wine. The company was established in 2020 to champion the best South African wine farms and their wines amongst wine lovers in the UK. RAKQ operates as an SA wine importer, online specialist retailer and SA wine club.