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MICHAEL GREEN’S WINE NOTES #158 (article first published : 2006-09-12)

Danie de Wet of the De Wetshof estate in the Robertson area is a pioneer of South African chardonnay wine. He was not the first to bring this classic Burgundy white grape to the Cape --- that distinction goes to Professor Isak Perold, who imported some chardonnay plant material about 1915 --- but over the past 20 years Danie’s wines have set a standard for Cape chardonnays.

The De Wetshof farm, in the Breede River valley between the towns of Robertson and Bonnievale, about 170 kilometres east of Cape Town, was established more than fifty years ago by Danie’s father. Danie studied viticulture at Geisenheim in Germany and after his return to South Africa the bottling of wine at De Wetshof began, in 1972.

Today the estate has 180 hectares under vines, 90 percent of them bearing white grapes. In the early days the farm produced chenin blanc, Cape riesling, Rhine riesling and muscadel wines. Now it is best known for its chardonnays, although sauvignon blanc and Rhine Riesling are still important items.

It was not surprising therefore that about 70 enthusiasts turned up at the Oyster Box Hotel at Umhlanga for a tasting at which Danie de Wet presented seven of his chardonnays. This was a particularly informative and enjoyable occasion. Danie has a deep knowledge of wine but he is affable and unpretentious and has the knack of explaining technicalities in cheerfully informal language.

Terroir is the vogue work in winespeak these days. I don’t think Danie de Wet used it once, but he did discuss at length the soil conditions (equals terroir) which influence the character and quality of his wines. The soil in the Robertson area has an unusually high limestone content (wine aside, this is reckoned to be good for the bone structure of horses, hence the popularity of Robertson as a horse-breeding centre).

The words often used to describe chardonnay are buttery, toasty,.lemony, and De Wetshof wines do indeed have all those characteristics. They have been skilfully matured in oak barrels --- not overexposed to the wood --- and this has given them a remarkable depth and variety of flavours. In addition, many on them have an attractive mineral quality, the legacy of all that limestone in the soil. This is particularly noticeable in the De Wetshof Bon Vallon Chardonnay 2006, which Danie says is one of his favourites. At a retail price of about R40 a bottle this is good value.

The tasting opened with an excellent 2006 De Wetshof Sauvignon Blanc, fresh, grassy and gravelly, that limestone again.

Then came the chardonnays, the Bon Vallon and ---

- Danie de Wet Chardonnay Sur Lie, left on the lees (the yeast sediment in the barrel) for three months for greater complexity.

- Danie de Wet Limestone Hill Chardonnay, most distinctive, with hints of grapefruit.

- De Wetshof Finesse Chardonnay, an old favourite, lightly oaked, fruity.

All these wines were 2006 vintages retailing at about R35 to R50 a bottle

The De Wetshof D’Honneur Chardonnay 2005 had a distinctly nutty flavour. As the name suggests, this is one of the estate’s premium wines and it sells at about R68.

The estate’s flagship is the De Wetshof Bateleur Chardonnay and we tasted two vintages of this, 2003 and 1998. Bateleur is the name of an eagle, and this wine does indeed soar on the palate, creamy with orange and peach flavours. Both vintages were outstanding but I marginally preferred the 2003. The Bateleur is about R130 a bottle. – Michael Green




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