Wine Enthusiast Podcast: The Insane Appeal of South African Chardonnay

An illustration of a bottle of wine with the South African flag on it
Illustration by Ellen Surrey

In this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, we talk about the world’s most popular white wine grape: Chardonnay.

Say its name, and wine lovers typically turn to well-established “classic” regions for the variety: Burgundy and California. But what about the rest of the world? Surely there are other locations suited to quality Chardonnay production—why does Burgundy and California seem to get all the love?

Well, we’re out to shift that default thinking here and now. And we have two words for you: South Africa.

The beautiful wines of South Africa bridge Old and New wine worlds in one delicious sip. Graham Weerts, winemaker for Capensis Wines in South Africa as well as winemaker at Stonestreet Estate in California’s Alexander Valley and Senior Vice President of Vineyard Operations for Jackson Family Wines, helps us explore why the country should be in your regular rotation for exemplary Chards of brilliance and balance.

With so many appellations worthy of delicious discovery, from Stellenbosch to Elgin, Robertson to Hemel-en-Aarde, and world-class winemakers to keep an eye on, buck the norm and consider the beauty that South African Chardonnay has to offer next time you set out for a stunning golden pour.

To help you on your journey, check out our South African Chardonnay ratings and reviews here. You can also read more about the best Chardonnays from around the globe, or dive deeper into a region-by-region overview for where to find the best South African wine.

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Graham Weerts

Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, you’re serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re talking about the world’s most popular white wine grape: Chardonnay. While it may be true that fans of the variety tend to gravitate to two iconic areas, Burgundy and California, when seeking out the great golden stuff, there’s so much more to the world of Chard that’s prime for exploration. Case in point, the beautiful pours of South Africa, a land that bridges the two wine worlds old and new together in one delicious set. I speak with Graham Weerts, winemaker for Capensis in South Africa, as well as winemaker at Stonestreet Estate in California’s Alexander Valley and Senior Vice President of Vineyard Operations for Jackson Family Wines, helps us explore why the country should be in your regular rotation for exemplary Chards of brilliance and balance. But first, a quick word. Today’s podcast is brought to you by Taste France. Are you willing to explore the world of authentic and delicious French food and wine? Or discover the lesser known French Appellations or producers? Do you care about winemakers who work hard to produce responsibly and sustainably? If like us you value high quality French products, visit TasteFrance.com. Taste France is passionate about French food and wine and just can’t keep it all to themselves. Learn about the French touch or discover savoir faire and why producing and enjoying wine are so important to French culture tastes France will take you want to wine journey to discover new products, meet the people behind them and find the perfect everyday food and wine pairing. So do you want to become fluent in French food and wine? Go to TasteFrance.com to learn more. Taste France magazine is an initiative of the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Okay, here we are ready to talk all things South African Chardonnay, and thankfully, I am joined by a perfect candidate to talk on this subject with me the wonderful Graham Weerts, who is the winemaker at Capensis in South Africa. Graham, thank you so much for joining me today.

Graham Weerts 2:24
It’s a pleasure to take these opportunities when we get them. Without a doubt, all the pretty well documented nonsense that’s going on down in South Africa at the moment with these alcohol bans and all the rest. Our friends across the pond and across the water are important to us. So we take them whenever we get them.

Lauren Buzzeo 2:41
Absolutely. And we are so relieved and happy to hear that the ban has for now been lifted in terms of domestic sales. And we are almost back to business as usual. Again, at least for now. So good news on that front. And hopefully it continues but in the meantime, absolutely doing what we can over here to support South African wines. And thankfully, there’s a whole lot for us to explore and taste and keep our palates happy—and keep you guys in business.

Graham Weerts 3:08
Yeah, it’s an exciting category. You know, let’s face it, the South African category is just rocking and rolling. And there’s certain people doing some amazing stuff out here. So yeah, obviously we’ve we focus in on Chardonnay, but there’s not a one trick pony in the country at the moment, there’s some beautiful ones we made all over the place. So that’s the most exciting part for me at the moment being a winemaker that travels quite a lot. Between two massive big continents, I get the opportunity to see all this stuff. And it’s really exciting to see some of the stuff coming in.

Lauren Buzzeo 3:44
Definitely, but being from South Africa and having, again, the experience that you do, working with so many different regions and vineyards, especially as it pertains to Chardonnay, again, a perfect candidate to talk through the variety and the subject today with us. So, you know, I guess I just want to start by saying absolutely, you know, varieties and the nature of South African wine industry, right. But there’s so much beauty to really be explored as it pertains to Chardonnay from the country. There’s so much versatility and variety in terms of expressions. And one of the ways that I generally like to describe South Africa to someone who’s getting into the country and exploring the wines from the country is that it’s a New World wine region with an Old World soul. And I think that actually translates perfectly to expressions of this grape, Chardonnay, in particular, that there’s so much variety to be found in terms of the expressions from different regions throughout the country. Some that lean more Old World in style and others that go more New World and you certainly have great experience and perspective on both of those fronts. Would you think that that’s sort of a fair top-line assessment, if you will?

Graham Weerts 5:03
I think it’s a very fair assessment. I think it’s also a lot to do with the, you know, the influences that have come down into the, into the South African trade. As an industry, we very European centric. A lot of our wines are shipped to Europe, and a lot of the influence that started the wine trade down here was of European influence. So, fair enough, it’s a New World wine region, per se, but it’s been going for a chunk of time now, 360 years or something silly like that. A very close friend of mine works at Groot Constantia, you must find him they kind of take the medal as oldest winery around town. But so I think a lot of the influences and I was giving a lot of thought to that this this morning before I jumped on this call with you this evening is, what would the reason be? I think it’s a lot to do with the influence of the of the people that were buying wines in the early stages. It influences the palate of how South Africans are trained, and also a lot of the wines that we are reciprocal down here. A lot of a lot of European wines come into South Africa, and are bought in South Africa and had been for many, many generations and many years. Now I remember sitting around a barbecue braai, what a good chunk of time ago with Arty, another close friend of mine. And his dad said, ‘Look, I’ve got all these Bordeaux first growths that have been sitting in my garage. Would you guys got to see if anything’s okay?’ Sure, we’re gonna go check those things out for like drinking any two Bordeauxs and just going through stuff like that, that’d be stored in a garage, and half of it was shot and other half we got pretty merry on. So I think that’s a lot of the influence of how the palate has evolved, the decision making in in how we grow, the decision making of how we pick, how we vitify, and especially when it comes to Chardonnay, I think there’s, there’s a tremendous amount of the Burgandian influence down there long before the California influence camera rolling in through the door here. There was a lot of that sort of Burgundian focus and a lot of, you know, let’s face it, barrel salesman, from Burgundy, running through the door, and every single barrel salesman that was worth his salt would get a get a Burgandian winemaker on payroll and come and come rolling in and tell you how to make Chardonnay, which, you know, had his trials and its errors because the barrel salesman had one plan in place, and that was to sell more barrels. But I think we figured that out as a company and I speak for myself personally, I think, I think as as a country, we’ve we’ve all figured out how to work with wood better and understanding your picking dates, and how to bring in small wood and use second fill and try and try to work through that as best we possibly can. Wood is a main influence in all the Chardonnay programs. And I do believe you need a component there, but you needed to work really well with your wines.

Lauren Buzzeo 8:07
Definitely, it’s all about the balance. And I think that your perspective, actually, in the bit of historical context, if you will, that you provided as a pertains to Burgundy is certainly really interesting for me to hear. Because I frequently encounter a lot of comparisons with South African winemakers, comparing their wines to different regions from Burgundy. And while I can appreciate where it’s coming from, I often tell them, you’re not Burgundy, your South Africa, let’s try to embrace that a bit more. And I think that that again, there are certain characteristics that you might like into that. And I understand that that appeals to an audience and that it’s maybe perhaps a little bit more immediately identifiable to wine consumers. But I think that, again, there are just such unique elements and aspects to the South African wines that make them truly their own expressions and not worthy of comparison to anywhere else in the world. So along those lines, I know again, that you work with so many different vineyard sites across across the Cape wine lands in South Africa. Tell me a little bit. Let’s start with, if you can, what would be your favorite wine region to work with for Chardonnay?

Graham Weerts 9:21
Wow, it’s a tough call. But you know, I’m an absolute, sort of, believer in classic regions. I believe in in areas that I’ve done their thing—and I’m kind of nervous saying this because there’s so many hipsters floating around South Africa right now probably listen to this podcast, and call me a fuddy duddy and I’m not a fuddy duddy, but I do believe in class and I believe in areas which have got a proven track record. So from my perspective right now, and I’m not saying this because, you know, it’s where we own properties. I’m saying because we buy quite a bit of fruit there, I’m actually picking a picking a small amount from there on Monday. But you know, the the Stellenbosch Mountains are something to really to behold right now and I’m not talking about the low elevation stuff, which I think is kind of normal. I don’t think there’s a tremendous amount of excitement there. But when you get into elevation, with Chardonnay on the right type of soil types, you end up with something pretty special because climatically things change pretty dramatically when you get up into those regions of the Stellenbosch Highlands. I call them the Highlands, it’s the Banhoek area where we own a piece of property going out towards the Helderberg, which is closer to False Bay, which gets that nice, cool coastal elements there. And then up in the hills, we work to work the site on the Simonsberg. There’s some people you would start on a block today that it’s amazing to behold, and the the conversation right now that I’m having with some really respected people is, Cabernet doesn’t really do particularly well at high altitude in Stellenbosch. And again, there we go, someone with an opinion is going to come and shoot me. But that’s my opinion. And it’s not only my opinion, some really well respected Cabernet producers are trying to figure out what works best for them. And I’m finding that the Chardonnays grown at the higher elevations are just spectacular. There’s something quite special about those things, but it’s also you have to go find the right soil types and for Chardonnay for me, I’m also looking for a little bit more clay in the soil. Anthony Hamilton Russell is always harping on about clay content and how to fix his wines and that’s the source of the greatness of Hamilton Russell, which I don’t disagree with. I think that clay adds a component of coolness to the root system through the warm summer days And make no mistake we can get hot, but Stellenbosch is beautifully moderated. That coastal influence that comes with False Bay, and you get up into the higher elevations—man alive. So to answer a very simple question, what’s my favorite area right now from a South African context, it’s definitely the high high altitude Stellenbosch lots. You just have to look at the track record of some of our neighbors and some of—I don’t want to call them competitors, but sort of colleagues in the in the game, you know, look at Thelema, they’ve always produced some amazing Chardonnay from those high altitude vineyards. Look at Tokara, they’ve done a great job Rustenberg, Uva Mira, Delaire. Yeah, there’s some some amazing, amazing vineyard sites up in the higher elevations when the original Mulderbosch when they were there making wines on that on those Bottelary hills. Incredible sharpness coming out of there. And that’s another sort of unsung area that those hills going up towards it, just amazing sharpening quality that you’re getting up there. So you know, and it’s the irony at the moment when my phone rings, or everyone’s looking for Stellenbosch right now they’re saying, Okay, well, how do I get some I need I need a bit more Stellenbosch Chardonnay. So there’s definitely one particular block which I buy, specifically for Silene, which is our Stellenbosch component, which is a very desirable block. And you know, there are a number of people in there now and and some other folks were going, ‘Hey, how can I get some fruit out of it?’ And that’s on the Helderberg. It’s a it’s an amazing block on the Helderberg. And there’s some pretty well known people in there. And it was a hint of fruit available this year, and I don’t take it all. I try to keep it a little bit more private, because otherwise every everybody’s in it, but some pretty well respected wineries trying to get into the Stellenbosch freeze. But I’m not discounting all the other areas, by no means. They all add a component to it. But in my sense, again, it’s my opinion, but the Stellenbosch Chardonnays are very, very special.

Lauren Buzzeo 14:07
Absolutely. And that was not an easy question to answer at all. So I appreciate all of the information that you even just slightly unpacked. And there’s so many things that I want to go back to. To clarify. No, it’s all good. It’s great stuff. Because it is very important. And I think it’s really interesting actually that you’re talking about some of the the subregions if you will of Stellenbosch because I think that there’s a general understanding about Stellenbosch. And I would argue that it’s probably the most well known region, at least for American consumers from South Africa. But it’s interesting, you know, talking about Cab because I think that the Stellenbosch Cab Collective has actually done a really good job of trying to establish some of the different pockets and subregions of the Stellenbosch region. But it’s interesting to hear your perspective again from Chardonnay where it is best suited or where the best examples are presumably coming out of, and that those opportunities are starting to be better understood and defined with the understanding of the differences between those regions. Right?

Graham Weerts 15:12
Yeah, correct. Absolutely. You know, Stellenbosch is a big region. It says it’s a, it’s a big region with with multiple multiple microclimates in their multiple hillsides and mountains all over the little region that it is. But it’s not it’s not this monolithic valley that runs through an area with a pretty consistent soil type. A lot of people say can you be in a valley and therefore…. But Stellenbosch isn’t a valley. It’s a region that’s very, very complex and very detailed in where you want to plant certain varieties. Though, in the past, South African farmers, typically delivering to a big wholesaler would plant a vineyard, and they’d say, well what does the market want today? Okay, well, that is the most asinine way of planting a vineyard I’ve ever come across. But you know, you can imagine now you’re a grower, you’re delivering to a big wholesaler. You know, I’m not gonna mention their names, but you know that you can figure that out for yourself. There’s some big guys that used to operate in the Stellenbosch area. Those guys are selling their heritage right now. And good people are buying those sites. They’d come in and say yeah, for the next five years Savignon Blanc is on fire and everybody’s drinking Sauvignon Blanc. Some of the most amazing sites instead of us have been planted to Sauvignon Blanc because cool, beautiful hillsides. Sauvignon Blanc needs a cool, beautiful hillside. What they don’t realize you’re gonna get no crop out of that thing. And you go down the road, and the guys getting 20 tons a hectare and cleaning your clocks, because the quality is very similar. And that was the problem and you end up with with a vineyard, or a proprietary with a nice decent sized vineyard with Cabernet, Pinotage, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, a bit of Merlot, maybe a touch of Cabernet Franc all on the same site. And it’s just like, wow, because he’s hedging his bets man. You know, he doesn’t, you know, the vagaries of the trade. The winners got to be in the ground for at least 30 years, you know, and or 25 to 30 years and one year, they want Savignon Blanc. Two years later, they want Chardonnay the next year Cabernet is king. So these guys are just hedging their bets. I think that’s evolving very quickly. And I think people are starting to figure out, well, this is a very good, the highest slopes of this area of perfect for Chardonnay, the lower slopes ar probably more more accustomed to Bordeaux varietals is that maybe Cabernet Franc, Cabernet, Merlot or a blend of the two. And then there’s certain pockets of places in the Stellenbosch region, which are making some amazing Syrah. You know, there’s some guys picking a little bit earlier and doing some really funky stuff with some stem inclusion. And those wines are really interesting. But I think the defining of the areas because the power of the wholesaler is diminishing. The smaller producer in these really cool areas, like cool, hip and nice areas are becoming more powerful. Because these big wholesalers, they’ve kind of forgotten about what the wine trade should be about. It should be about these beautiful areas and they’ve gone into mass production, and it’s kind of boring. You know, it’s just so sad. So it’s up to up to the smaller people and the, you know, we like to joke about them about the hipsters running around with a beard that coming out of here. The genesis of this really started with with a couple of guys that I mentioned earlier in the Swartland, guys like Yevin and Arty and a few other guys, David and Nadia Sadee they started doing that with Chenins and a bit of Syrah out there. And then a couple of bigger names rolled in through the door and they resurrected a really sort of boring area that was kind of just you know, a production area. They’ve really brought a tremendous amount of excitement to the Swartland but that sort of infectious passion that they’ve imparted over the entire trade has kind of infected all the regions so everybody’s trying to kind of ferret these beautiful areas out and you know, the Hemel-en-Aarde Elgin. Elgin’s making a big name for themselves and from a Charonnay perspective, beautiful wines coming out of Elgin. Personally I’ve kind of stuck out there, I’ve tried it three times and I struck out and I just dropped the hands and said Okay, leave to Richard Kershaw to go and he does a great job with it. And let him do you think I’ve kind of I’m gonna stick to what I know and I think Stellenbosch hills are really what I know quite well. But you know, the guys in Hemel-en-Aarde, the guy’s doing some incredible stuff. If you want to look at what Robertson’s doing on some of those limestone soils, special stuff, you’re really good. But it’s understanding your crop load, understanding where it should be grown, the combinations of the clonal material restock and where it’s going to be delivered to you and how it’s farmed for that I think you get, you get way better results for that. And I think, this industry is 350 plus years old—I don’t know exactly the number—but I think it’s really just, just beginning, just beginning, and people are starting to understand what goes where, then I suppose the real funky side starts to do to evolve how we vinify it. And that’s that’s the real funky side of understanding that.

Lauren Buzzeo 20:36
I think that that’s the next level right? After there’s that really deep understanding of the terroir and the soils that you’re working with then comes in the cellar, what you’re doing what can be played with, different techniques, experimentation. And yeah, that’s when you might get into a bit more of the funky stuff. But I think it’s an excellent point that you raised as it pertains to the Swartland and the example that they kind of set. And it’s interesting that you were even talking about as it pertains to Stellenbosch, you know, the diversity of the plantings and you know how so many different varieties can be found within the region, and that a lot of winemakers were sort of hedging their bets by planting so many different varieties. But that the new name of the game, so to speak, is a bit more of that specialization, and really focusing and honing in on what works best for the area that you work. And I think that that’s why, at least in my opinion, you’ve seen such great strides in quality and benchmark examples and expressions of specific, again, varieties and specific regions. And it’s really allowing consumers a better angle to latch on and have a greater understanding for South African wine.

Graham Weerts 21:48
Not a question, no question about it. Yeah, you know, I’m not gonna discount anyone doing what they do. If guys want to do this big fruit salad, that’s their business. It really is. But to me, at this stage of the game, you know, the world is just too competitive. And I’m adamant that mediocrity is just not going to survive in the world of wine. Their mediocrity is just going to be price driven. Everything’s gonna be driven by price. Everything’s gonna be driven by volumetric play. And there’s no excitement to me, to me personally in that. I think if you look at look at I take it take a leaf out of out of Jeff Jackson’s book, he knew that the vineyards that he owned on the California coast, were cool climate California vineyards. So what do I put in there? Trust me, they they try to plant Cabernet down in Monterey, back in the day, and they realized very quickly that Cabernet ain’t gonna fly in Monterey. So what works really well there? Chardonnay works really well in Monterey. And it’s this is breadbasket of Chardonnay for the for the California trade. You’ve never heard of Cabernet coming out of Monterey. But there’s this massive, massive vineyard holdings of Pinot and Chardonnay in that whole Monterey Valley and whole basin that runs down down it. So I think you’re gonna start seeing that here in a way that as people start to realize they can specialize. They can get better prices, if they’ve specialized in the varieties that work in these certain areas. And to me, you know, there’s one area in my, in my book, which if it was in California, or anywhere else in the world, it’s planted to apples right now. There’s one or two vineyards—there’s a Pinot vineyard and there’s a Chardonnay vineyard, and that’s up here in Caimans hut. I’m sure you’ve heard of that. Crocodiles live in it. And they’re a couple of guys in there now with with Pinot. Peter-Allan Finlayson, he’s making his Crystallum brand. He’s making some incredible Pinot off these vineyards. I tasted one over the weekend and it was it was jaw droppingly good how good this Pinot was, and I buy a block of Chardonnay right next door. And it’s one of the oldest blocks in the country. Virus up the yin yang, dryland farm there. It’s probably on its last legs. I’m gonna try and keep it going for us because it adds such a beautiful sort of textural saline element to the Capensis winds that I make. And I don’t ever want to lose that and I’m so nervous of replanting that vineyard and losing it because the young wine’s so boisterous and it does its thing. So we’ll keep an eye on that for as long as we possibly can. But that entire valley is planted to apples. But if that was in California, or in Burgundy, let alone Australia, the apples would be sort of novelties. Some dude making some sort of a—what do you call it? A sort of heirloom cider. It’s an apple factory. It’s just apples, apples everywhere. But it’s an incredible vine area where they can plant grapes.

Lauren Buzzeo 25:12
Is that technically in Walker Bay?

Graham Weerts 25:14
No it’s it’s in it’s in the what they call Elandskloof, which actually is a big… is on the other side of the Overberg region. But it’s it’s it’s mountainous, it’s high. It gets the chilling units. It gets cold because Chardonnay, let’s face it, needs a lot of chilling units to remain fruitful. Otherwise, it just becomes a bushy hedge. You need cold and up in these mountains, you have a super, super high, cool, cool climate, but it’s ideal for growing apples. What was the Russian River back in the day? Apples. Cider. They produced apples there and made cider all day, every day. So that’s what tells me okay, that should be what it is. If we could get that ball rolling, some bigger players have come in there and are making some wine there. And they’ve planted some the other Rupert family went in there planted a beautiful vineyard, but it’s taking some time because it’s a young vineyard. It needs some time to to come online. But I think once that ball starts to roll, hopefully we can get the apples out and put some really special special Chardonnay blocks in there and get the correct clones in there. And you know, and farm it really well because now you got an apple farmer growing grapes. And you know, he’s making call it 10 bucks on a block of grapes was making a million bucks in a block of apples. So why would you bother? So it’s not denigrating the grove. But the growers, the guys that are just like, well, economics don’t make sense. If we get into the right bottle, it’ll work. So the opportunities are just endless in these regions. And, you know, another person, Samantha O’Keefe doing her thing at Lismore. Holy smokes. That was an area nobody ever thought of. Grow some wheat, you can grow some sheep up in those hills. And look at those wines. Those wines are special. She had a hell of a hell of a knock recently. I spoke to the other day she’s back in her feet. The winery was back up and running. So she’s back, she’s back and going and I’m excited what she can produce out of out of out of that area. Well, what she has produced. She’s produced some incredible wines. The Chardonnay wines—woah. It’s just mind boggling what she’s produced out of that Greyton area, which was nobody has ever thought okay, Greyton’s going to make special wine.

Lauren Buzzeo 27:39
Yeah. Okay, so we got some regions to keep an eye on and to watch out for what’s out in the future. For now, actually talking about you know, the orchards in the apples definitely took me back to to Elgin, which you mentioned before, and the story in the history there certainly heavy on the orchards and the fruit production prior to and I’m sure still actually known for it, right? The wind hasn’t really taken over fully.

Graham Weerts 28:10
They’ve tried but I think when the apple market was down, all the apple growers were gonna go into grapes are gonna go into grapes. And they realized grapes are hard work. And the yields aren’t what apple yields are. Come on, we know this trade, none of us are becoming multi millionaire billionaires out of the wine trade, are we? So it is more, you’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing. But there’s some good there’s some good stuff coming out of Elgin. Like I said, I’ve struck out three times. I think it’s more more of a case of my inability to understand the area rather than than the lack of what that area is all about. I think there’s some guys doing some really incredible stuff there. Some Chardonnays coming out of there are mind boggling. I mentioned Richard Kershel recently, he’s doing some incredible stuff out of Elgin. The guys from—what’s that big operation there?

Lauren Buzzeo 29:06
Certainly Cluver and Andries.

Graham Weerts 29:09
Cluver—Andries, he is making some, I had one of his CWG wines the other day. Super stuff. And low alcohol—12.5 alcohol, but boom on point. And seriously good one, seriously good one. So it’s just a different style. So different, so varied to what we’re doing, where we’re focusing on.

Lauren Buzzeo 29:31
Yes, definitely. I feel like a lot of the producers in the region, at least some of the top examples that I’ve had are people that are really actually based in the region. They’re not leasing, they’re not sourcing, they are working that land, they have that land, they know it inside and out, which might be a specialty.

Graham Weerts 29:52
Look, I tell you that that’s something you’ve got to own vineyards. You’ve got to own them. You’ve got it. Be you got to live them, you got to be part of them, you got to own them. I get nervous about some of the some of the really good wines that are popping out of the industry right now they, it’s a lot of folks are living on beans and toast to make sure that can buy bottles and corks for the next vintage. They’re making incredible wines from a grower. If you can’t manage that from minute to minute. Yeah, that’s one thing about Jess. He taught me that for early early on in my career, when I started working for him, which is a quite a chunk of time ago now he’s it’s like, you’ve got to own and manage these vineyards yourself, otherwise you’ll never get ahead. But the capital is capital intensive, and you’ve got to go find that capital and you’ve got to be successful to get that capital in the wine tread. And then then the ball starts to roll but to be a great for lack of a better word, a great negotiator, it has its pitfalls, because the winery we we own and run in South Africa, we are obviously growing into it volumetrically, but when I built it, I wanted to make sure that we get everything that we need in it. But it’s it’s probably 50% too big for what we need right now. So I’ve got a couple of clients who’ve come in, who do custom crush work there, and I was chatting to one of our main clients, who will probably be with us until we close the doors if we ever close the doors. But she was saying to me that, you know, there’s a block that she shares with four other winemakers, and everyone gets the allocation. But now they kind of darting around each other and who’s who picks first gets the exact tonnage. And the person who picks last it’s like if you’ve ever been at—well, I grew up in a boarding house as well, so if you ever get get to like a buffet line, who gets the last slice of the bread, you know, it’s like this, the janky piece at the end. And everybody gets in the beginning, it’s a nice slice, nice slice. And then the last slice is always like a back end or that, you know. If you don’t own that, it gets gets complicated. So you try to anticipate who’s gonna pick first. And there’s like a pecking order. But you know, a grower grows, it’s gonna go get stuff off the vine. And he wants to get into the winery, get his paycheck, and he’s done. So yeah, it’s kind of like a dance. Everyone’s dancing around. They’re all buddies with each other. But they’re all scavenging for this one block. I can’t remember what it is exactly. But her portion came in today and looked pretty nice. But it’s, it’s a pretty amazing, amazing sort of cycle. You nailed it. You’ve got to exist it. And you’ve got to you’ve got to live there and you’ve got to breathe it and you got to experience every day as much as you possibly can, in that region to understand, especially in this period of time, this ripening period. Yeah, that we can follow the trends for sure. I’ve got to, I’ve got to follow the trends of the winter rainfalls because I’m like the snowbird. I fly down to South Africa and the sun’s shining. And as soon as it starts to rain, yep, off I go to California, and the sun’s coming up there. So I’ve got to watch the winter rainfall over the internet and figure out what’s going on and I’m getting quite nervous about the California winter rainfall, which is nonexistant right now. But when it gets to this sort of ripening period, you’ve kind of got to live and breathe it, you got to kind of get the essence of when the heat waves are coming in, when the cool really cool snaps are coming in. And especially a year like this in South Africa where we we are dealing with a little bit of a interesting, summertime hasn’t really hit in full force in South Africa. These little small little bouts of rain popping up all the time. Which actually, to me, and at this stage of the game I’m thinking for what I’m working on in Chardonnay, I think it’s gonna be amazing. I really do. I think the longer those vines can tick away, develop flavor at a lower alcohol and a nice ripping acid, I get quite excited because there’s nothing worse for me than than having to pick in an extreme with either a heatwave or it’s raining. I don’t want to be in either. I just want to be in this is sort of called the glide path, this kind of cruising in, and everything is just working nice and the vines are doing its thing. It’s not it’s not stressed because of heat and it’s not swimming because its feet are wet in a whole lot of rain. So the way it’s going right now and I can only see a couple of weeks out on the extended forecast, I think we’re going to be you’re hopefully going to get that nice beautiful definition on on white wines. The boys are sitting with Cabernet, they’re getting quite nervous. Those guys sitting with some some Cabernet that might be a little bit old and maybe carrying a ton per acre too much. Yeah, they’re getting a bit sweaty at the moment. I think there’s some real sweat dripping down those boys noses at the moment. You just get that bead of sweat running down the front of your nose like that that’s probably what’s happening it’s getting a bit hot today.

Lauren Buzzeo 35:22
Well there’s still a little bit of time I guess we’ll see what happens, but that’s very exciting. I’m glad to hear that 2021 is shaping up to be looking good so far.

Graham Weerts 35:34
Yeah, I know a lot of good winter rain. It’s been a beautiful summer. Things are late, so you get out of the heat waves you get out of the extremes. And you get into that beautiful fall autumn cycle. Out of the February heat waves and the wind drops, the extreme heat’s gone. In California we call it an Indian summit just holds it together. It’s like these beautiful soft light. I like it, I kind of get excited.

Lauren Buzzeo 36:07
I love listening to you talk about it. My mouth is watering just in the anticipation of tasting is yet to be produced wines. I actually just wanted to circle back really quickly. We talked about a lot of regions, we obviously spent a lot of time on Stellenbosch Chardonnay and we also hit upon you know Elgin Hemel-en-Aarde but I like to circle back a little bit more to Robertson because I think that that’s a region that you work in. One of your vineyards you source from is in Robertson, right?

Graham Weerts 36:35
Yeah, Robertson is a complicated area. That’s a complicated area because it is an irrigation area. They’ve got an abundance of irrigation water. They don’t get a tremendous amount of rain. So the water they put down is coming out of a pump and a river. So you can you can get guys to get pretty excited when they hear the pump goes on and the water goes flowing down the load that’s like whoa, off we go. We can crop. Robertson to me has got some of the most iconic terroir in the country. It has soils which are to die for they got you just got you got shales, you got these Karoo shales that pop up on occasion. But the most iconic thing is are they got they got these chalky white soils that pop out of the ground in these bands that run through the place, and all through the upliftment. Those chalky soils are really, really special.

Lauren Buzzeo 37:31
Talk about those Burgundy comparisons.

Graham Weerts 37:34
Exactly. And it’s whiter. It’s pure, pure white. On Instagram I think there’s a photo where I’m just holding these big clumps of white stone, which we picked that block this morning out of the Robertson area. So it’s absolutely crucial you find the site and the grower. And the combination of the two has to work. I worked with this guy Ernest Bruwer. And he’s he’s got both. He’s a pretty good farmer. He’s young, he understands agriculture as much as he understands fine wine. So he is able to balance his production side with one or two of his sites which are really, really special. So it’s a good combination of the two. But yeah, he’s growing some pretty decent fruit for us up there. But Robinson, everybody thinks it’s stinking hot there. But, you know, the Graham Beck guys have been making great bubbly there for a long time. You know, John Loubser, works with Silverthorn also is making some great bubbly in that area and some other folks doing some really amazing stuff. Because they get these beautiful nighttime temperatures. It’s an amazing, amazing sort of phenomenon that, that you get warm days, make no mistake, but then that night, this cold air just comes rolling through and keeps us place. They’ll just bring this diurnal shift that comes up and down. And then you combine that with with a really good farmer and a guy who knows how grow grapes. And then you know you with those incredible soils, you just got to find the combination and somebody who’s not too enthusiastic with a tap and it seems to work pretty well. Because as soon as they get too enthusiastic with that irrigation hose…woof. And fair enough. Some guys have to do that to survive, and I’m not going to get I’m not going to throw stones at guys who want to keep the business afloat. But for what we’re trying to produce it and how we try to produce it, it’s simply not what we’re looking for right now. You know, that’s definitely those those little pockets and, you know, a good grower and a good pocket.

Lauren Buzzeo 39:46
But I think it’s interesting actually that, you know, going back to talking about Stellenbosch and the diversity of varieties that are planted there. I find that with the Reds with Robertson, there’s a lot of Bordeaux varieties or some Syrah. But for the whites, sure there’s a little bit of Sauvignon. Probably some other stuff, but predominantly it’s Chardonnay country.

Graham Weerts 40:06
Yeah, I think the biggest, biggest concentration of Chardonnay plantings are in the Robertson area.

Lauren Buzzeo 40:12
Yeah. And you taste the wines from the region and you absolutely understand why I mean, you know, De Wetshof, I’m sorry, you would never pinpoint that. You could easily mistake that for top of the line Chardonnay from Burgundy hands down in a blind tasting.

Graham Weerts 40:32
Absolutely. They’ve always got this party trick of this opening I think it’s an ’86. I speak under correction, an ’86 Chardonnay of theirs that they open as a party trick every now and then. I don’t know how much I got stuck anymore. But it is absolutely flawless. At this stage of the game? No, I don’t know exactly what vintage it is. But if you ever get the opportunity, and you speak to Peter De Wet, or Danie De Wet, whichever one you you come into, ask them to open one of those wines for you. And hopefully send you a bottle because it is pristine, flawless. No faults. And it’s ridiculously on. And I think that’s the hallmark of what these places can do. And I think that’s a hallmark of South African Chardonnay, which sometimes California Chardonnays trip themselves up in the high end, the ageability becomes compromised. And I think I’ve got my own theory there. I’ve been making wine there long enough now to know what that’s all about. And it’s a lot to do with, I think, the ripening parameters and the phenolics, that comes through, because of the ripening parameters that people are pushing there to try and get this massive opulent flavor profile. I think that in the process through those ripe flavors, it hides a lot of phenolics, which doesn’t allow the ones to age very well. But some guys are doing some pretty amazing work that now. There’s also figuring that out. Picking a little earlier. There’s a definitely a new wave running through the California world at the moment. It’s not the massive, big opulent wines. I think it’s just the market shifting and the people are becoming a little lighter on its feet these days.

Lauren Buzzeo 42:14
Definitely, but that’s an excellent point. I think a lot of people would be very, very surprised in terms of the longevity and the ageability of of these beautiful South African Chardonnay expressions.

Graham Weerts 42:26
It’s amazing. I opened a 2013 of ours the other day and it hasn’t moved. That bottles too high in sulfur, it just hasn’t moved. It’s just it just is glacial. And it’s exciting. I’m excited about where are we going from an ageability point of view. Typically, on the Capensis side of things, we hold things back in barrel for 12 months, and then in bottle for over 12 months. Some people say well, you got problems selling, why are you so far behind? It’s out of choice, we’ve got the luxury of choice. Working with the proprietors that I have, we’ve got the luxury of choice, we can hold these wines back until you know the some of these acids are searing they big, big, big wines, but with big sort of acid profiles as well. So you’ve got to give them a bit of time to settle into themselves. And know when you when a restaurant is pouring them in New York, nobody’s really questioning that ageability, they want to know that it’s there. If things are brown and janky when it comes out of the bottle, they’re not really excited about that, are they? So So I think if you’ve got the time, and you’ve got the luxury of holding a couple of these South African charlatans back, do it. I think the wines only benefit from it.

Lauren Buzzeo 43:38
Absolutely. And you mentioned the acidity and to me that is the defining characteristic really of why these wines are so beautiful, but why they’re so ageworthy and why they mature and evolve so well is because they have that beautiful natural acidity that you cannot find in every wine region. Let’s be real.

Graham Weerts 44:00
But you but you 100% right. But it’s not a blanket statement for for South African Chardonnay. I can show you some Chardonnay blocks, which at 21 brix have got a pH of four. I’m not rushing out to go plant that or buy that or do anything with it. You just got to go find those pockets, really, really special pockets. And they’re all over the place. I want to be enthusiastic about every one region in the world. You can’t be enthusiastic about every single wine region because these are some places that the location lets them down. But there are some pockets everywhere in this country of ours which produce just special, the most transparent Chardonnays I’ve tasted it a long time. They just show this is from here, bang. And it’s undeniable it’s from there. You go taste Elgin Chardonnays, it’s undeniable it’s from there. Even if Andries Burger’s making it, or Richard Kershaw’s making it, they are from there. Yeah. And that’s that’s the exciting part of it and you know, you go to him and order you can definitely taste is a nice, solid thread running through there. Bar the fact that most of those winemakers have rolled through Hamilton Russell that’s one thing that he was the first guy there. If you want a job that you have to work. But he’s gonna laugh if he listens to this because he’s an amazing winemaker, his winemakers also make amazing wine, but a lot of those winemakers are rolled through there.

Lauren Buzzeo 45:30
Absolutely.

Graham Weerts 45:32
But there’s definitely a line thread that runs through that area. But I’m joking now, but there is definitely a thread that runs through the whole Hemel-en-Aarde that you can taste.

Lauren Buzzeo 45:42
So we’ve talked a lot about South African Chardonnay, but knowing that you also make the wines for Stone Street Estate in Alexander Valley, can you talk a little bit about the differences between making line in California versus South Africa?

Graham Weerts 45:55
It’s a tough question. I think it gets back to where, its interpretation of your terroir, its interpretation of where you are and climatically. Though climatically I always thought it was very similar. I was still okay climatically, California is very similar. It’s not, it really isn’t. You know, the differences we deal with is a lot to do with how the wind influences that we got this thing called called the Southeaster, the Cape Doctor, that rolls through pretty much every afternoon from sort of December to the end of February. And that changes the complex. California you don’t get wind. It’s not talking about those late autumn, late fall winds that cause all those fires, Santa Ana winds and those things, that’s not dealing with this. This ice cold wind that comes through from all the way down from the Antarctic. And it comes right with you. It’s cold, it’s cool. And I think that’s the biggest difference climatically that we don’t typically deal with in California. So what you’re dealing with in California is a diurnal shift that’s forced upon you by the fog that rolls into the Pacific. I always say this: California without the fog is a desert, that will be as bad as Reno. You might as well be in Reno and Las Vegas. Without that coastal influence, you cook. And we see that when that the whole cycle, you get that sort of warm dome, and that offshore flow with it, hot air rolls through it is ridiculously hot. So it’s very, very different. I had this impression it’s a Mediterranean climate, it’s very similar—very, very different. And I think that, to me, is the biggest thing is understanding that airflow and how that influences the temperature on a day to day basis how that plays into the plays into the game. So the big difference to me there again, is how you your vine matures, and how what you end up with from a phenolic standpoint a lot to do to working with me and what my thinking when I’m working with Chardonnays is is what kind of phenolics am I going to be dealing with. What I’m looking to make is a wine that that isn’t phenolic but the area of the sites that I pick to grow grapes on typically are going to give me a lot of phenolics, because they extreme sites. They’re sites, right up in the sky and they’re usually mountain grown, low production exposed to lots of sunlight and the elements and it’s a little bit more extreme area to grow grapes in. So they’re naturally going to protect themselves with a thicker skin. With a lot of flavors involved there. You get a lot of flavor development, but you also can get these bitter browning character that I’m trying to deal with. So when I’m here, I’m expecting a little bit more influence from the wind to develop a lot of that thicker skin and created a slightly different note to almost regret the stress in the vineyard. So I don’t want to create a tremendous amount of water stress in the profile of the soil because I know the wind alone is going to create quite a bit of stress. So I have to think about that. You know, working on a vineyard in Stellenbosch the other day and my viticulturist was saying, ‘Should I put more?’ I said put more water down. We’re okay, it’s going to be a very warm week and the winds gonna blow like the clappers. So let’s get let’s get a bit more water down. When California I look at it slightly different. I’m really anticipating those heat waves. Those heat waves are my biggest fear in California right now. It’s not the wind events. It’s those really deep, aggressive heat waves and how do we prepare the vineyard for that? So what we’re doing there is we’re breaking fewer leaves now in California to get a little bit more freshness, we’re leaving a bit more canopy, you’re trying to get an architecture slightly different in there. And I’m also picking earlier. The funny thing is coming back into 2013 kind of relearning that South African way of working in South Africa, and to understand my processes here, and working with blocks I’ve never worked with. I take a lot of that information back with me and that thought pattern with me to go and work with, you know, the Chardonnays I’m working with in California and trying to figure out what are the phenolics going to do in these sites? How’s climate and the soil and where they’re grown going to influence things in a big way. Because, you know, from a wind perspective, you go to Monterey, you start getting that similar wind, afternoon wind that rolls through, or going down to Santa Barbara. And you get that character again, where you’re influenced by the wind. Every afternoon up in that Santa Barbara, Santa Maria bench that wind rolls through there and changes and you get a much thicker skin. You’re not in the mountainside, but you’re down on the bench there and you get a much thicker skin. So I’ve got the privilege I’m working on another project, which I’ll introduce in the middle of the year, which is a Chardonnay project which I’ve picked fruit all the way from our most extreme vineyard down in the Santa Rita area. It’s a block that I begged Greg Brewer gave me a few tonnes all the way. 3D, which is one of his favorite blocks, I’m like please give me two and a half tonnes. So we work with 3D down in Santa Rita. And then a couple other blocks on on the bench in Santa Maria, all the way up to Zena Crown in Oregon, and everything in between. So it’s a really exciting project that which we’re going to introduce into the into the world of wine. So I’ve got that experience now working with, with all these extreme little sites in the area, which I’ve never worked in Santa Cruz. We’ve got a block out in Santa Cruz now, which I talked about buying a vineyard. We don’t own anything in Santa Cruz, but I got kind of got a deal there with a grower. So the differences in all these different vineyard sites up and down the coast. Pretty amazing in California, I must say I’ve got to give you that. It’s pretty cool. So and I have to put a different hat on every single time, which is challenging, because you kind of have one way of thinking, and that’s who you become as you mature into this trade. But now you got to turn that turn yourself upside down and think okay, well, that’s what I do for Capensis. This is what I do there. What barrel am I going to use? I’m a stickler for… I don’t introduce new barrels into my programs easily. I’ve kind of settled into a bit of a cadence of what I do from a barrel perspective. But I’ve got a new barrel profile I’m toying with at the moment and I’m working on it for the second year now. I’m really excited about working with a custom barrel profile that I’ve worked with the cooperage. And it’s a combination of different wooden, different types of profiles within the barrel. So it’s, you know, we trialed last year. And this is the beauty again, to do two vintages a year. I’ve trialed in South Africa, trialed it in California now, and I’m going to get a third vintage in it in a year, which is crazy to think about now. And then I’ll get a fourth vintage in two vintages. So that’s going to be pretty cool.

Lauren Buzzeo 53:51
Graham, thank you so much for speaking with me today and sharing all of your extensive knowledge and experience on South African Chardonnay and global Chardonnay, as well as some additional recommendations beyond your fantastic Capensis wines for listeners to seek out and try.

Graham Weerts 54:08
It’s an absolute pleasure. Like I said you at the start of this thing, we’re a band of band of brothers down here—brothers and sisters I should have said—because I think the vast majority of the people that are serious about the business are trying their best. And it’s more of a collective than it is an industry. It’s a collective of like minded people. And there’s some brilliant, brilliant, brilliant winemakers floating around in South Africa. It’s actually quite a privilege to be part of that scene again. It’s a cool scene to be part of again.

Lauren Buzzeo 54:39
Totally, rising tide, let’s lift that boat with all the South African Chardonnay consumption. Yeah?

Graham Weerts 54:45
Right. Absolutely.

Lauren Buzzeo 54:49
So there you have it for your next golden pour, buck the norm and instead consider the beauty that South African Chardonnay has to offer. We covered a lot in today’s conversation with some great recommendations of producers to seek out from a number of the country’s wine regions, from Stellenbosch to Elgin, Robertson, Hemel-en-Aarde and beyond. Check out winemag.com/podcast for more information on the wines mentioned here, as well as additional resources to get you on your way to discovering the best of South African Chardonnay. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast at winemag.com for more wine reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on March 3, 2021
Topics: Podcast