When it comes to drinking wine, 'blind' tastings can be an eye-opening experience, writes Christine Austin

If there is one challenge in winemaking it is persuading consumers that your wine, however nice it is, stands up to comparison against the wines of the world.  There is always the thought that, somehow, those famous wines from France might just beat anything from the New World, and there are some drinkers, even some in the wine trade, who regard the hallowed vineyards of France as the pinnacle of taste while New World wines are definitely second best.

Of course comparative tasting can be done at home but it is very difficult to resist the temptation to peek at the label or to ignore comments from other tasters.  In short, the only way to compare one wine against another is to get someone else to set up a tasting where the wines are served blind, and everyone makes up their minds on the basis of taste, not prejudice.

That was why I was intrigued to attend an event, organised by the wine producers of Elgin in South Africa which pitted their wines against a fistful of international wines, including some from the smart end of Burgundy.

The focus was Chardonnay – something that Elgin does very well.

Elgin Chardonnay – small grapes, bags of flavour

Elgin is essentially apple-growing country, halfway between the vineyards of Stellenbosch and coast at Hermanus.   It is South Africa’s coolest wine growing region, catching the breeze from the sea and at an altitude that retains fresh, crisp acidity in the grapes.  Yields have to be maintained at a low level to get the right kind of concentration in the grapes, and this is one of the main problems of the region.  It is simply more profitable to grow apples, and some vineyards have been uprooted to be replaced by trees.  But Elgin is a fine quality wine region and it seems a shame to let it go for a crunchy Granny Smith.

The key producers here include long-established growers Paul Cluver (main picture) who not only grows grapes and makes wine, but also has a substantial investment in the apple business.  Their extensive property includes 1000 hectares of preserved landscape which forms part of the UNESCO biosphere reserve, so they are not just farming the land, they are preserving it too.  Andrew Gunn is another producer who is consistently making good wines in the area.  He has a particularly cool and breezy site which loses a lot of fruit to sheer wind power.  The newcomer is Yorkshireman Richard Kershaw, a Master of Wine who doesn’t own any vineyards but selects his particular choice of fruit and makes exceptional wines from it.

Master of Wine Richard Kershaw

Not only were the wines from these producers lined up, blind, for tasting, the producers were there too, so we were able to criticise and score the wines before being told who had made each of the wines.

From a tasting of 16 wines, here are my top ten highlights in order of preference.  Not all the wines are available in our region, or even in the UK.  Perhaps the top wines should be.

Iona Chardonnay 2016, Elgin, South Africa,

I have always loved the way Iona wines leap out of the glass to greet you, and then settle back and wait to be discovered all over again.  There is clear lime fruit, some creamy, buttery notes all wrapped up in oyster shells.

No local stockist, around £18.99.

Richard Kershaw Chardonnay 2017, Elgin, South Africa

Aromas of stone fruit, peach and nectarine with fresh citrus bite on the palate and hints of spice, with minerally crunch on the finish.  A generous, rounded, balanced wine that will age fabulously.

The Wright Wine Company in Skipton, £38

Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay 2017, Elgin, South Africa

Fresh as a daisy, with clean, bright lemon and lime fruit, edged with creamy toasty notes. Winemaker Andries Burger has worked 22 vintages at Paul Cluver and he loves the way the terroir of the vineyard shines out in the wine. So do I.

Martinez Wines and Harrogate Wines, around £17.99

Chassagne Montrachet Les Macherelles 2015, Jean-Claude Bachelet, Burgundy, France

Struck match aromas on the nose, then bright, linear freshness on the palate with rounded citrus flavours, a touch of savoury complexity and a precise finish.  This will be a lovely wine, but it is still far too young.

No local stockist, around £60.

Ata Rangi Petrie Chardonnay 2014, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Pineapple fruit on the nose, with hints of peaches and cream.  Very light toast showing, with ripe, rounded fruit on the palate.  Long with pure, balanced acidity.

No local stockist, around £24

Highlands Road Chardonnay, Elgin, South Africa

This is a new property for me, but the wine shone out of the glass with intense stone fruit and crunchy apple aromas.  The palate was broad, complex and supported by crisp acidity, with a crunchy, minerally finish.  So far no one is importing this estate into the UK.  Perhaps they should.

Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2015, Burgundy, France

It is disappointing to put this lovely wine so far down the list.  I love this producer and his wines, but this one just didn’t shine on the day.  There was a lot of struck match aroma and the fruit was almost overwhelmed by firm acidity. This will probably emerge from its cocoon in a year or so.

No local stockist, Lay and Wheeler have it at around £46

Oak Valley Groenlandberg Chardonnay 2016, Elgin, South Africa

Light, clean and bright citrus aromas with a hint of toast.  The palate shows good stone fruit flavours.

The Wine Society, £18

Lothian Chardonnay 2017, Elgin, South Africa

There are some classy flavours in this wine with honeyed, savoury notes and a purity of style. Richard Kershaw consults here and so quality is expected.  This wine has been available at Oddbins at a bargain £16, but since the administrators have been called in to Oddbins, it is likely to disappear.  Let’s hope another retailer decides to stock it.

Boschendal Elgin Chardonnay 2016, Elgin, South Africa,

The main Boschendal estate is in Franschhoek but they have also bought land in Elgin to source the right quality fruit for this Elgin series of wines.  This was light, creamy and balanced with good stone fruit flavours, perhaps lacking some concentration.

No local stockist, around £28




About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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