(L to R): Danie de Wet, Remington Norman, Steven Spurrier and Johann de Wet.

The Celebration of Chardonnay began 14 years ago as a modest ode to what Danie de Wet from De Wetshof Estate has been doing so very well and what has consumed him for the better part of his life: the Chardonnay grape; the wines it makes; the people who make it; and the legacy it has left. And, too, the bridges of greatness it shall still cross.

Today, the Celebration of Chardonnay – held every two years at De Wetshof Estate in Robertson – has become one of the key premier events on the South African wine calendar. What began as a short-and-sweet presentation of a number of wines in the confines of the De Wetshof barrel-cellar and followed by a swank lunch, is now an internationally recognised event.

The crème de la crème of the wine world are jetted in to address the audience of selected wine-makers, sommeliers, chefs, media and other persons who could find the Chardonnay message relevant and inspiring.

The formal address is followed by a tasting of wines introduced by their creators, adding individuality and a unique personal touch. Not only of respective site and terroir, but of personality itself. The overall theme being one of awe, fascination and wonder at what Chardonnay has to offer.

Having attended each and every Celebration of Chardonnay since the event’s inception in 2006, this year’s was possibly the best to date.

As Johann de Wet, now running the show at De Wetshof, said in his introduction, De Wetshof owns the event by footing the bill and handling all logistics. “But we are inclusive in aiming to embrace the quality of wines and skills of winemakers who have made this such a great variety and to showcase South Africa’s Chardonnay provenance.”

Some members of the international wine royalty have in the past been called on to address the event and set the scene. There has been Jean de la Moriniere from Burgundy Corton icon Bonneau du Martray who spoke at the 2010 while he was still the owner of that revered domaine. Andrew Jefford, the prince of wine-writing, came to Robertson in 2014 and delivered a speech on the importance of terroir and site-specific Chardonnay expression that ignited something in the minds of every wine-maker present that year

International wine royalty, Steven Spurrier.

New York cult novelist and sometime wine-writer Jay McInerney was on hand in 2016 to wax lyrical about the romance of Chardonnay, and everybody was wondering how the 2018 Celebration or Chardonnay was going to top aforementioned speakers and their brilliant talks.

Well, this year none other than the great Steven Spurrier jetted in to experience the event and to present a snapshot of his love of and passion for Chardonnay. Wine writer, critic, consultant and all-round respected wine icon, Steven was called upon, and did he ever deliver.

He began by quoting British Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn, who said: “Flavour-wise, Chardonnay is the chicken of the wine world – a blank canvas than winemakers are free to write upon. To oak, to semi-oak or not to oak at all; to follow partial or full malolactic fermentation or to add richness and texture by lees stirring. All these and more are factors a wine-maker has to consider.

“But before the winemaker comes the vineyard. Aubert de Villaine from Romanée Conti, arguably the most revered name in wine, is often asked how he made such great wines. His reply is always: We pick the grapes when they are ripe and do nothing.’”

On the perennial topic of the effect of terroir on Chardonnay, Steven said: “We all know where the great terroirs are. Or we thought we did until at his lecture on his election to L’Academie Internationale du Vin about a decade ago, respected educator, lecturer and writer Remington Norman opened with the question: “Perhaps the greatest terroirs in the world have not been planted.” In front of the 95% of the European members at the annual AGM in Geneva, this was not well received.”

Surely food for thought, though.

But perhaps the most memorable aspect of Steven’s address was when he covered the matter of taste. What does Chardonnay give that makes it such an enthralling wine? Because it is taste that led to Danie de Wet returning to De Wetshof in the 1970s after studying wine-making in Europe to tell his father that they will now be making Chardonnay on the farm.

A star-studded panel of Chardonnay experts.

Here Steven recalled what Andrew Jefford, in his view the “poet of wine writing”, picked as the key to Chardonnay, namely T.E.P.E – Tension, Energy, Precision and Focus.  “As Andrew wrote in Decanter ‘tension’ and ‘energy’ are modish words to use about wine, as are ‘precision’ and ‘focus’,” Steven said.  “After a purple patch in which opulence and ripeness have been the cock qualities, we are now chasing a different bird.  The T.E.P.F ideal constitutes a set of worthwhile and durable aesthetic goals in wine creation (note ‘creation’ not wine-making) and today’s critics are right to laud them.

“Beware, though, that they don’t go the way of ‘minerality’ and end up being ascribed in the sloppiest manner to any wine about which one might harbour positive feelings.”

After this feast of food for thought, it was over to the wine-tasting itself and here the Celebration of Chardonnay took a new turn. Instead of calling the creators of the specific wines selected to the front to individually introduce their elixirs, 12 legends of South African Chardonnay were seated before the audience. Remington Norman had the responsibility to manage the 12 presenters’ contribution to the event, a style that worked far better than having a winemaker standing alone upfront basically reciting the tasting notes for his or her wine.

Andrew-Gunn (Iona) and Anthony Hamilton Russell.

The selected representatives present were Peter Finlayson (Bouchard Finlayson), Jan Boland Coetzee (Vriesenhof), Jeanette Bruwer (Springfield), Gary Jordan (Jordan), Simon Barlow (Rustenberg), Danie de Wet (De Wetshof), Carl Schultz (Hartenberg), Andrew Gunn (Iona) Boela Gerber (Groot Constantia), Neil Ellis (Neil Ellis Wines), Kevin Grant (Ataraxia) and Anthony Hamilton Russell.

Talking about their own wines in this convivial environment led to unprepared gems and tidbits of wisdom, allowing those present not only to taste a brilliant spectrum of Chardonnays from most of South Africa’s regions but to see a bit of the soul of those making the wines.

Danie de Wet, for example, explained what he thought made a wine great. “I had always thought about this question, until I attended a presentation by Robert Parker in Hong Kong,” Danie tells. “When he was asked this question he simply said: ‘A great wine has universal appeal. If those drinking it in any country, in any part of the world deem it to be great, then it certainly is’.”

Chatting to Steven about the tasting afterwards, he was assured that the quality of the South African wines warranted an ambitious event such as the Celebration of Chardonnay.

“The diversity was astounding,” he told me. “And if I had to select a stand-out showing, just look at Flight 3 of the tasting – Rustenberg 5 Soldiers 2017, De Wetshof Bateleur 2016 and Hamilton Russell 2015. Those three are all comfortably of the quality and class one would expect from Grand Cru Burgundy.” I would say, enough said.

Die 12 wines that were discussed by the panel:

  Estate Wyn
1 Bouchard Finlayson Estate Missionvale 2016
2 Springfiel Estate Methode Ancienne 2016
3 Jordan Wines 9 Yards 2015
4 Iona Wines Iona 2013 Chardonnay
5 Hartenberg Estate The Elaenor 2016
6 Vriesenhof Vriesenhof Chardonnay 2012
7 Rustenberg Estate Five Soldiers 2017
8 De Wetshof Estate Bateleur 2016
9 Hamilton Russel Estate Hamilton Russel Chardonnay 2015
10 Ataraxia Wines Ataraxia Chardonnay 2016
11 Groot Constantia Groot Constantia Chardonnay 2017
12 Neil Ellis White Hall Chardonnay 2015

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