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Shaping-up the Chardonnay way at Rietvallei

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Robertson wine region has in recent years made great strides in taking its place at the forefront of the Cape’s fine wine production and has indisputably become prime Chardonnay Country. It’s been proven over the recent decades that this noble Burgundian white cultivar thrives here in the ideal soils with their high concentration of chalk, clay and limestone.

At the heart of this development, Rietvallei Estate is increasingly garnering top awards at significant evaluations, while being at the thrust of Chardonnay evolvement following the first vineyards established here some 45 years ago.

Winemaker-owner Kobus Burger explains that his late father, Johnny Burger, regrafted an existing vineyard with Chardonnay cuttings in 1985 and what followed in 1988 was the release of the maiden vintage, the barrel-fermented 1987 Rietvallei Chardonnay. The following vintage, 1988, was responsible for the Estate’s first major recognition, being chosen for a coveted listing for the South African Airways’ Blue Diamond First Class.

“Chardonnay, together with the renowned Rietvallei Red Muscadel released in 1975, was the only natural wine in our portfolio for 15 years, until we added Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon in 2002.”

Today, Chardonnay is still a very integral part of the estate’s portfolio with no less than four individual versions of this elegant, yet diverse varietal spread across the estate’s different ranges, namely:

  • JMB Chardonnay – treated with 100% French oak
  • Classic Chardonnay – delicate blend of oak fermented and unwooded
  • Burger Family Vineyards Chardonnay – fresh unwooded style
  • John B Brut Chardonnay – vibrant young sparkling wine.

Rietvallei’s present Chardonnay plantings comprise a 1.2 hectares block established in 2004 in limestone-rich red Karoo soil and a 3.6 hectares block dating back to 2013 on a north-westerly slope, also in lime-rich Karoo soil.

“This vineyard planted in 2013 was incidentally the last one planted by my father in the year he passed away and the grapes for the JMB Chardonnay – ‘J M B’ of course being his initials – exclusively derive from this block,” said Kobus.

The proud haul of awards for the flagship JMB Chardonnay includes:

  • 2020 vintage – Veritas 2021: Double Gold
  • 2019 vintage – Chardonnay du Monde 2020: Gold and Top 10 selection (also Gold for 2012 and 2013 vintages).
  • 2018 vintage – National Wine Challenge 2019: Double Gold
  • 2017 vintage – Michelangelo 2018: Gold
  • 2015 vintage – National Wine Challenge 2017: Double Gold

Meanwhile, the countrywide Chardonnay planting area under vines, as reflected on the Sawis (SA Wine Industry Information and Systems) website, bears testimony to the Robertson region’s status as the country’s Chardonnay production hub.

Robertson’s total Chardonnay area under Chardonnay vineyard – grown among some 52 wineries – totals 1 660 hectares, compared to Paarl in second place with 1 217 and then Stellenbosch with 1 122 hectares. Interestingly, the Cape South Coastal Region, where specialised producers in the Hemel en Aarde Valley – like the trailblazers in Robertson, played a pioneering role in putting SA Chardonnay on the map – still represents only 319 ha of the country’s total 6 587 ha – Sawis 2020 figures.

This situation makes all the sense in the world to eminent viticulturist Francois Viljoen of Vinpro’s Gen-Z Vineyard Project – actually born and bred among the Robertson vines.

“Chardonnay production absolutely flourishes here thanks to the area’s natural terroir assets and accompanying viticultural and economic advantages. I do not believe there are many producers here who do not have Chardonnay vines.

“The market for Chardonnay has grown significantly and the wineries have mastered the art of its vinification, with skilful wood-contact, while unwooded Chardonnay is rapidly gaining ground in Robertson.”

He said Chardonnay flourishes in a Continental climate with warm days and cold nights. The good soils especially, red Karoo soils with lime-rich contents give good vibrancy and grape composition of sugar, acid and pH levels, like proven in Burgundy.

“The cultivar does not like much wind; the warmer flowering and fruitset period is ideal and promotes fruit development, which yields sustainable production. Also, a cold winter as you will find in the Robertson Valley is needed for good budding. The good climatic conditions in the ripening period ensures healthy grapes and reduces risk.

“Yes, you can indeed call Robertson Chardonnay country,” he concludes.

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