Classic Chardonnay from South Africa

Wines from Richard Kershaw MW have gained major recognition from South Africa’s leading wine guide. For publication in the week of 8 February 2016.

The “Bible” for wine lovers in South Africa is Platter’s Wine Guide, published annually since 1980. Wine lovers and print journalists John and Erica Platter established the guide in 1978 after reading Hugh Johnson’s ground breaking Pocket Wine Book.

Diner’s Club International took over several years ago, with a new editorial team, but the guide continues to attract awards and readers. Editor Philip van Zyl said the guide listed about 8,000 wines each edition. About 60 to 80 received the coveted 5-star award – thus less than one per cent of wines reviewed get the top award, a score of 95-100.

The guide assigns a judge to each winery for a minimum of three years to become familiar with that winery. Philip van Zyl calls this “sighted tasting” as opposed to blind tasting because “we wish to remain true to the essence of the project, that of being a wine guide rather than a wine competition”.

Platter’s is a 600-page hardcover book. Most of the content is rewritten each edition to ensure the content is fresh and current when it reaches bookshops at the end of November for the coming year.

For the 2016 edition, the guide introduced a new approach. All wines judged to be worthy of 4½ stars (90-94 points on the 100-point scale) or better were entered into a second review. This tasting was done blind and included judges other than the guide’s team of 16. Wines that emerged from this second review with a score of 95 or better received the maximum five stars. From these the team chose a red, white and dessert wine of the year.

Most South African winemakers dream of getting 4½ or 5 stars, and few achieve that dream. This makes the achievements of Richard Kershaw MW even more spectacular. Kershaw started making wines under his own label in 2012 and entered wines in the Platter’s competition from the 2014 edition. Several of his wines have achieved at least 4½ stars every year since.

In 2014 and 2015 Platter’s gave the 2012 and 2013 Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin Chardonnay 5 stars, and in the 2016 edition the 2013 Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin Syrah got the same score. Decanter magazine, which describes itself as the “world’s best wine magazine,” chose the 2012 as one of the world’s best 10 Chardonnays outside of Burgundy. The 2014 Chardonnay received 4½ stars in Platter’s.

The guide describes the Chardonnay as “a masterpiece in understatement; precise, classy and delicious” with maximum taste from minimal intervention. Kershaw is one of only two Masters of Wine in South Africa, gaining the qualification in 2011. The other MW is Cathy van Zyl, Philip’s spouse.

Kershaw chose to base himself in the Elgin Valley, the coolest region in South Africa. The valley is close to the ocean and about 70km east of Cape Town, the major city at the foot of South Africa. The valley includes the towns of Elgin and Grabouw. It has been a fruit growing area, focusing on apples, since the early 1900s. Edmond Lombardi created the world-famous Appletiser drink in 1966 and the factory remains in the valley. The cool climate helps to ripen fruit slowly, which contributes to the intense flavours of grapes.

Previous columns have talked about the local flora, the fynbos. Elgin lies within the Kogelsberg biosphere, a UNESCO-heritage area within the beautiful Cape Floral Kingdom.

The Elgin Valley has about 850 hectares of vines. The main varieties include Sauvignon Blanc (40 per cent), Pinot Noir (15 per cent), Chardonnay (11 per cent) and Shiraz (9 per cent). The area’s main advantage compared with much of the rest of South Africa is the wide diurnal range – the gap between high and low temperatures – which is a major factor when grapes are ripening in summer. This is what creates intense flavours in Elgin wines.

Kershaw operates Richard Kershaw Wines yet he has no cellar door and owns no vines. He and a group of young winemakers have embraced what some call “guerilla winemaking” that allows people with minimal capital to enter the industry. Winemaking traditionally has been expensive because of the cost of land, equipment and cellars. Hence the industry joke about how do you make a small fortune producing wine? By starting with a large one.

Kerhaw buys grapes from local farmers, paying the best rates in the country, and rents winemaking facilities and cellar space for ageing wines. He said it was the best way to enter the business rather than buying land and building a winery. He jokingly calls himself a “parasitic” winemaker, because of the way he rents local facilities. Kershaw has pedigree. He was the group winemaker at the prestigious Mulderbosch estate in Stellenbosch until he launched his own label in 2012. Kershaw also makes wine for Naked Wines, the social media group in the UK, and sometimes creates special products such as for the Moody Blues music group.

For his Chardonnay, Kershaw focuses on specially selected clones, all originally from Burgundy. He exports to 15 countries, including to the Burgundy region of France. Output remains low. In 2012 he made 6,400 bottles. By 2015 the number had risen to about 10,000 but Kershaw does not intend to make much more than that.

Each bottle has a unique reference number. “Whole-bunch pressing during the winemaking process yields small amounts of juice, so output will always be relatively low for this range of wines,” he said at his Elgin Valley home. The chardonnays are truly remarkable, and benefit from being served in a wide-mouth glass that helps to release more of the aromas.

  • Hamilton Russell Vineyard in Hermanus, a short drive from the Elgin Valley, produces one of the finest pinot noirs in South Africa. The 2014 vintage is a beautiful wine with a savoury black cherry nose and lashings of spice and perfume, supported on a soft tannic backbone. The vineyard focuses on sustainable agriculture and the newly bottled 2015 vintage, the first made by Emul Ross, is even better than the 2014. Platter’s gave the 2014 4½ stars.

Words: 936

Categories: Not home, South Africa, wine

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