The music behind the DeMorgenzon Chardonnay
29 June 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : A South African Chardonnay has been voted the world’s best at a global competition held in the UK. The DeMorgenzon Chardonnay, Reserve 2015 was named best in the world by the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards by winning platinum, best in show Chardonnay over £15.
That same wine also won a Regional Trophy for best Stellenbosch Chardonnay at the International Wine Challenge in London in April. DeMorgenzon winemaker Carl van der Merwe joins us. Carl, what does this amazing award actually mean to you personally?
Carl van der Merwe: For me it’s a great confirmation of the fact that we’re on the right track at DeMorgenzon that we have interpreted, our resources well. It’s just a confirmation we’re on the right track.
JCW: What was it that made this particular Chardonnay stand out against all the others, what was it that gave it that ooh la la, whatever it was?
What makes this Chardonnay stand out?
CVDM: I don’t know, Jenny. I think DeMorgenzon white wines has that particular combination and a very unique combination of power and presence on the palate, along with finesse. So we’re talking about rich, unctuous flavours which aren’t overbearing but really are very appealing to the palate. There is a beautiful freshness and a signature acidity which is very unique to our wines.
JCW: Is it unique to the particular area occupied by DeMorgenzon or to a particular part of the farm?
CVDM: I think it’s a magic combination of granitic soils and the morning sunshine. DeMorgenzon translates into morning sun. So you know, the gentle morning sunlight and the fact that all our soils are of granitic origin gives our fruit a very unique character. Of course I think the Baroque and classical music has something special to do with that as well.
JCW: Well, I do too and you know, it was a South African scientist who decided or who researched it and said that plants do respond to sound. You can actually see them turning their little heads or their little leaves and this was done about 40 years ago. So I think this is South African down to its roots.
CVDM: Completely and I think that we’re not very good if we think that nature doesn’t react to stimuli. Now we know scientifically that plants do react and they do communicate with one another. I’ve got no doubt that plants react to music. I can definitely see that certain vineyards at DeMorgenzon do react very positively and it’s quite funny that our great wines, the Chardonnay and the Reserve Syrah are in a very, very close proximity to the music.
The changing landscape of South Africa winemaking
JCW: Okay, so I mean I think that there’s consensus obviously the plants respond to that particular stimulus. But there are all sorts of other things going on in South African wine. I’m sure DeMorgenzon is one of the estates that is playing a greater deal of attention to it and that is actually letting the wine or the vines speak for themselves.
JCW: Yes, absolutely and I think over the last 15 years or 20 years was still the most exciting period in South African winemaking. Winemakers have travelled and I think we’ve really begun to understand the resources that we have at our disposal. It’s no longer a Chardonnay or a Syrah, it’s an expression of a particular property, an expression of the unique resources that you have.
So in that people are really trying to understand the soils that they have, understand the varieties of that planting in a certain area. Produce a wine which is really unique and which is in fact, uniquely South African, which I think really says something.
JCW: Yes, I think that international judges and international wine testers are looking for something that is acceptable to their particular taste. But also they want some kind of a South African flavour but they’re not looking, in my opinion. But you will know a great deal more than me. For those wines that were so thick and heavy that you had to sort of sieve them through your teeth.
They’re looking for something lighter, they’re looking for something very sophisticated. So for DeMorgenzon, the Chardonnay 2015 to walk away with this platinum award, I think it’s saying something about what the world wants in terms of new style wine.
CVDM: Completely and I think you know, for me the elements of the wine that define quality are balance, length, intensity and complexity. If the flavour components in a particular wine are well-balanced, you feel that intensity of flavour on the palate and on the aroma. If there’s a beautiful length on the palate and the wine lingers and leaves you with a lasting sensation and all in a sense if there is just a great intensity and complexity of flavours. That’s really the ultimate of quality.
I think South Africa, with our balance of sunshine and with the fact that we manage to ripen our crops well every year, certainly has the opportunity to produce very intense and very complex wines. In the right terroirs we can produce wines with good acidity and with great length on the nose.
The uniqueness of Chardonnay
JCW: It’s not a particularly difficult varietal to grow is it? I mean it’s not Pinot Noir which drives people insane.
CVDM: No, I think Chardonnay is quite unique. It’s a very malleable variety in the sense that there’s a lot you can do in the winery to change or effect the flavour profile in a certain way. The way that we make wine at DeMorgenzon is a very, very non-interventionist approach.
We use, only natural yeast. We don’t use enzyme in the settling process. We use minimal use of sulphur dioxide. We use barrels that are particularly lightly toasted. the reason I do that is to allow the potential of the vineyard and the character of the fruit to come for the fore. That’s why this result was particularly encouraging for us.
JCW: Well, can we just talk about South Africa and Chardonnay because it seems to me that the go-to wine, wherever you are in South Africa is a Sauvignon Blanc. I mean people understand it, they like it, they like it very chilled, they like its freshness. But there’s been resistance to the heavily oaked Chardonnays hasn’t there? Is it going to be a tough sale to get people to order Chardonnay instead of the Sauvignon Blanc?
CVDM: I don’t. I think the reason why Sauvignon is such an easy sell in South Africa is because it gives people, you know it’s a variety that people can identify with. So while it is still a little bit of a hurdle to most people in that they think that they’re a little bit intimidated by this product. Which has all sorts of narratives people talking about. Nose and palate and all these strange concepts.
But at least Sauvignon is a wine which is crisp, it’s fresh and it has very obvious flavours and I think that’s why it’s successful and easy to identify with but I think Chardonnay will see, it’s one of the most stable white varieties in that there is a consistent demand for it.
I think in terms of the wooded style, I’ve seen people beginning to tire of a really wooded style of Chardonnay, which is one of the reasons why we’ve chosen to use a very specific type of barrel that doesn’t wood the wine too much at DeMorgenzon. People prefer the elegance and they prefer the softer approach, they don’t like fashionable wines.
Lower alcohol level becoming more fashionable?
JCW: Also internationally it seems to me that they are looking for wines that are not so high in alcohol. Is that reflectant in your opinion?
CVDM: To a certain extent I think it’s almost fashionable to turn the bottle around and have a look at what the alcohol level is. It’s quite interesting in a lot of international markets. The law in South Africa around what you’re allowed to put on the label and what the actual alcohol is in the bottle is very, very strictly managed and controlled.
In certain European markets it’s not controlled to the same extent. I know some of the famous European wines where the alcohol in the bottle are a lot higher than they actually are on the label. So I think at the end of the day it comes back to what I said earlier. The wine must be balanced and alcohol at a higher level can be exceptionally balanced and can be very appealing.
But I think the responsibility upon winemakers and upon wine is to keep an eye on alcohol levels and a wine at the end of the day is a beverage. It shouldn’t be something that we have a sip of and then tire. It should be something that we can really comfortably drink a couple of glasses over a good meal and not feel fatigued.
JCW: Carl, I’m just looking at part of your press release and it just says to place the decanter, when in context. The DeMorgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2015 was rated the best South African Chardonnay versus its local competitors. But was then assessed versus the best of Australia, New Zealand, France, America, Argentina and Chile and all other wine producing nations and it beat them as well. Now this, it seems to me is just a simply extraordinary wine.
CVDM: It is extraordinary and I think in a competition like that and if you look at the people that judged in the final Chardonnay panel. They are serious, serious palates that have a very good understanding of particularly Burgundy which is the home of great Chardonnays in France.
So to rise up to the top in a situation like that where you’ve got fierce international competition is remarkable. I’m so proud and I’m so excited at the implication of what we’re going to continue to achieve at DeMorgenzon.
JCW: Yes, well I mean I’m not even mentioning the other varietals, the Chenin Blanc and the Maestro Red which you know, I’d practically bath in, I like it so much. I get through a lot of them. But you were there when the announcements were made, were you not?
When the result hit home
CVDM: No, I was actually travelling in America at the time when they let me onto the news that the Chardonnay had done so well. You know I can be quite convincing and then quite strategic at times. I managed to get the information out of them that Chardonnay had indeed trumped each category.
Because the results were under a lot of, for… or the information was under embargo for at least six weeks until the actual result were announced. So it was a very difficult time for me to sit with what that information for six weeks and that, but it’s certainly still a quiet air of confidence.
JCW: When you heard you’d won and I mean the size of this is absolutely enormous. I mean did you stop your car, did you leap from a building? I mean what did you do?
CVDM: I think we did quite a bit of marketing and selling when I was in the US. A couple of, we had a barbeque on a rooftop building in New York, so it would have been silly to jump off that building. But I was exceptionally excited.
I felt a bit far from home and you know Jenny, to be honest, if I look, the other day I did a bit of an exercise and looked at how well DeMorgenzon has done over the last five years. Our wines have excelled in international competitions and global competitions and also to the point where I find it, you know I find it surreal.
You alluded earlier on to South African winemakers beginning to understand their vineyard and trying to make wines that are more reflective of their vineyards. I think the greatest takeaway for myself and certainly for Wendy and Hylton and the staff at DeMorgenzon have learnt that we’ve got a serious good patch of dirt that we’re sitting on here. It’s our job to express that sophistication and it just says to us that the future is well-cared for in a sense and we’re very excited.
JCW: Well, I think it must be wonderful to work in that kind of an atmosphere where the owners are intimately involved and intimately excited. Those wonderful photographs of you with Wendy just standing there, the look on both of your faces was testament to the excitement and I suppose to the pride that you both felt.
CVDM: Yes, I guess it is. I solely believe that a business which is not headed by someone that is passionate and really involved and loves what they’re doing, is completely misguided business. In South Africa currently I think in the current economic climate we can’t afford to have such business. One of the greatest driving facets at DeMorgenzon is that it’s headed by Wendy and Hylton who are passionately involved. Passionate about their business and that’s such huge success.
JCW: Well also there’s that music in the background and of course we all know that if you play Bach or if you play Mozart, whether it’s to plants or to people, it calms you down, it makes you very sanguine. I suppose it’s just a good thing to do so all I can say is what a wonderful achievement. I’m so thrilled for you and for DeMorgenzon itself. Thank you so much, Carl.
CVDM: Thanks Jenny and just remember to keep your bath full.