After a tasting of French Burgundies will I ever drink Cape chardonnay again? Or how to look for scrumptious cow dung in a red

You may wonder why the hell you are getting a wine report from a food writer.  One that knows only the bare bones about Cape wine and even less about French.  A true vino ignoramus.


First up I thought it would be interesting to taste without preconception, exposing my truncated palate for wine, and then give you the ‘expert’, Allen Meadows’ tasting notes.  The comparisons could show me up for I am one of those happy Sav Blav quaffers that only tastes a pear if told it’s there.  In other words I am qualified to be nothing more than a wine copy writer that follows the Platter Guide or the winemaker’s description. 

Secondly after paying R300 for tasting at wine bar French Toast I thought it a good opportunity to learn something from Derek Kilpin of importers of European wine, Great Domaines.  It is also an affordable chance to taste Burgundy wines from this so expensive region.

There are three half glasses of white Burgundy (or chardonnay), located in eastern France, which I will concentrate on and three reds (or pinot noir).  All are from 2007, a good year for white and bad for red.  None of the reds are ready to drink.

One white is a village wine and the other two premier crus.  I’m fuzzy on the archaic French ranking system.  Kilpin reminds that it works like this in ascending order of quality: region, village, premier cru and grand cru.  (These designations were started in Medieval times.)  It is a rough guide – for premier cru and village wines can be good and of course regional wines are often plonk.  Sorry about the long names – blame the French: the village is listed first, the vineyard second, and the producer third:

Saint Aubin, En Remilly, Chateau de Puligny Montrachet at R320 a bottle.

So Saint Aubin the village, En Remilly the vineyard near the village and Puligny Montrachet the winemaker.

Me: Delicate and gentle flavours with a light body.  So unlike the heavy-hitting palate and dense body of Cape chardonnays.  Are the French chardonnays less viscous or is this simply a trick that the light colour and flavour plays on the mind?  Then a minerally long finish with a hint of citrus.  Kilpin describes the nose, or scent, as floral but I only pick this up after he points it out.

Meadows: “…a background hint of lemon zest that can also be found on the admirably pure and detailed middle weight flavours that also possess beautiful cut and delineation on the linear and driving finish built on a base of minerality that suffuses the wine from nose to tail as it were.  Lovely if not especially concentrated.”

Whew.  And that is not even the full tasting note.

Meursault, Santenots, Premier Cru, Domaine d’Angerville at R460 a bottle

Me: strong nose, more acidity than last then sweet green peppery finish, even better than the last one.  Kilpin says buttery and a typical chardonnay from Meursault. 

Meadows: “A very mild hint of reduction is not enough to block the citrus and high-toned floral aromas…plenty of tension on the linear, punchy and lingering finish.  This is a lovely wine fashioned in a very understated style.”  Me: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Puligny-Montrachet, Folatieres, Premier Cru Chateau, de Puligny Montrachet R715 a bottle 

Me: Buttery first taste, “smoothe as a baby’s bottom”, like licking stones, which is free.  Nirvana. Body light as a fairy.  Kilpin says too young to drink “but still remarkably subtle”.

Meadows: “Here is a classic Puligny nose of white flower and citrus with an intense stony quality that also infuses the moderately scaled middle weight flavours that are racy, punchy and like the nose, possess an almost pungent minerality that finds its way onto the relatively powerful, sappy and impressively persistent finish.  This is a wine of refinement, harmony and balance.”

All the chardonnays are runny in body, or the opposite of viscous, unlike many of the weighty wines of this variety here. 

All of them can also be enjoyed without a meal at any time of day.  Cape chardonnays I generally only enjoy with a meal, particularly the heavily wooded ones, which I will probably dilute with a block or two of ice. 

So which one would I choose?  Unquestionably the Puligny premier cru (not the village one) if money isn’t an issue but at R715 it is too expensive and the Meursault at R460 is also much better value when it comes to the Euros per gulp ratio.  So the Meursault the winner.

Kilpin explains that the light flintiness comes from the limestone the vines grow in.  Burgundies that grow in clay are more intense.

I ask talented and witty wine writer Cathy Marston which unwooded or lightly oaked local wines might have similar qualities to those from Burgundy.  Marston says the first rule of thumb is to select a cooler region such as Constantia, the Cape Peninsula, Elgin, Hemel en Aarde Vallei above Hermanus or the South Coast (and she doesn’t mean Port Edward, which has the terroir for bananas).  She throws out a couple of winemakers such as Paul Cluver, Bouchard Finlayson and Weltevrede.

The Paul Cluver chardonnay 2009 is R130 at Pick n Pay so I settle for something almost half the price, the Groote Post unwooded chardonnay 2010, which is in another colder region, between the West Coast and Darling.  They make this a selling point for their whites.  I find the nose to be sweet citrus and the taste buttery with a bit of stone and a fruity finish.  It is definitely in the French style and super quaffable but doesn’t quite glide down the throat like Burgundy.

Back at French Toast the winemakers present chat about the difficulty of making Burgundy style wines here.  One comment is that the market here doesn’t appreciate this subtle nectar.  They want to be knocked over the head.  But why don’t wine lovers here at least appreciate these wines that the rest of the world is prepared to pay top dollar for?  Because due to the delicacy of the flavours they don’t win competitions.  The market here is apparently in the hands of wine competition judges.

Kilpin’s advice when buying: choose the producer first, then the vintage, ahead of the village, vineyard and ranking system (grand cru, premier cru etc…).

My chardonnay conclusion: I will keep trying Cape chardonnays for experimentation and learning purposes but for now I’ll keep gulping Burgundy…just as long as you are paying.

Brief commentary on the Reds

Beaune, Les Perrieres, Premier Cru, Domaine de Montille at R330 a bottle

Me: light in colour, bit too chilled but nevertheless refreshing on a hot summer’s eve.  Bit of a Tassies like sour-plonky aftertaste leaving drogte on the mouth.  Only bad wine tasted but remember not ready to drink until next year.  But Meadows disagrees.

Meadows: “Classic ruby…bright and beautifully delineated middle weight flavours.”

Kilpin: Tannic and floral by nature.  Winemaker went biodynamic after taking over from his father.  Uses entire cluster of grapes including stems and skins.  So same ingredients as Peruvian grape brandy pisco and similar to grappa, though not in taste.  Stems also need to be ripe before harvesting and like whisked egg white in consommé remove some colour.       

Nuits-St-Georges, Aux Bousselots, Premier Cru, Domaine Robert Chevillon at R425 a bottle

Me: The nose floral and a rich hint of pungent and grassy cow dung. Smoothe and gentle.

Kilpin: floral nose, no harsh tannins.  From mainstream northern Burgundy.  Best pinot noir in Nuit 

Gevrey-Chambertin, Combe Aux Moines, Premier Cru, Domaine Jean-Marie Fourrier at R540 a bottle

Me: Whoa totally reeks of cow shit.  Fantastic.

Kilpin: Even further north in mainstream region.  A perfectionist winemaker.  Long finish.     

Got a problem with finding the cow pad description appealing, known euphemistically as nose of ‘farmyard’ in the trade?  Well consider this.  Cow dung is simply grass and not the same as omnivore or carnivore poo.  Maybe I am lucky that I grew up on a Friesland farm and it was impossible to avoid the stuff in the dairy so for me there is nothing disgusting about it.  Don’t forget that there is no more sought after dish in Sotho Cuisine than uncleaned tripe.  After a kill the first thing a lion will eat is the stomach, leaving the fillet to last.  So it is instinctual among us animals.  And how many of you who spent time in the Lowveldt as young kids didn’t smoke rhino dung. 

Interestingly Kilpin explains that some winemakers have as many as seven vineyards in the same appellation, for example premier crus.  Even when they are made in the same way by the same winemaker they all end up different.  Furthermore some vineyards have up to 100 owners, with some only owning a couple of rows of vines.  Some of the vignerons’ wines might be lovely and others you will want to pour down the kitchen sink.

Apparently Kilpin has personal relationships with the winemakers, allowing for Great Domaines to make informed selections for customers.  This also allows him to choose some of the best value-for-money options that cost far less than some of Ernie Els’ Cape wines. 

All agree, including the top Cape winemakers, that there is no reason to feel intimidated by Burgundies – it takes years of traveling there before you can ever fell you truly know the region.  A great leveler, making almost all of us, including many local experts, amateurs. 

If you are looking for a more knowledgeable report from a wino that can wax lyrical tasting notes, read Emile Joubert’s blog

You can find the website for Great Domaines here.

Tom Robbins
Posted February 15. 2011

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2 Responses to “After a tasting of French Burgundies will I ever drink Cape chardonnay again? Or how to look for scrumptious cow dung in a red”

  1. Duncan says:

    Funny, I love the “rich hint of pungent and grassy cow dung”! Last time I tried refined wine tasting I started smelling burnt rubber/plastic in the reds. That was before I stopped drinking wine entirely as they lace the stuff with Sulphur Dioxide, not fun if you are asthmatic.

  2. Emile says:

    Ah Tom, don’t be so modest. There is a vinous poet resting in your own meadow…..

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