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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


Kevin Grant Kevin Grant is the iconoclastic owner and winemaker at the Chardonnay obsessed Ataraxia. Even his new visitor centre caused a bit of a stir locally, styled as a church complete with bell tower and stained glass windows, some of his more religious neighbours disapproved: "But it's part of the architectural vernacular of the region," says Kevin. "This was a poor sheep and wheat farming region. When I bought the farm it had only a few very dilapidated buildings."

There is something intellectual and, if I may say so, rather priest like about Kevin, something that suggests a rigorous but spiritual character. The name Ataraxia means 'Serene state of mind', as exemplified by the winged, ethereal angel that is the label's design and logo.

Standing looking down over the vineyards towards the sea, he explains how the morning mists roll in right over the vineyards here on the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge. At around 400 metres and with some cooler, south facing slopes, this is a cool site, further freshened by constant breezes from the sea. "We harvest a good bit later than other neighbours in Hemel-en-Aarde because of these factors," Kevin tells me.

The former winemaker at Hamilton-Russell, Kevin's obsession with Chardonnay began in Burgundy when he worked a vintage with Jacques Prieur in 1995. There he had the opportunity to attend a vertical tasting of Montrachet: "It was so inspiring, moving through vintages of young wine to the complexities of the older wines, it made me want to make Chardonnay that can age and become more interesting." To that end he treads a different path from many other Chardonnay producers in the region. he is unapologetic about acidification of the juice: "There's no point in presenting a 4x4 wine to the market," he says (that's a wine with a pH of 4 and total acidity of a lowly 4g/l) as acidity is one of the essential keys of ageability. I've backed off from 100% malolactic, and there's a discreet but essential use of oak.

winery "With a couple of notable exceptions, most South African producers are now giving up on Chardonnay as an ageable wine, " he continues. "But one great thing that is happening is that regional specificity is becoming much more important - people know that they shouldn't be buying a farm in Wellington to make Pinot or in Hemel-en-Aarde to make Cabernet. Chardonnay is becoming more and more interesting, but only as areas where it is made are refined, closer to the sea or up into the hills. We are learning not to make those ponderous, heavy styles."

Kevin does make a little Sauvignon Blanc (which he also wants to be ageable - "I don't think the vintage date on the label should also be the consume by date," he says) and Pinot Noir too, but I was honoured to be the first journalists to be shown the full range of every vintage of Chardonnay Ataraxia has ever made as the crux of my tasting.

The Wines

UK importer of Ataraxia is Stone, Vine & Sun and Howard Ripley. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2012, South Africa
13.7% abv, 31% new oak. Very dry, cool ripening season. Delightfully nutty and creamy nose, with a touch of orange and oatmeal. Beautifully precise, the fruit is so tight, mineral-flecked and lemony. There is that core of juicy tangerine and lemon zest that has a certain ripeness, but the acidity and freshness is what drives this, the nutty touch of oak just fleshing out the mid-palate and finish. Precise and delicious. 92-93/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2011, South Africa
13.15% abv, 30% new oak. Variable year, cool at first then very hot towards the end. Delicate, nutty incense nose, more almondy with ripe highlights of apple and lemon, but a real sense of delicacy here. Welter weight of acidity here, the lime and lemon freshness and the pithy dry acidity running right through the wine, but on the mid palate those lightly creamy notes and fleeting nuances of nectarine and mandarin orange add sweetness. Delightful. 91-92/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2010, South Africa
13.6% abv, 31% new oak. Very tough vintage, rainy. Has almost subsumed the oak completely on the nose, with duller aromatics. Has the fine blast of freshness and high acidity again to make it lemony and refreshing, but no doubt this is simpler and relatively lean without the complexity of the first two wines. 87/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2009, South Africa
13.9% abv, 34% new oak. "Supposed to be the best vintage ever - cool, dry and late." Showing a deeper colour here, moving towards buttercup yellow. This has the highest total acidity of all, at 7.8g/l. Honey and gentle nuttiness here, with a note of oxidation, softening the picture with gently floral notes coming through and apple fruitiness. The palate has that light oxidative quality again, nutty and orangey, with a fine core of lemon and mineral acidity. This comes together really nicely, showing maturity and perhaps not for keeping, but beautiful nutty fruit and still fresh. 91/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2008, South Africa
13.8% abv. 33% new oak. Some grapes sourced from Elgin (40%). Long, wet and late vintage. From this vintage on there is a lot of deep, buttercup colour to all the wines, especially the 2006 and 2005. Lovely nose, developing a buttered and lightly vegetal Burgundian character, with those lightly cabbagey notes delightful against the citrus. On the palate there seems to be plenty of fruit sweetness, a little layer of honey and almond against the fruit, and delightfully fresh and poised in the finish. Maturing and lovely. 91/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2007, South Africa
13.5% abv. 37% new oak, 40% Elgin fruit. "Coolish vintage, elegant wines, small berries." Very refined, very elegant, with just a hint of toast to the cool, mineral aromas. In the background there is something very dry and appley, a very appealing profile. The palate has crunch and vigour, the freshness of the acidity streaking through the lightly nutty and slightly oxidised notes, with a real squirt of lemon zest and pithy grapefruit acidity. 92/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2006, South Africa
13.6% abv, 36% new oak. 50% of fruit from Tulbagh. "Very cool vintage indeed, a bit of rain." Quite a deep colour, but nose seems pretty fresh, again those hints of buttered cabbage, Burgundian character that hint at more vegetal qualities, but lovely in this context. Just a little almost minty note from the creamy oak in the background. On the palate lovely silky texture here but light, that bracing core of tangerine orange and lime really streaking through. Terrific elegance and energy about this wine at this stage, lean but not mean, with a terrific, long finish. 93/100.

Ataraxia, Chardonnay 2005, South Africa
14.1% abv, 37% new oak. From the only commercial Chardonnay vineyard in the country in Tulbagh/Ceres area that is planted on its own roots. "Short, hot and early vintage and quite challenging." Not quite so giving on the nose, less opulence to the fruit (though this is all relative in the context of these precise and quite steely wines), with orchard fruits and a touch of background nuttiness. On the palate the oak is perhaps a little more prominent than in other vintages, but not heavy or excessive, adding a glimpse of coffee and toast, some complexity here, the fresh and savoury quality of the nuttiness and the sour tang of the acidity is beautifully done. Terrific stuff for a 13 year old wine. 92-93/100.

Ataraxia, Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa
The fruit for this wine comes from a farm next door the township in Elgin. Lovely fresh nose, with passionfruit and hints of guava and mango, with streaking freshness and beautiful, limpid texture, there is no overt green character, just a touch of soft green herb perhaps. Lovely palate, sweet, sweet fruit, with a beautifully refined and textured finish that is succulent. 90/100.

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