Peter Finlayson’s quest for great Chardonnay23rd August, 2013 by Gabriel Stone
Peter Finlayson, who has spent the last 24 years as winemaker & general manager of Walker Bay estate Bouchard Finlayson, reveals how he is still exploring new techniques to improve his Chardonnay.
While this variety is an established presence in South Africa, Finlayson suggested that it can prove a frustrating conundrum for producers and consumers alike.
“I’ve always had the outlook that it’s easy to make good Chardonnay but difficult to make great Chardonnay,” he told the drinks business. “Some people abuse it and then blame it on the Chardonnay.
So what distinguishes great Chardonnay from the merely good? “It’s really about getting that extra flinty character,” maintained Finlayson who argued that, at its best, “the only wines that compete with it are great Rieslings.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledged the additional economic challenges that Chardonnay presents, both in the vineyard and the cellar.
“Producers who planted Chardonnay have perhaps burnt their fingers because after 10 years it’s got leaf roll virus and collapsed,” he remarked of the variety’s history in South Africa. “It’s far safer to plant something like Viognier.”
Turning to a more widespread issue facing Chardonnay in the form of its susceptibility to premature oxidation, Finlayson is convinced that protecting the wine during the bottling process is key.
“Once we went to a semi-automatic bottling machine we suffered a little bit of a problem with ageability,” he recalled. “Now we’ve gone back to an Italian machine that injects nitrogen and it’s much better.”
For Finlayson, the closure debate has not yet convinced him to follow many other Chardonnay producers in embracing screw cap. While admitting that cork is “not as totally secure as screw cap,” he feels the balance is still tipped by “the pleasure in enjoying that tradition.”
Even when producers successfully tackle the various hurdles thrown at them by Chardonnay, Finlayson suggested that its “rather more powerful” style can be confusing for those accustomed to lighter whites.
“Our advice to the consumer is to treat your Chardonnay like a red wine compared to a variety like Sauvignon Blanc that seems to be far more easy drinking,” he remarked.
When it comes to channeling this power without compromising on finesse, Finlayson told db that his approach has shifted over time.
“In my early years of winemaking I’d look at skin contact to give it heaps of polyphenols,” he recalled. “Over the years we’ve been coming away from that and go in far more for the whole bunch pressing.”
Even today, after nearly a quarter of a century at the helm of Bouchard Finlayson, he is in the process of testing out a different training system for the estate’s Chardonnay.
Based on advice from Alain Deloire, former professor in viticulture at Stellenbosch University, Finlayson has taken a two-hectare vineyard and replaced the estate’s usual double-cane Guyot system with the five-cane approach used in Chablis.
In this way, he hopes to counteract the poor budding of his Chardonnay caused by the lack of winter chill in his coastal region – the same solution to the opposite problem in Chablis, where poor flowering is more likely to be the result of very cold conditions.
Explaining his problem with the traditional Guyot system, Finlayson noted: “As these canes tend to push out strongly at the ends it is no guarantee that even eight buds will produce strong shoots.”
By contrast, with the Chablis system (see diagram), he predicted: “the canes are pointing upwards which will also stimulate apical dominance but in this case it will be double the
number as in our existing system.”
However, he concluded: “It remains to be seen if the theory translates into its anticipated advantages!”
the drinks business Global Chardonnay Masters 2013 takes place in September. Presided over by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, rather than being judged by country, each Chardonnay is assessed by style and price.
Those interested in entering the competition can do so here. The deadline for entries is 13 September.