Article

Australian wines masterclass

Chardonnay

Australia’s key white and red varietals have come a long way over the past 10 years, with some very definite differences from one region to the next. Chris Losh sits in and watches as a team of sommeliers learn to tell their Margaret River from their Adelaide Hills


CHARDONNAY

If there’s one white grape that’s put Australia on the map, it’s Chardonnay. However, this has been something of a mixed blessing. The oceans of good-value crowd-pleasers that have flooded into the UK supermarkets over the past 20 years are not, for the most part, the sort of wines your average restaurant has been rushing to give pride of place to on its list.

Yet behind the multi-regional blends, a revolution has been taking place with the grape, with cooler regions and more sensitive winemaking to the fore. To prove it, Imbibe teamed up with Wine Australia and asked them to conduct a varietal workshop that would showcase the differing wine styles coming out of some of the country’s key regions.

It was the chance for our assembled sommeliers to see not just how far Australian winemaking has come, but also to get their heads round two different regional expressions of the grape. To prove, if you like, that terroir exists in Australia just as much as it does in Europe.

Walter Speller (ex-Le Pont de la Tour) led the sommeliers through a short presentation about the wines from Margaret River and Adelaide Hills, illustrating his points with a small selection of wines.


MARGARET RIVER

Australia’s most isolated wine region, on the continent’s westernmost edges, Margaret River is better known for Cabernet than Chardonnay. But the same cool-climate credentials that have led to excitable comparisons with Bordeaux are a bonus when it comes to Chardonnay as well.

The soils are gravelly limestone that drains well (remind you of anywhere?) and the climate is very definitely maritime, with a strong influence from the cold-streamed Southern Ocean. Again, like Bordeaux, wind can be an issue, especially during fruit set, and the finest vineyards are located on gravelly, low-lying ancient riverbeds.

In terms of the style of Chardonnay, Walter Speller warned the sommeliers to prepare themselves for a surprise.

‘It’s very contrary to what people think of as the typical Australian Chardonnay,’ he said. ‘It’s not big and buttery at all. We’re talking white fruit and citrus – lemon and lime rather than tropical characters, alongside a fine, piercing, ripe acidity.’

Our sommeliers tasted three different examples and were almost uniformly impressed, and indeed, as Speller had predicted they might be, they were quite surprised. The wines were different in age, weight and style, but there was definitely a common thread. ‘The common denominator is citrus,’ said Laurent Chaniac from The Cinnamon Club. ‘It works very well with the minerality.’

This minerality wasn’t masked by overworking of the lees, either. While many wines had extended lees contact, lees-stirring and malolactic fermentation are less common in Margaret River, meaning a fresher, more top-noted type of white. ‘Like expensive white Burgundy,’ said Speller, ‘the wines shouldn’t be served too cold.’

TASTED
  • Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2007, Margaret River (Moët Hennessy UK)
  • Evans & Tate The Reserve Chardonnay 2004, Margaret River (PLB)
  • Moss Wood Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Margaret River (Laytons/Jeroboams)

ADELAIDE HILLS

Our second classic Chardonnay wine region was the Adelaide Hills. Vines were planted here around 170 years ago, making it a much older wine region than its Western Australian counterpart. And where Margaret River is flat, the Adelaide Hills have altitude on their side, with some vineyards as high as 550m. In fact, it can be so cool that historically, Sauvignon Blanc has been the dominant white grape, with Chardonnay coming to the fore only relatively recently.

‘It has an enormous effect on the day and night temperatures,’ said Speller. ‘It really cools off once the sun drops, which lets the vines rest.’

The various slopes, on soils of sandy loam and clay loam, also allow for a wide variety of exposures and mesoclimates.

In terms of Chardonnay, Speller pointed out that while many of the wines still show citrus notes, there are typically more tropical notes as well. Acidity is broad, but well integrated into the richer fruit, and typically our sommeliers could expect to see some malolactic handling.

The sommeliers agreed. Igor Sotric, of China Tang, found the wines ‘more approachable’, while Bluebird’s Olivier Gasselin noted that they ‘all have big flavours.’

Certainly, the longer hang time of the Adelaide Hills grapes meant that the wines in the line-up were far from lacking in intensity, and a number of the tasters were intrigued about how such intense
– but well-structured – beasts might change with age.

‘These wines demonstrate that Australian Chardonnay offers a variety of styles,’ reflected Speller. ‘These wines are really appetising – and they want food!’

TASTED
  • Petaluma Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay 2006, Adelaide Hills (Bibendum)
  • Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2008, Adelaide Hills (Liberty)
  • Bird in Hand Chardonnay 2007, Adelaide Hills (Connect Wine / Lanson UK)

SOMMELIER COMMENTS

‘The Adelaide Hills flight was fuller and more tropical than the Margaret River one. They were well-balanced, but richer.’
Alvaro Marcos Garcia, Home House

‘There was more diversity in the three wines from Adelaide Hills than the three from Margaret River – the latter were more uniform in style.’
Davide Vareille, Bleeding Heart

‘This has been a really useful exercise. Australian wines are growing in the UK, and we need to start thinking about them as regions in their own right, not just calling them all “New World”.’
Luigi Buonanno, Etrusca restaurants

‘There were a lot of good regional characteristics, especially in the Chardonnays.’ Igor Sotric, China Tang


THE TASTING

We set our sommeliers loose on a blind flight of Chardonnays from the Yarra Valley, Margaret River, Adelaide Hills and Mornington Peninsula and asked them to score them and pick out any wines that they thought would be particularly food-friendly.

To help them with the latter task, Brett Graham, Australian head chef from The Ledbury, made two dishes to pair with the wines: scallops on liquorice with spices and fennel purée, and baked potato Rossini.


85 Ten Minutes by Tractor McCutcheon Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula

Citrusy lemon-and-grapefruit nose, with a soft, subtle viscosity, attractive broad acidity and great length. ‘Good texture, honeyed and rich white fruits,’ said Alain Lee.

£19.85, H&H Bancroft, 020 7232 5440


82 McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Chardonnay 2008, Margaret River

This wine was characterised by its rounded mouthfeel and juicy nectarine flavours, as well as a hint of vanilla. A bold wine, tasters thought, but well balanced. ‘It’s exotic, and there’s oak there,’ said Olivier Gasselin. ‘But it’s polished, too.’

£10.38, Louis Latour Ltd, 020 7409 7276


81 Leabrook Chardonnay 2006, Adelaide Hills

Opulent, exotic and tropical on the nose, with stone fruits, banana and mango. Attractive oily texture on the palate, yet with a hint of cleansing greenness on the finish. ‘Good citrusy aftertaste,’ said Alvaro Marcos Garcia.

£15.72, Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722 538


81 Stonier Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula

This had luscious melon and baked-apple characteristics on the nose, with broader hints of oatmeal as well. Citrus flavours punch through on the finish. Igor Sotric was not alone in praising its attractive broad acidity.

£10.05, Bibendum, 020 7722 5577


80 De Bortoli Estate Grown Chardonnay 2006, Yarra Valley

Lighter, gentler style with rather more restrained fruit style. Some exoticism to the flavours, but also a refreshing, delicate appley character that won over many tasters.

£9.40, De Bortoli, 01725 516 467


78 Stonier Reserve Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula

Creamy, oaty nose, with flavours of fresh pineapple and lychee. Behind this, however, there was a suggestion of earthy minerality. ‘Good length, and excellent acidity,’ praised Nicola Thomson, from Practical Matters.

£14.95, Bibendum, 020 7722 5577


77 Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay 2007, Margaret River

A leaner, grassier, more citrusy style that opens out gently on the palate. ‘Fresh, well-balanced, and with a long finish,’ said Alvaro Marcos Garcia.

£11.50, Domaine Direct, 020 7837 1142


77 Ten Minutes by Tractor 10X Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula

Big toast, and a lot of intensity here, with ripeness, toast and opulence. ‘This has real by-the-glass possibilities,’ said Alain Lee.

£13.50, H&H Bancroft, 020 7232 5440


78 Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2006, Margaret River

This was more vegetal in style – greener and fresher, with definite lemongrass and citrus flavours. ‘But fairly silky and mineral,’ said Olivier Gasselin.

£11.27, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7208 2508


74 Xanadu Chardonnay 2008, Margaret River

Bright fruit, good intensity, opulence and freshness. Peaches, citrus and a slight savoury kick.

£8.64, Enotria, 020 8961 4411


73 Kooyong Estate Chardonnay 2005, Mornington Peninsula

Pungent limes and lemons with stone-fruit mid-palate and light toastiness.

£15.65, Great Western Wines, 01225 322800


68 Yering Station Chardonnay 2005, Yarra Valley

Fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, alongside a definite smoky oak character.

£8.64, Enotria, 020 8961 4411


BEST FOOD WINE

Yering Station Chardonnay 2005, Yarra Valley
Although not scoring terribly well in isolation, the smoky, almost iodine flavours of this wine made it a fascinating partner with both the scallops and the Rossini. ‘That savoury character really worked with the truffle,’ said Cinnamon Club’s Laurent Chaniac.
£8.64, Enotria

BEST-VALUE WINE

McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Chardonnay 2008, Margaret River, £10.38, Louis Latour Ltd


SOMMELIER COMMENTS

‘Some of these Chardonnays were excellent with the food – McHenry Hohnen with the Rossini potatoes, Yering Station with the scallops. It’s good to see Australia focusing on wines that work well with food.’
Olivier Gasselin, Bluebird

‘There were some great wines here, and they really showed off the regionality. Stylistically, I’m a big fan of Margaret River. I love that citrus with minerality, and they have ageing potential for 10-12 years, too. The best wines would work with spicy food because they rely on concentration, not oak, for their weight.’ Laurent Chaniac, consultant to the Cinnamon Club

‘If you want to be a good ambassador for the wines, you need good knowledge – the more information you can give, the easier it is for the customer. We got some good information today.’ Matej Lacko, Boxwood Café

‘Generally, the wines were best with the fuller-flavoured food. On our menu, I would try them with things like sea bream and horseradish, or halibut and tarragon. But on this evidence, they’d work with truffles, too.’
Alvaro Marcos Garcia, Home House

‘I was pleasantly surprised by the Chardonnays. Apart from Adelaide Hills you do tend to lump them all together, but there’s obviously real regional potential’
Jules Watson, wine consultant

‘There were a couple of standouts in the Chardonnays. My favourite individual wine was from the Yarra, though I liked the Mornington Peninsula flight best overall. Both regions, I thought, leaned to the European style.’
Alain Lee, Prism


FOOD AND WINE MATCHING TIPS
from Ledbury chef Brett Graham
‘Given Chardonnay’s fuller weight and with the influence of oak, I could introduce more layered, complex flavours like liquorice and spice to the scallop canapé. Rich potato Rossini works well with savoury interpretations of the variety, with its dry freshness cutting through
the foie gras.’

OFFERS TO SOMMELIERS
The following importers and agents are offering a by-the-glass promotion on select Australian Chardonnays in January and February 2010

DOMAINE DIRECT
Contact: Cathy Brown
cathy@domainedirect.co.uk
020 7837 1142

ENOTRIA
Contact: Lyn McKnight
l.mcknight@enotria.co.uk
020 8961 4411

H&H BANCROFT
Contact: Rob Allen
rallen@bancroftwines.com
020 7232 5440

LAYTONS/JEROBOAMS
Contact: Simon Powys Maurice
simon.powysmaurice@laytons.co.uk
020 7288 8860

LIBERTY WINES
Contact: Pippa Askham
pippa.askham@libertywine.co.uk
020 7819 0333


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - January / February 2010

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