Weight and C: Australian Chardonnay

Drinks: Chardonnay, Wines
Location: Australasia, Australia

For 10 years, lumpy, chunky Aussie Chardonnay was the girl that nobody ever wanted to date – but the slimmer, more elegant post-millennial version is starting to turn heads. Why, Miss Jones… you’re beautiful, says Simon Woods

Australian Chardonnay was the darling of the 1980s and early 1990s, wooing us with its come-hither charms, then seducing us with its combination of ripe peachy fruit, toasty oak and buttery allure. But then we decided that there was more to life than being overwhelmed by a cleavage/six-pack in a glass, and our love affair finished almost as swiftly as it had started. The ABC movement – Anything But Chardonnay – began, and we turned our faces and our wallets to other countries and other grape varieties.

‘We have winemaking weapons at our disposal, but we’re now aware that they can be overused’ Michael Hill Smith

Even several years later, many people continue to avoid Aussie Chardonnay. Emily O’Hare of The River Café fell into that camp. ‘I’ve been one of those people at trade tastings who thought, “Why bother trying the stuff from Australia when there’s European wine on offer?” But then, through Imbibe, I won a competition with James Busby Travel called ‘Blog Your Way Down Under’, with the prize of a two-week trip around Australia – I don’t think I’d have gone otherwise. I wasn’t expecting much at all from Chardonnay but I was overwhelmed.’

She’s not the only one who finds what some call Mod Oz Chardonnay a revelation. Forget the overblown monsters of the past, today’s wines are much more grown-up, with less oak, less of that buttery/cheesy richness, less blowsy fruit and far more class and drinkability.

So what happened? There was a combination of reasons, according to Melbourne consultant and sommelier Ben Edwards. ‘Winemakers have made an effort to move away from the “more is more” philosophy of the past, where lots of new oak, malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and other winemaking tricks dominated the horizon, to today’s leaner, crisper, racier and tauter styles.

‘Then the shows around the country started to reward wines of finesse and complexity – not just power – and finally sommeliers were actively seeking out wines that they could recommend in a restaurant environment to show off the flexibility and drinkability of a well-
made Chardonnay.’

let there be light

Winemaker Michael Hill Smith of Shaw + Smith cites four factors behind the evolution in style. ‘Firstly, site and climate. There’s been a move to cooler regions, such as Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills, and this is giving rise to wines that are more savoury and restrained rather than just ripened – you hardly see those tropical melon-styles any more.

‘Then there’s viticulture,’ he continues. ‘We have better clonal material than we used to, but we’re also finding that older clones planted in the right places in those cooler regions are giving better fruit as the vines age. And there’s a move to pick earlier to avoid acidification.

‘Thirdly, process changes. Leeuwin Estate was one of the Chardonnay pioneers, and thanks to the influence of Robert Mondavi, the inspiration there was more Californian. Now, Burgundy is the role model, so the top wines tend to be hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed. The juice going into barrels is generally cloudy, ferments are with natural yeast, new barrels aren’t as highly toasted, are often larger, and older barrels are more common. Some winemakers are also toying with sulphur to try and add that spent-match character. Finally, there’s a philosophical change. We have all these winemaking weapons at our disposal, but we’re now aware that they can be overused,’ he concludes.

‘Many Australian Chardonnays make many white Burgundies look bland and old fashioned Ben Edwards

Opinions differ as to when the changes became apparent in the wines. For Hill Smith, it’s been a gradual evolution, but Steve Webber of de Bortoli in the Yarra Valley isn’t so sure. ‘The evolution was ridiculously slow for 20 years until around 2005. It took us a while to get our heads around Chardonnay in cooler climates: for the realisation to hit that we didn’t need to pick the fruit ripe, and that subtlety and neutrality were often desirable features in young Chardonnay.

‘We had been over-exposing fruit (because of some research w*****s) so you’d get sunburnt or yellow fruit even in cool, well-tended vineyards.

‘The change to “dappled light” to protect fruit from the hot sun plus diligent shoot-thinning for both cluster positioning and crop reduction changed the Chardonnay landscape. Some said the Yarra had gone too far, but if you don’t go too far you haven’t tried hard enough. Interestingly, those wines are fantastic now.’

so cool they’re hot; so hot they’re cool

The wine regions that are setting the pace with Mod Oz Chardonnay

New South Wales
It was Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay (as it was then called) from the Hunter Valley that first put Australian Chardonnay on the map, with Rosemount Estate’s Roxburgh taking up the baton not long after. But while Hunter versions can still be good, today the focus has shifted to cooler spots such as Orange and Tumbarumba.

Top producers: Brokenwood, Philip Shaw and Tyrrell’s.

South Australia
The Eden and Clare Valleys can score with Chardonnay, but the stand-out zone is the Adelaide Hills, and many producers based elsewhere source grapes from here.

Top producers: Shaw + Smith, Grosset, Tapanappa, Petaluma and Penfolds
(specifically the Reserve Bin A).

Tasmanian fruit is increasingly a component of many Chardonnays from mainland wineries – Eileen Hardy and Penfolds Yattarna for example – but growing numbers of small estates are making an impact with the variety.

Top producers: Stefano Lubiana and Tamar Ridge.

Without question, Victoria is the hotbed of Chardonnay activity. Most of the action is in the Yarra Valley (Coldstream Hills, De Bortoli, Giant Steps, Oakridge) and Mornington Peninsula (Kooyong, Ocean Eight, Yabby Lake). However, there are also pockets of excellence in Beechworth (Giaconda, Rodda) and Macedon (Bindi), with Drumborg, Geelong and Gippsland also worth watching.

Western Australia
The wines emerging from Pemberton can be top class (try Picardy) but the bulk of great Western Australian Chardonnay is from Margaret River. The best approach the finest Victorian examples, but are slightly richer in style.

Top producers: Clairault, Cullen, Leeuwin Estate, Stella Bella, Vasse Felix and Xanadu.

potential empty promises

Not all producers have embraced this leaner, fresher style of Chardonnay successfully. The slightly hollow character on some wines speaks of grapes that have been picked just that little bit too early.

And the move to lightly-oaked and unoaked wines has resulted in rather too many simple Chardonnays, an indication that either yields were too high, or that the vineyard unfortunately didn’t have very much of interest to say.

But the number of high-class wines produced each vintage continues to rise, as Edwards is only too eager to relate.

‘To be honest, many Australian Chardonnays in the marketplace simply make many white Burgundies look bland and old fashioned,’ he opines. ‘Also, Australian restaurateurs, sommeliers and consumers love the use of screw caps, as the wine often lasts the distance better than under cork, and consistency is always the key. The only real surprise is the versatility of modern, vibrant and complex Australian Chardonnays with food. The sky is the limit if you understand the style of wine.’

Can’t get you outta my head…

UK sommeliers tell us why Australian Chardonnay is all that they ever think about (ish)

Emily O’Hare, The River Café

‘I’m used to regionality and typicity in Italy, but I’d never expected to come across it in Australia. OK, we were tasting the cream of the crop, but the Chardonnays were stunning. You could see not only the difference from region to region, but from vineyard to vineyard. They were far more elegant and delicate than I expected, and certainly a lot more than just sun in a glass.’

Star wine: Bindi Composition Chardonnay 2009, Macedon Ranges. £25.84 – on allocation, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820

Hamish Anderson, The Tate Group

‘There’s a long way to go to convince people that Australian Chardonnays aren’t going to be heavy. But the wines are unbelievably good: brilliantly pure and almost more Burgundian than Burgundy – when you give them to people, they absolutely love them. And thanks to their restrained style and higher acids, they’re very versatile with food, just like Chablis, and go well with food such as chicken, cheese and oysters. However, they are a hard sell – thanks to the exchange rate, many are now the same price as Burgundies, and hardly anyone is ordering them by default.’

Star wine: Kooyong Faultline Chardonnay 2009, Mornington Peninsula. £26.70, Enotria, 020 8961 5161

Martin Lam, Ransome’s Dock

‘There’s some amazing Chardonnay being made in Australia, especially in Victoria. They’ve figured out how to cope with the sunshine and the result is exceptionally good, food-friendly wines, which thanks to their acidity have a very broad application in a restaurant – they’re not just wines to be quaffed. The difficulty is convincing the public that it’s worth spending Premier Cru Burgundy prices for it. And that’s in a place where customers are generally favourably disposed to Australia. We’ve just started selling Yabby Lake’s Block 6, but it had to wait for a gap to appear (vacated by Leeuwin) before it got its place on the list. However, this isn’t just Australia’s problem. There’s so much good white wine out there. Where once Chardonnay was the default option, people are now much more willing to experiment with things like Albariño, Viognier and Grüner Veltliner.’

Star wine: Yabby Lake Block 6 Chardonnay 2008, Mornington Peninsula. £28.25, Swig Wines, 020 8995 7060

Roger Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

‘Most of our customers realise that the Australians stopped making big oaky Chardys in 2001. In fact, we find it difficult to persuade punters to move back to Burgundy. Spectacular wines kept in perfect condition under Stelvin will always win in an environment where guests are cost-conscious and want value and guaranteed quality bottle after bottle. I always recommend Chardonnay with Indian food. Giaconda with chicken tikka masala – go for it!’

Star Wine: Moss Wood Chardonnay 2010, Margaret River. £22, Laytons, 020 7288 8880

Senthil Kulandhaisamy, Oxo Tower Restaurant

‘People are now looking for purity in Chardonnay rather than full-bodied oaky styles, and the cooler parts of Australia can provide this. Now there are wines where the fruitiness comes through, but the flavours are delicate, not overwhelming, and there’s acidity to give freshness. It means they’re much more food-friendly than they were – perfect with a fish like lemon sole.’

Star Wine: Ocean Eight Verve Chardonnay 2010, Mornington Peninsula. £13.95, Hallowed Ground, 07799 414 374

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