Australian Chardonnay is booming especially at the quality end of the spectrum. Gone the simple ‘sunshine in a glass’ styles that spearheaded Australia’s push into the wide world of wine during the 1990’s. Fading too the everyday ‘bag in a box’ Chardonnays that dominated the domestic market until recently.
The finest contemporary Australian Chardonnays come from distinguished sites and made with a radically different winemaking philosophy from the pioneering Chardonnays of the 1970’s. Modern Australian Chardonnay is bright, tight and age-worthy. Three key factors have driven this surge in quality – cooler winegrowing regions, a subtle ‘hands off’ winemaking approach and the almost universal adoption of the screwcap. Let’s explore each.
Chardonnay vines from Burgundy came to Australia in the 1830’s but it was more than a century before Chardonnay was made as a single variety. The small plots of Chardonnay that existed found their way in generic white blends - often labelled as chablis or white burgundy. In 1971, Hunter Valley winegrower, Murray Tyrrell laid claim to Australia’s first commercial Chardonnay. Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay (USD40) remains an Australian benchmark.
(Located in New South Wales, Hunter Valley is one of the first wine regions planted in the early 19th century. Photo by Jennefer Zacarias)
However over the last 50 years the focus has shifted from temperature regions like the Hunter Valley to cooler sites such as Orange and Tumbarumba in New South Wales. Quality chardonnay comes from anywhere on Tasmania, almost anywhere in Victoria with the Adelaide Hills and Margaret River the home to some of our best Chardonnays. These (predominantly) cool-temperate regions allow the Chardonnay grapes to ripen slowly with discreet flavours of grapefruit and white stonefruit rather than the more overt fig and cantaloupe characters of warmer viticultural sites. More importantly, the grapes grown in these cooler growing conditions retain their vital acidity, energizing the wine and aiding its longevity.
While the source of our top Chardonnays has gradually shifted, there’s been a seismic change to the winemaking. The early pioneers had no experience in making wood matured white wines so, with a glance to Burgundy and the new wave of Californian Chardonnays, lashings of new (often American) oak was the mantra. Add an enthusiasm for winemaking artifices like malo-lactic fermentation and extensive yeast lees stirring and the typical Australian Chardonnay of the 1980’s were bold, buttery and too often blousy. Unfortunately these voluminous Chardonnays didn’t keep -especially in the pre-screwcap era.
Australia’s more inquisitive winemakers took off to Burgundy to work in the ancient cellars and unravel the mysteries that Burgundian vignerons had harbored for almost a millennia. The secret was there was no secret recipe. Hand-pick Chardonnay grapes at optimum maturity and gently press the whole bunches and run the cloudy juice into a barrel. Then sit back and wait for the indigenous yeasts to do their job of fermenting the grape sugars into alcohol. Once the turmoil of fermentation has subsided, wait some more, stirring the dead yeasts cells occasionally, if you wish. The French call it batonnage, it brings bake- house flavours of biscuits, bread and brioche to the resting wine.
After eight to twelve months, the wait is over with the Chardonnay bottled without filtering and fining. Most winemakers adding a little sulphur dioxide to ensure the bottled wine is clean and stable. Job done.
(Named after the Mona Lisa, "La Gioconda", the first wines from the famous winery were released in 1987, including a Chardonnay from 1986 vintage)
This old world technique has almost universally been adopted in Australia. Yarra Valley winegrower David Bicknell has emerged as Chardonnay’s poster-boy with his Oakridge 864 Chardonnay (AUD45) the epitome of the contemporary Australian Chardonnay. That’s not to say that the more opulent style of Chardonnay has been abandoned but that it’s been refined. The Margaret River benchmark Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (AUD70) is still up there with the best but a more modern interpretation is the Vasse Felix Heytesbury (AUD70). There’s no shortage of flavour in the Heytesbury but its silhouette is more of a ballet dancer than an Olympic swimmer. If two illustrate the bookends of modern Australian Chardonnay it’s the purity and power of the Giaconda Beechworth Chardonnay (AUD120) versus the fine, bright and tight Tolpuddle Chardonnay (AUD50) from the Coal River Valley in Tasmania. Both top notch Chardonnays but quite diverse in style.
What about the Screwcap?
Oh and why is the screwcap so important? Its keeps the wine fresh and bright without the twin problems of premature oxidization and cork taint that have plagued great white burgundies in recent years. Sealed with a screwcap, the new wave of Australian Chardonnays reliably cellar for 5, 10 and more years. Lay a few bottles down soon.
Read More about Australian Wines...
Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay (USD40), Hunter Valley
Oakridge 864 Chardonnay (AUD45), Yarra Valley
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (AUD70), Margaret River
Vasse Felix Heytesbury (AUD70), Margaret River
Giaconda Beechworth Chardonnay (AUD120), Victoria
Tolpuddle Chardonnay (AUD50), Coal River Valley, Tasmania