Alphabet soup of styles makes the big C reign supreme
WHICHEVER way you look at the ABC club, it is alive and well. There are those who loudly proclaim Anything But Chardonnay (and forage in the dreary wastelands of sauvignon blanc and even drearier pinot gris). On the other hand are the winemakers and retailers who know full well that chardonnay Always Brings Cash.
ACNielsen data, cited in the January-February Liquor Watch, shows that chardonnay accounted for $320 million in sales for the year to October 2007, close to one-third of the value of the total bottled wine market. It also accounts for one in three bottles of white wine sold.
With a dose of poetic licence, it is possible to describe chardonnay as having many personalities. On the one hand there is the soft, buttery, peachy, oaky and slightly sweet wine that used to be described as sunshine in a bottle, winning the hearts and wallets of customers in Britain, the US and everywhere else Australian wine was sold.
It is de rigueur for wine writers and wine buffs to decry this type of chardonnay, but it is exactly what the larger market wants. Few would-be customers read critical reviews of soap powders or breakfast cereals, and supermarket wine shoppers and drinkers simply don’t read wine articles. Decisions to buy fast-moving consumer goods are based on store position and discount headlines.
But wine buyers also listen to the Joneses and, like an airborne plague, they became infected with the idea that there is something wrong with chardonnay, so they furtively buy it in brown paper bags and consume it at home when the Joneses aren’t looking.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are profound changes in the winemaking approaches of the best producers of top-end chardonnay in Australia. These came under the microscope at the rejuvenated wine masterclasses held as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March, organised by the Australian Sommeliers Association and its energetic Victorian president Ben Edwards.
He assembled 18 chardonnays from France, Australia, California, Italy and New Zealand, the lion’s share from Australia and France. The panel — Oakridge winemaker David Bicknell, sommelier Chris Crawford, wine writer and wine consultant Nick Stock and me— was asked to talk generally about chardonnay style trends in a global context and, with reluctance, to talk about each wine in a semi-blind tasting format.
Semi-blind because we and the audience knew the identity of each set of six wines (presented over an hour) but not the order in which they had been poured, putting the panel in the same position as the audience. But, even before the discussion, those in the audience were asked to nominate their preferred wine.
On the first day, the wines were served too cold (a lethal beer fridge the culprit) but were warmer on the second day. Remarkably, the same three wines were picked as the favourite in each of the three flights on each day, although the other five wines in each bracket found some measure of support.
The common feature of the top wines was the balance between fruit and oak, fruit the driving force in wines that managed to combine complexity, harmony and intensity. As I have previously written, there are three quite different manifestations of top chardonnay in Australia. At one extreme there’s the (French) chablis model, with the focus on minerally fruit and texture, oak largely unseen. At the other extreme is the white burgundy model, with richness, depth and slightly feral complexity justified by the power of the fruit.
The third is in the middle and is what I loosely call modern Australian style, taking the best bits from the other models in much the same way as modern Australian cuisine gains inspiration from many parts of the world. The three preferred wines were in the middle style, two from Margaret River (2005 Voyager Estate and 2005 Leeuwin Estate Art Series) and one from the Yarra Valley (2006 Coldstream Hills Reserve).
While I preferred the Leeuwin Estate on each day in its group (the most highly credentialled and expensive), I preferred the 2006 Freycinet in its group (which included Voyager), and the Oakridge 864 (which was in the top group).