Al­pha­bet soup of styles makes the big C reign supreme

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

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).


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