Move over Burgundy, here comes cool Aussie Chardonnay
Australian Chardonnay established a reputation on rich, opulent styles with concentration, full flavour and ripe fruit. That was then, now there’s a new wave of Australian Chardonnay: wines with approachability, elegance and diversity. Think you know Aussie Chardonnay? Then think again…
The variety’s beginnings in Australia are mysterious. It’s almost certain that it arrived on the continent during the nineteenth century – but was it one of the 365 surviving Busby cuttings docking in New South Wales in 1832 or did it arrive later via the Cape? After disappearing during Australia’s fortified-wine era in the first half of the twentieth century, Chardonnay resurfaced in the 1950s and its popularity took off in the 1970s. Today Chardonnay is by far the most widely planted white in Australia as well as the third most widely planted variety in the country, after Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Australian winemakers’ initial approach to Chardonnay is perhaps best described as exuberant. From mostly warmer regions, these golden-hued, textured, generously oaked Chardonnays wowed the home and export markets alike. However, winemakers grew dissatisfied with these wines’ lack of subtlety and finesse, and this opulent style began to wane. Skinny Chardonnays then followed, often picked much earlier from the same vineyards, but these ‘lean and mean’ austere styles never matched the popularity of their buxom forebears.
It was at this point that Australia’s fine- wine avant-garde began exploring the country’s cool-climate regions – coastal sites in the far south (such as Gippsland, Henty, Great Southern or Tasmania), and sites at higher altitude with conditions not dissimilar to classic European regions (parts of the Adelaide Hills, the Macedon Ranges or Tumbarumba). This quest for finesse and freshness was accompanied by a newer, more nuanced understanding of sub-regionality within large, established premium areas like Margaret River or the Yarra Valley.
Cool climate regions continue to attract considerable interest, and producers are now experimenting with single vineyards and sub-blocks of just a few rows. Techniques in the vineyard and winery have also evolved: hand harvesting, earlier picking, more gentle use of oak and the move to old French oak, minimal intervention and wild ferments are some of the practices which are reshaping the face of Chardonnay. The new wave Chardonnays are refined, complex and balanced; they can complement a broad range of dishes and they have ageing potential. Aussie Chardonnay is exciting again. Even the artisans and pioneering young guns are going back to Chardonnay,
think Timo Meyer and Mac Forbes in the Yarra Valley, Taras Ochota in the Adelaide Hills and Julian Castagna in Beechworth.
These fresh, elegant Chardonnays are enticing critics and consumers back to Australia. Jancis Robinson MW admitted “at the moment I am finding more life, interest and certainly value in the best of the new generation Australian Chardonnays than I am in the great bulk of white burgundies” (JancisRobinson.com, October 2015). And just last month, Sarah Ahmed noted in September’s Decanter “the spotlight is back on this Aussie classic, and advances in technique mean that its Chardonnays have taken a vibrant new direction…with greater refinement and diversity by style and origin, Australian Chardonnay is more interesting than ever.”
Meanwhile, across Australia’s vibrant restaurant scene, sommeliers have now flocked back to the Chardonnay cause, mindful of the fact that no white variety better meets the fundamental challenge of restaurant wine service (to find the best single wine for four entirely different main-course dishes) than this one. On Australia’s stunningly diverse restaurant wine lists, with pages of Jura specialities, single-butt sherries, Xarel-lo and Grüner Veltliner, the great contemporary Aussie Chardonnays more than hold their own: textured, subtle, nuanced, poised, expressive - and highlighting the diversity of Australia’s contrasting regions.
Chardonnay in Australia over the last 40 years provides the neatest summary you could wish for of the broader changes Australian wine has undergone during that period. Quality, diversity and evolution are the hallmarks not just of Australian Chardonnay, but Australian wine.
Still not convinced? Then, blind-taste a leading multi-regional blend like Penfolds Yattarna or Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Chardonnay against any global competition you wish, including Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy. Whichever your preference, you’ll be struck by the grain and textural finesse as well as the poise and elegance of Australian Chardonnay.