Return of the great white
The ‘it’ wine of ‘80s party people and the power lunch, chardonnay is back and better than ever
As a guy who wrestled with teen angst, social politics and mobile phones that weighed the same as a sack of potatoes, just saying ‘the ’80s’ can still make one’s bum bags overflow with nostalgia. It was a decade of self-absorption, individualism, shameless consumerism and overt fashion statements, the era of power lunches and power dressing, and it needed a bold wine to match.
Enter chardonnay, the ‘it’ wine of the ’80s. Its big flavours, derived from hedonistic doses of oak and alcohol and buttery malolactic fermentation, were purpose-built for a generation who defined themselves by how and what they consumed. Yet as today’s wine industry shifts constantly under our feet it’s hard to comprehend how a single grape variety could galvanise an entire generation of drinkers to change the way they saw wine. What made it so popular and why did it go out of fashion? Most importantly, why are winemakers and drinkers saying that chardonnay is back and back in big way?
Up until the ’80s in Australia, wines were labelled by region not variety. Just ask Hunter Valley winemakers, for instance, who at the time were labelling wines after European wine regions such as Moselle, Hermitage and Burgundy. With the grape name emblazoned on the label, “a glass of chardonnay, please” became the order of the day. This kind of transparency in wine was radical and at odds with the elitist, high-brow image associated with wine drinking at the time. Using the name of the grape variety created an instant connection with wine drinkers, and the wine itself offered colour, aroma and flavours that were easily recognisable. It made everyone rethink the way wine was made and drunk.
But during the ’90s the drink du jour suffered a fall from grace. What went wrong? The human touch that is such a requisite in transforming chardonnay from a rather neutral tasting juice into a mouth-filling, complex and deeply satisfying dry wine became its downfall. Heavy-handed oak – some winemakers resorted to throwing oak chips into tanks in place of barrel ageing – along with boosted alcohol levels and overripe fruit gave rise to flabby wines and led to the dawn of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) backlash. Plus, a challenge came from over the Tasman, with Marlborough sauvignon blanc offering a fresher, leaner style that captured the attention of wine drinkers suffering chardonnay fatigue. Bridget Jones has also been blamed for damaging its image as she drowned her singleton sorrows in chardy, and Kath & Kim probably didn’t help matters when malapropism-prone Kim demanded ‘cardonnay’.
In 2008, British wine writer Jancis Robinson noted that “The popular conception of Australian chardonnay is of a thoroughly industrial, acidified, full-bodied, vaguely oaky, branded wine sold in high volume at heavy discounts to the undiscerning.” But she detected a shift as some Australian winemakers experimented with cooler-climate, Chablis-style chardonnays. “Refined Australian chardonnay is no oxymoron,” she wrote, “it just needs a bit of attention.” Increasingly, it got it.
The fashion industry believes that trends work on a 20-year life cycle. If you live long enough you’ll see the styles of your youth eventually come back into fashion. Chardonnay, along with fluro and the side pony, is now back. Figures from Wine Australia show that premium chardonnay sales are on the rise, especially in the $20-$29.99 bracket, while a 2017 Wine Intelligence Report notes “a resurgence of chardonnay, particularly higherpriced chardonnay”.
I was in the Hunter Valley recently and had the chance to sit down with Ian Scarborough of Scarborough Wines. Tough, direct and weathered, Scarby makes classic butter and toast versions of chardonnay.At the same table sat Liz Jackson of First Creek Wines, also from the Hunter Valley, whose chardonnay was flinty, fresh and mouth-watering. What struck me was not only the dramatic differences in each wine, but how well made they were and how delicious they both tasted. It would also be fair to say that if you’re enjoying the leaner and cleaner style of Australian chardonnay so popular today you should offer a moment of thanks to Dave Bicknell. He was part of a collective of Yarra Valley winemakers who eschewed the traditional approach to chardonnay in the noughties – less toast and butter, more elegance and freshness, like Chablis but without the ego.
Then there’s Margaret River where powerful flavours and rich, layered oak character are fused to create deeply flavoured wines that are possibly the country’s best chardonnays of the past 10 years.
The greatest change in chardonnay, however, is in the winemaking and its relationship with grape growing. Chardonnay is showing its true potential – real bandwidth in flavour and texture, and potent regional characters all made possible by a belief that good wine is made not in wineries but in vineyards. This is chardonnay today and why it is more relevant than ever if you love Australian wine.
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