Re­turn of the great white

The ‘it’ wine of ‘80s party peo­ple and the power lunch, chardon­nay is back and bet­ter than ever

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Head to de­li­ for more drinks news and re­views.

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