Australia’s Benchmark Chardonnay Producers
I have to admit this piece has been work-in-progress for over a year now, originally titled “Australian chardonnay on the comeback trail”. Inspired at the time by tasting in succession, the then new releases of TarraWarra Reserve Chardonnay, Grosset Piccadilly Chardonnay and Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay, all consummates wines that define the calibre of Australian chardonnay at the present time.
As it often happens, the distractions of too many good wines and new stories or the magnitude of some tasks can delay or even derail a writing project, as is the case here. Alas, I have resurrected the subject inspired by my recent tastings, again the impeccable new release of Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2008 along with a blinder from Tasmanian Sugarloaf Ridge 2007, and a summation of the Australian chardonnay’s I have tried over the year’s.
The catalyst here though is I am getting tired of the Aussie bashing by the international wine press, and that’s saying something coming from a New Zealander.
Unfortunately the misinformation or lack of understanding of Australian wines lies perhaps in the unfamiliarity of the diversity of regions, subsequent styles and ability to produce wines of defined character and provenance. Ill-informed armchair wine journalism is not helping.
Equally, I blame the English supermarkets (actually all supermarkets) in coercing both consumer and maker to price points and formulaic styles that suits their own profit line and shareholder returns more than the customers’ evolving palate.
Likewise, the stereotyping of Australian wines through ratings and credulous scores proselytized by megalomaniac wine critics has narrowed the consumer’s vision, particularly in the USA and Asia markets, distorting what they perceive as quality or desirable status in a wine.
The ABC (anything but chardonnay) syndrome is not relevant anymore, unless you want to change it to ‘another brilliant chardonnay’,
as that is exactly the state of play with consumers rediscovering the lustre of the variety. Actually, most well-lubricated palates did not eschew chardonnay at all, as they new the good producers to follow. Certainly none of the decent palates I know tired of Chablis or Burgundy, or the benchmarks of Australia, New Zealand or California for that matter. If you are less enamoured with crisp, aromatic whites, preferring a richer, nutty-savoury, buttery flavours and oily-textures, chardonnay and you are simpatico.
It was really the mass market and overproduction of pedestrian commercial wines and blousy styles that was/is the cause of chardonnay fatigue. Yes, Australia was at the forefront and equally a victim of its success. I shudder at the thought of some of the syrupy, tinned fruit juice wines that flooded the markets. Actually, I came across one in a blind tasting recently that was totally nauseous, like sickly sweet, lolly water, revealing itself as the dreaded Yellow Tail Chardonnay. And they call this a successful brand?
Sure, there is no denying that some wineries in Australia went through a period of making overripe, over-oaked, overworked chardonnay that was a slave to style more than expressing any sort of sense of place or terroir, whether it was vineyard specific or regional.
Personally, I was never a fan of the likes of Rosemount Chardonnay, cutting my teeth when I first arrived in Australia in the mid eighties on the wines that filled the racks in the unparalleled cellar of the legendary Two Faces Restaurant. Nat White’s Main Ridge Chardonnay from the Mornington, and the grand master, Stuart Anderson of Balgownie up in Bendigo, and the man ahead of his time, Andrew Pirie at Pipers Brook from Tasmania, all three chardonnay trailblazers of the time.
Then there were the pioneers of the Yarra Valley resurgence, Seville Estate, Mount Mary, Wantirna Estate and Yeringberg, also the venerable Best’s Great Western; and the benchmarks of the era Tyrrell’s Vat 47 from the Hunter Valley and Petaluma, pioneering Piccadilly and the Adelaide Hills. Most of these wines continue to be amongst Australia’s finest.
I think the most significant evolution of Australian chardonnay has been the simplest, and yet by no means easy to achieve, although natural course in progression for any wine region, that is to respect and express the regions characteristics and capabilities. One has to put this in to perspective as we are dealing with the grape equivalent of a chameleon, indeed chardonnay’s Achilles’ heel is its ability to adapt easily to practically any viticultural situation or region.
The Australian situation is exasperated by its ingenuity and freehand in blending regions to achieve commercially consistent wines/style. In retrospect, the very fact it became successful too quickly and conveniently in the hands of dexterous Australia winemakers that jaded consumers and even winemakers becoming bored with its predictability.
Whilst there were seemingly limitless quantities of respectable Australian chardonnay out there in the last decade, the laws of supply and demand lead the consumer to become more analytical and perceptive to those wines showing more personality and distinctive regional qualities, more specifically wines that had a perceived edge in a super-competitive field.
This in itself lead to a favouritism towards the proven regions, some of them well-established and others newly ordained. There might be a few lone stars such as Tomboy Hill Chardonnay in the Ballarat region, Dalwhinnie Chardonnay in the Pyreness or Forrest Hill Chardonnay in the deep south of Western Australia however; the coveted cool-climate chardonnay regions of Australian are now Yarra Valley, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Beechworth, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River and Tasmania.
In terms of geography, Australian’s will no doubt have their prejudices such is the rivalry between states. Indeed, I will assuredly be heckled for omissions however the premise here is on benchmark chardonnays intended to inspire discovery and not an absolute critique.
For the international consumer, it is more a question of unfamiliarity of the biggest island on the planet and the vast distances between these regions and subsequent diversity of styles. It is over 2700 kilometres from the chardonnay dress circle encompassing the metropolis of Melbourne (Yarra Valley, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong) to Margaret River in south of Western Australia, with the Adelaide Hills some 700 kilometres out from Melbourne.
Then there’s the iconographical presumption that all of Australia is hot, a land of endless sun-soaked beaches and rust-coloured deserts. The ancient Greek’s aptly theorized the probability of proportional lands in the Southern Hemisphere counterbalancing the Northern Hemisphere, calling it Terra Australis, Latin for “land of the south”. And yet, for all our modern-day worldly intelligence, Australia’s biggest challenge is convincing the wider wine audience that truly cool-climate wine-growing regions actually exist.
Scenes of raging bush fires and blistering heat-waves are not convincing either however; these are the weather extremes of global warming. Visit the southern regions of Australia in the grip of winter, with the biting roaring forties winds from Antarctica whipping up over South Indian Ocean and you will have no misconceptions of how cool the climate gets in southern Australia!
I will not expand much more on the specific regional climates or micro analysis of soil structures as this will be covered in individual articles based on my benchmark chardonnay selection however, one needs to appreciate the divergence in southerly latitudes between the regions paralleling the vast distances; Margaret River at 33.5 degrees, Adelaide at 35 degrees, Melbourne at 38 degrees and Tasmania spanning 40 to 44 in the deep south.
Apart from the Adelaide Hills with its exponentially higher altitude, and the Yarra Valley being a certain distance from the coast, the maritime conditions greatly influence the climate and weather patterns in all these regions.
As we know, climate, albeit strategic, is only a piece of the puzzle, with soils and the ecosystem above and below ground cornerstone and greatly influenced by mans manipulation, particularly when organic and biodynamic philosophies are adopted.
It is a complex tableau of the sciences, sometimes not exact or perhaps metaphysical. The French have conceptualised this relationship between man and all the elements as terroir, as defined in the French language, “the total vineyard environment”. However, their marketing rhetoric always accentuates the geological merits – age of the soil and substrata with “the vine roots reaching to the earth’s core to extract precious minerals”. Correspondingly, the French believe they have exclusivity over terroir.
Leading Australian winemaker, Jeffrey Grosset, commented aptly on these misconstrued ideologies at a wine symposium in New Zealand, “First, that the concept of the importance of place exists not just in Europe but applies equally in our countries (Australia and New Zealand).
But it is up to us to use the knowledge from our experience to define those places that undoubtedly exist for great wine to be produced,” he opines. “Second, that a critical point in defining the relevance of site is whether you attribute the people-related aspects to terroir, or do you consider the human element as `getting the most out of the site.’ My opinion is clearly the latter.”
Grosset then introduced a fascinating picture of terra Australis terroir as defined by one of the oldest inhabitants of the Earth: “Known in Australia for thousands of years as pangkarra, an Aboriginal word that represents a concept which has no direct English translation but encompasses the characteristics of a specific place that is, the climate, sunshine, rain, geology and the soil water relations; this might well reflect the difficulty in translating such a concept, rather than the fact Aborigines were not known for their viticulture.”
Grosset further emphasizes, “To get the concept of terroir it’s important to think of all these attributes together rather than individually. In essence, a wine has a certain taste not just because of the variety and vineyard management but because of its place. I don’t see winemaking as part of terroir but rather that poor winemaking can interfere with its expression and good winemaking can allow pure expression.”
While Grosset’s views add credence to the adage, “great wine is made in the vineyard,” there is clearly a profound message that the concept of terroir is inconsequential without the abilities or talent of the winemaker, and to put a finer point on it, Australia has a lot of talented winemakers.
Furthermore, if the obsession is ancient soils, it needs to be said the Australian landscape has some of the oldest rocks in the world (3.7 billion years old) and special rock “windows” that tell us about the geological age of the planet, and the origins of life. Forged at the beginning of Earth’s formation in the Archaean period, the continent of Australia and ancient metamorphic crust has eroded over the eons with tectonic plate movements creating mountains and ranges.
Much of the southern topography and sedimentary top-soils originate from the Neoproterozoic era, a period between 800 and 500 million years ago, where the receding oceans and glacial movements that linked Australia with Antarctica deposited silt, sand and carbonate in large marine sedimentary basins, forming chalk, limestone, sandstone and shale with top-soils rich in minerals.
So there you go, bloody old terroir!
All that said there are the cynics insinuating Australian chardonnay producers are deluded in thinking their wines are authentic expressions of terroir as the winemaking process is far too manipulative. This rational is of course distorted. Whilst it could be said there are grape varieties that require less intervention in the winemaking process, particularly in the sense of not requiring oak, such as riesling and known for its redolence of minerals and marked sense of place. However, if you were to line up my selection of Australian benchmark chardonnays for comparison, you would vividly see the divergence of flavours and definition of regional characters and individual terroirs.
What one does need to appreciate with chardonnay, it begins life as a wine of many parts and generally requires two to three years of bottle aging to achieve harmonious integration of its aromas, flavours, oak tannins and yeasty characters, allowing the primary fruit and minerals through, taking on more savoury-earthy secondary characters – mealy, nutty, caramel and buttery complexity.
Some of these secondary characteristics are associated to malo-lactic fermentation, batonage or stirring of the lees (yeast cells) all normally taking place in small oak barrels, with extended maturation.
Stylistically, Australian chardonnay has moved on significantly, with winemakers exercising more restraint in search of elegance and less-overt (tropical) fruit. I would even suggest that many winemakers are drawing inspiration from the Chablis region in France, with an accent on purer fruit and a certain leanness, although I have yet to see a completely unoaked wine from Australia of any real merit.
Some of the established clones are still the best performers; Penfolds clone and Mendoza, also known as Gingin, are dependable but it is the introduction of new Dijon clones from Burgundy that is changing the Australian chardonnay landscape.
From an Asian market perspective, the fast-evolving indigenous palate is now looking for a white wine to complement their predilection for red wines with a growing awareness of the suitability of styles or varieties to particular cuisines.
At the same time, wine status is still an overriding factor and France, or more specifically white burgundy, was always going to be at the top of the pecking order. Indeed, the ideally suited wines in terms of cuisine and climate from Alsace and Loire Valley are struggling whilst white burgundy has become highly fashionable.
This is the conundrum of the Asian market, where the enormous disparity of wealth distorts the reality of consumer tastes or trends and the obsession with luxury goods and status inevitably dictates what wines or styles are deemed suitably fashionable. That said white burgundies position is tenuous in its limitation to the top-echelon appellations with anything outside of the Chassagne/Puligny sphere in no-man’s-land with the likes of Macon or Pouilly-Fussie having little appeal.
This is perhaps where Australian chardonnays could well run on the coattails of white burgundy as there is no question the price/quality rapport in Australian chardonnay is far greater, and the labelling less intimidating with none of convoluted classification/hierarchy that makes white burgundy so confusing. I would suggest some blind tastings of white burgundy vs. Australian chardonnay would throw the proverbial ‘cat among the pigeons’.
In terms of suitability to Asian cuisines, chardonnay has enormous upside. One has only to factor the staples of Chinese or more specifically Cantonese cuisine, chicken and pork, to comprehend the potential or suitability of chardonnay.
Chardonnay is also harmonious with yellow curries; that is the sweeter curries that are used for seafood and chicken, along with many Indian and Malay/Peranakan dishes where turmeric, saffron, cumin seed, mustard seed, fennel seed spiciness is synergistic with the secondary nuances of chardonnay. Moreover, the richness and oiliness of chardonnay is equally complimentary to both the textures of sauces and tempering spicy heat. I place chardonnay at the top of my Indian cuisine pairings, having the edge of other suitable varieties such as viognier and pinot gris in terms of higher acidity and overall structure.
However, it is Japanese cuisine where the most potential lies, more in terms of restaurant suitability and the bourgeoning popularity of Japanese cuisine.
One only has to look at the Michelin Guide accolades now bestowed on Japan’s restaurants moreover; the very fact Japanese restaurants are universally fashionable in every corner of the globe. Chardonnay is mellifluous with white fish served as sashimi, particularly with more-oilier fish and heavenly with fatty tuna and salmon, especially if the wine has mellowed with a few years bottle age.
Young chardonnay is wonderfully congruous with the deep fried dishes Tempura, Kushikatsu, Tonkatsu and Karaage, but I could write a thesis on pairing chardonnay and Japanese dishes with its synergy between the overall delicacy and exactness of this cuisine.
I certainly have renewed enthusiasm for Australian chardonnay and convinced it is on the comeback trail, regaining its composure on the world wine stage. The King of white grapes is dead. Long live (chardonnay) the King!
Australian Benchmark Chardonnays
As in any personal appraisal, this list is highly subjective and whilst in order of preference, all of these producers’ wines have equal merit. There is also some compensation or omissions for wines that are difficult to source internationally.
- Shaw & Smith – Adelaide Hills, South Australia
The Quintessential Modern Artisanal Australian Winery
- Grosset – Piccadilly-Adelaide Hills, South Australia
- TarraWarra – Yarra Valley, Victoria
- Bindi – Macedon Ranges, Victoria
- Sugarloaf Ridge – South Eastern Tasmania
Sugarloaf Ridge 2007 releases absolute blinders!
- Giaconda – Beechworth, Victoria
- Yabby Lake – Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
- Tuck’s Ridge – Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
- Oakridge - Yarra Valley, Victoria
- De Bortoli – Yarra Valley, Victoria
- Kooyong – Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
- Peccavi – Margaret River, Western Australia
- Arlewood – Margaret River, Western Australia
- Cullen – Margaret River, Western Australia
- Leeuwin Estate – Margaret River, Western Australia
- Dalwhinnie – Pyrenees, Victoria
- Moorooduc Estate – Mornington Peninsula, Vic.
- by Farr – Geelong, Victoria