Truly, I was in at the mention of Chardonnay – doubly so from Australia. Then I saw the lineup of producers – some of the county’s top names instrumental in shaping the evolution of Chardonnay in Australia.
I am not ashamed to profess my love for this ubiquitous grape. When it is good, it’s really, really good. And while Burgundy has the upper hand with Pinot Noir, in my opinion, it does not have a hegemony on top quality Chardonnay. Australia is a convincing case in point.
“Everyone thinks Shiraz put Australia on map, but it was Chardonnay,” says Mark Davidson, Head of Education for Wine Australia in North America. He is kicking off a celebration of 50 years of Aussie Chard. While originally planted in 1830, there were only a few vines around when Tyrrell’s produced its first varietally labeled Chardonnay in 1972.
About a decade later, Rosemount Estate’s 1980 Show Reserve Chardonnay won a double gold at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London. This unleashed “a juicy juggernaut of joy,” declares wine personality Oz Clarke. From big-boned, rich and heavy, Aussie Chard has swung all the way to lean and excessively reductive over the years.
“Sometimes you have to turn up the dial to 11 to realize it is better at 8,” explains Davidson. The Australians are masters of reinvention, never satisfied to sit still. This has served them well with Chardonnay as they explore cool climates, refine practises in the vineyard and reined in winemaking techniques such as oak use, MLF (malolactic fermentation) and lees stirring.
“The pendulum has now landed in the middle,” asserts MaryAnn Worobiec, senior editor at Wine Spectator, adding “we bashed it on both sides.”
A zoom tasting of 8 Aussie Chards demonstrated the current span of the pendulum’s swing. The range was wide but not extreme and well within the pleasure zone. The samples arrived in 100ml fully recyclable plastic pouches and, overall, didn’t seem to suffer from repackaging.
Leeuwin Estate ‘Art Series’ Margaret River Chardonnay 2018 Western Australia $120
After being weaned on Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay, this was the first Aussie Chard that turned my head – both in taste and price. It was first made in 1979 and to this day, it still ages in 100% new French oak barrels. Restrained and slightly nutty, it opens slowly to reveal all its generosity. The aromas alone have me craving sweet crab meat dipped in melted butter. The palate is tight, textured and firm yet so zesty and lively! I would put it away for a few years. Finishes with intense lime curd.
Montalto Vineyard ‘Estate’ Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2016 Victoria $41.50
A short drive from Melbourne, the beautiful Mornington Peninsula was founded by professionals escaping the city and starting up hobby vineyards. That doesn’t mean there isn’t serious juice. Montalto’s estate Chardonnay ferments spontaneously with wild yeast at warm temperatures and sees low levels of SO2. It hints at lees, lemon, white blossoms and lightly roasted cashews. Creamy and round but still buoyant, this is a juicy number. Maybe not most complex, but definitely nuanced and delivers immediate pleasure.
Tolpuddle Vineyard Tasmania Chardonnay 2019 $88
Evoking thrilling adventure, Tasmania is Australia’s poster child for cold climate – though warmer, drier pockets do exist. Owned by Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw, Tolpuddle sits in a rain shadow benefiting from sunny days – even if temperatures are low. Reductive scents are upfront, so decant or give the glass a good swirl. This expands magnificently with orchard fruit, preserved lemon and candied nuts. Oak is well-integrated, and the acidity is succulent. A flintiness repeats on the tangy, peach-tinged finish. Very classy!
Penfolds ‘Bin 311’ Tasmania Adelaide Hills Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2019 Australia $50
Yattarna’s little sister, Bin 311 is a multiregional blend as is Penfolds’ wont. The focus though is specifically on cool areas as it draws on multiple sources to maintain a style. Brown butter, popcorn and toasty notes lead on the nose with plenty of appeal. It is full, broad and creamy thanks to malolactic fermentation and lees stirring – but not rich or sweet. Concentrated guava fills the mouth. Plush and smooth, this is hard not to like.
Forest Hill Vineyard ‘Block 8’ Mount Barker Great Southern Chardonnay 2018 Western Australia $n/a
While Mount Barker might be considered one of Australia’s cool new cool climate ‘hot spots’, it caught the attention of a UC Davis prof as long ago as 1955. Ten years later Forest Hill’s original two hectares were planted. Despite the lack of rain – the vineyard has always been dry farmed (aka no irrigation). The 2018 is fully ripe at a very reasonable 13% alcohol. And while it sports a racy green apple spine it isn’t fruity. This is all about tanginess and texture, which is almost chewy. It fills the mouth but isn’t heavy. The palate is what satisfies here.
Giant Steps Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2021 Victoria $35
For the music lovers out there, Giant Steps takes its name from one of jazz musician John Coltrane’s albums. With just a tiny bit of new oak, a small percentage of MLF and no lees stirring, this is a lighter style at a very drinkable 12.5% alcohol. It is exuberantly fruity but in a very pure peach, apple way. The backbone remains vertical as the fruit fans out. Straightforward and flavourful, it will make for sophisticated patio drinking.
Shaw + Smith ‘M3’ Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2020 South Australia $45
Another long-time Aussie Chard reference for me, Shaw + Smith is in the cool reaches of the Adelaide Hills. The winemaking team has lessened the impact of oak over the years – introducing larger formats and reducing new wood. Flint and wet stone lend complexity to buttered toast aromas. Oak influence is more prevalent on the palate though there should be enough density of fruit to balance. I’d give this newly released wine a few more months in bottle to sort itself out.
The Jury is still out…
Tyrrell’s ‘Winemaker’s Selection Vat 47’ Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2018 New South Wales $66
Oz Clarke described early vintages of this ‘as viscous as engine oil’. Rather than a criticism, it was a comment on prevailing style and preference of the day. Today’s expression is the complete opposite – lean rather than round. Suggestive of underripe fruit and the most overtly reductive of the lineup, the 2018 was in an awkward phase. Tyrrell’s makes some of Australia’s finest and long-lived Semillon. While this Chardonnay seems to be made in a same style, I am not yet sure it will evolve in the same manner. Hopefully I will be able to revisit it from bottle in a few years.