When it comes to charting the fortunes of grape varieties in the Australian wine market, a decade is a long time. Take for example the contrasting evolution of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Ten years ago, Chardonnay comfortably outsold Sauvignon Blanc, with only a few forward scouts from the twin islands making the initial forays of what would become a full-scale Sauvignon invasion. Despite the fall from grace of the ‘Unwooded Chardonnay’ phenomenon, Chardonnay was still the leading the way for white wines in volume terms, with cheap and moderately cheerful examples selling well at home and away.
Ten years on the market dominance of Chardonnay has ended as Sauvignon Blanc, brimming with self-assurance, has plied its overt charms to devastating effect. The irony, though, is that whilst Chardonnay has slipped in the popularity charts that are fed by barcode scanners at retail outlets, it has regained credibility in a host of other places, including wine shows and newspaper columns but most importantly in vineyards and wineries. When it comes to the top end of Australian wine, Chardonnay is driving a lot of the excitement.
The fact that it is grown in so many diverse regions, from the chill of northern France to the desert of Mendoza, has given Chardonnay multiple personalities. But the fundamentals remain. Chardonnay is relatively low in aromatics; it doesn’t jump out the glass like Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay has some mid-palate richness of texture that is apparent even when grown at the cool margins of climate in places like Chablis. It can have high acidity, but the acid drops quickly when it ripens. It is also an acidity that doesn’t have the harshness that Sauvignon’s acidity can present, nor the long seam of firm and fine acid that Riesling relies on. There’s also Chardonnay’s affinity with malolactic fermentation (which softens the acidity and adds textural and flavour complexity) to consider, and likewise its ability to gain complexity from fermentation and maturation in French oak. Flavours are many and varied, and a whole gamut of descriptors could be listed under numerous categories such as floral, citrus, stone fruits, spice, cream, and nuts.
Rewinding a decade once again, and one of the criticisms leveled at Australian Chardonnay was that it was too fat and oaky. Excessive ripeness, injudicious malolactic fermentation, and too much new oak were making wines with oodles of peaches, cream, and oak flavour, but lacking freshness, zip, and drive. From those failings has come the impetus to try new techniques, to make wines that can age, and to toss out the old rulebook.
Leading the charge has been winemakers like Michael Dhillon at Bindi in the Macedon Ranges, along with Dave Bicknell, Mac Forbes, and Steve Webber at Oakridge, Mac Forbes, and Debortoli, all in the Yarra Valley, and Sandro Mosele at Kooyong and Tom Carson, now with Yabby Lake, both on the Mornington Peninsula. They’ve embraced techniques like earlier picking, pressing whole bunches rather than crushing the grapes, using malolactic fermentation sparingly if at all, and reducing their lees stirring. All these techniques are aimed at making wines that have fresh acidity, and a tightness of structure as opposed to opulent fruitiness.
For some tasters these wines will appear too austere and lacking in flesh and generosity, and that can be a danger with these styles. Pushing these boundaries to make more restrained styles will result in some wines that miss the mark. Nevertheless, the wines are garnering some strong reviews, with Bicknell’s Oakridge 864 Chardonnay 2009 in particular receiving wide acclaim. They are also at least partly responsible for Chardonnay’s renaissance as a variety that is exciting consumers and trade alike.
For a Chardonnay fan like me – as far as I’m concerned it is the greatest white grape of all - the interest in Chardonnay and the serious efforts going into making better Chardonnay are welcome news. It is also nice that the Anything But Chardonnay sentiment is a fading memory. But there are still a lot of consumers out there who haven’t forgiven Chardonnay for its previous sins. That is a shame, as the quality is going up fast. The vines are getting older, and we’re learning lessons about where Chardonnay really works well.
One of the tough lessons is that while Chardonnay may be forgiving in the winery and adaptable to various climes, it won’t work everywhere. In fact, I’m not sure it’s as adaptable as it’s made out to be. The list of regions in Australia where top notch Chardonnay is being made is quite short, and the variety’s alleged ability to be grown nearly anywhere is, in my view, one reason that it fell from favour. It is only mediocre Chardonnays can be grown nearly anywhere.
To now really part ways with the accepted wisdom, I put it to you that for the purposes of making genuinely outstanding Chardonnay, it is a variety as climate and site sensitive as Pinot Noir. A small number of regions make excellent Chardonnay; likewise with Pinot Noir. Happily, Chardonnay is now being given the attention and the care, love and obsession that Pinot Noir has had for years, and the results are starting to show.
First published in WBM - Australia's Wine Business Magazine.
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the idea that we have too many wine producers in Australia. It has become common over the last 10 years for commentators to express concern at the growing number of new producers in an industry that appears to be saturated. When so many of our wine businesses are barely profitable, and some downright unprofitable, is it sheer folly for people to keep throwing their hat into the ring?
On one level, it is, or it can be, a folly. But it is important to make a distinction between new producers, and new vineyards. Many new entrants, indeed the vast majority of late, are not planting new vineyards, but are sourcing from existing vineyards. What the current growth in the number of wineries in Australia amounts to is a fragmentation of the industry. This has some downsides but it is by no means all downside. There is potential upside in fragmentation as well, if we consider the big picture of the Australian wine community.
An exercise I did recently for a new Pinot Noir themed website involved comparing a dozen of the best red burgundy producers. (The regular reader(s) of this column will realise that I often look to burgundy for inspiration, and some may suggest that burgundy doesn’t hold all the answers for us in Australia – enough, of course it does). Anyway what interested me is that of the dozen top producers I looked at, 10 of the 12 have less than 20 ha, and the other 2 (DRC and Leroy) have less then 30 ha. Admittedly there are many different factors that have influenced the evolution of burgundian domaines. Still, it says something that the greatest wines are coming from domaines that in Australian terms would be considered small.
Another comparison I want to mention is that between Italy and Australia. Angelo Gaja told me a couple of years ago that Italy had too many wineries and needed some rationalisation. The number of registered wineries at the time – about 44,000. Given that Italy makes about 5 times as much wine as Australia, if we had a similar number of wineries in relation to our volume, we would have nearly 9,000 wineries, which makes our 2,500-odd seem a pretty modest number. Whilst I’m not suggesting that we need any more vines, or that we need 9,000 producers for that matter, the number of wine producers continuing to creep up doesn’t strike me as cause for alarm. The new entrants provide new enthusiasm, new ideas on style and quality, and the best ones are important in keeping the wine sector exciting for consumers, buyers, and wine writers. They also add their marketing ideas, their contacts, their efforts, and their intellects to the job of selling Australian wine. When I think about some of the recently minted brands, names like Jamsheed, Head Wines, Ducks in a Row, Beach Road, Dandelion, Serrat, and Ocean Eight, I’m certain that they are part of the solution rather than adding to the problem.
There’s been a bit of noise of late about the rise in popularity of imported wine, and whether it is getting out of hand. A recent letter from a highly regarded winemaker urged fellow winemakers and wine show judges to drink Australian wine exclusively for a month. Similar sentiments have been expressed on twitter. As much as I love good Australian wines, I won’t be going without Chablis and Barolo for a week, let alone a month. My contention is that a winery, like, say, SC Pannell, has more in common with Descendientes de J. Palacios than with Yellowtail, and more in common with Isole e Olena than with Rosemount, especially given Rosemount’s recent fruity adventures. So if we want to be loyal to our own kind, I think the way to do it is to drink the wines of people who make wines that we want to drink, and who can give us inspiration, rather than be constrained by borders. I’d also argue that the embracing of imported wine, in particular by the winemaking community in Australia over the last 10 years, has given great impetus to creativity and quality in Australian winemaking.
First published in WBM - Australia's Wine Business Magazine.