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.