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Bringing back the shine

During the late 1980’s and through to the mid-1990’s Chardonnay established its credentials as the white wine of long lunches. But the wine world was changing. Chardonnay was caught in the wrong place in the wrong time and it was about as agile as a Goodyear blimp, and the fall was as quick as the rise. Chardonnay was on the nose big time; the oak was too much, they were too buttery, too rich and too sickly.

Some makers reacted with seemingly fleet-footed skill and thrust their finest unoaked Chardonnay wines into play. These fragile virginal beauties had no oak, and little winemaking technique; everything was stripped bare. Trouble was, when you took out all the work and winemaking, there was nothing left but the bottle.

And then it happened. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand stumbled into stores at that exact time. It had very little winemaking, but the loud fruits were a hundred times more fun than personality-less Chardonnay. The rest is, as they say, history.

The Long Road Back

It was back to the drawing board for Australian Chardonnay makers and that meant starting again from scratch. They swallowed a large slice of humble pie, looked long and hard at the great Chardonnay wines of the world and figured out that the model needed to be cooler climate.

This saw the classic regions of Victoria like the Yarra Valley and Macedon Ranges find favour, the emerging excitement in Tasmania’s ultra-cool areas started bubbling over and the Adelaide Hills found success at the hands of makers both small and large.

Margaret River, being so far from everywhere, was really the only place that stayed its course of making age defying, bold and powerful Chardonnay, a position it still holds successfully today.

From the New South Wales perspective, Tumbarumba managed to ascend quickly to prominence as a place to watch, contributing parcels to some of the glamour Chardonnay labels of large companies, whilst also holding favour with smaller producers. Orange is the other region that has made a convincing play into the new phase of Chardonnay and there’s plenty of potential in both Orange and Tumbarumba for great Chardonnay.

The Hunter Valley is the New South Wales region that has the most historic involvement, although it’s an unlikely hero for Chardonnay in terms of climate. But ever since Murray Tyrrell hopped the vineyard fence at Penfolds’ Wybong Park property in the 1960s and took cuttings of what was then referred to as Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay has been closely associated with the Hunter.

The first Tyrrell’s Chardonnay wine was released in 1968, it was planted at Rothbury in 1969 and the Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Pinot-Chardonnay made reference to the old name, Pinot Blanc, and the new identity, Chardonnay. Tyrrell’s eventually dropped the ‘Pinot’ and have continued to make a Vat 47 that plays in the contemporary Australian Chardonnay space and yet remains decidedly Hunter Valley in character. Still wins trophies, too.

Others in the Hunter have created Chardonnay wines that flex plenty of skill and winemaking know-how, developing refined and complex wines from restrained, delicate fruit. They borrow inspiration from the best contemporary winemaking and execute technique with precision. Clever bunch those Hunter Valley winemakers.

Following fashion

Historically, the Hunter’s desire to play in the Chardonnay space was a natural product of its place of prominence in the Australian wine landscape. As Chardonnay came into fashion, they planted plenty of it in the Hunter and they’ve closely followed the market preference in terms of style.

They started off pursuing a restrained, leaner model, a model that was really informed by their approach to Semillon. They blended Chardonnay and sometimes Verdelho into Semillon to create the Hunter White Burgundy style wines and these proved themselves as both young and old wines.

Then, along with the rest of the country, they went for riper styles and picked later, threw plenty at them and grew big and fleshy. But they reeled bigger styles with higher alcohol back in and have since then adhered to the old logic of early picking, getting back to their Semillon-informed roots.

Twelve to 12-and-a-half percent alcohol is the right zone for Hunter Chardonnay. Bottling time is another factor and the Hunter winemakers bottle their Chardonnays early to lock in tension, freshness and composure.

Hunter Chardonnay still wins trophies, too – as recently as the 2015 Brisbane Wine Show where Liz Jackson’s 2014 First Creek Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay aced the best Chardonnay, best white and best wine of show awards in a clean sweep. It’s a ringing endorsement of how well the best Hunter makers understand their terroir, also a nod to the forgiving nature of the Chardonnay grape.

The results of this tasting

In terms of the results of this tasting, the Hunter has performed very well, with a lot of entries and a good strike rate. The other outstanding region of note is Tumbarumba. Known as the ‘Tasmania of the mainland’, its cool climate prowess is proven again here with six wines in the final selections, many of which are aligned with Hunter wineries using Tumbarumba as a preferred cooler-climate fruit source. Orange with four wines in the mix remains a wealth of potential and there is sure to be many more impressive wines coming from that elevated and unique region of New South Wales in the future.

The pendulum of Chardonnay style has swung less dramatically in New South Wales than in most other Australian regions and the wines, although less fanned along by fashion, are developing steadily with a keen eye on fruit purity and subtle complexity.

The best New South Wales Chardonnay wines are those that make appealing sense to white wine drinkers and they are wines that rely equally on the DNA of their origins and the hands of their makers to succeed. And therein lies the essence of every great Chardonnay – no matter where in the world it is grown, purity and balance are key.

The Top 24 NSW Chardonnay

Patina Wines Reserve Chardonnay 2010 (Orange) – $45

Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 47 Chardonnay 2011 (Hunter Valley) – $70

Coppabella of Tumbarumba Sirius Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 – $60

De Iuliis Limited Release Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) – $35

Swinging Bridge Wines Mrs Payten Chardonnay 2014 (Orange) – $32

Crush House Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) – $22

Tyrrell’s Wines Belford Chardonnay 2012 – $38

Lisa McGuigan Wines Chardonnay 2014 – $30

McGuigan Personal Reserve Blackberry Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 – $28

Crush House Chardonnay 2013 (Tumbarumba) – $22

Eden Road The Long Road Chardonnay 2013 (Tumbarumba) – $28

Jackson’s Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Tumbarumba) – $26

Oakvale Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) $22

Hart & Hunter Six Rows Chardonnay 2014 (Hunter Valley) – $40

Leogate Estate Wines Creel Bed Reserve Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) – $38

Travertine Wines Chardonnay 2014 (Hunter Valley) – $20

David Hook Pothana Vineyard Belford Chardonnay 2012 (Hunter Valley) – $30

Draytons Family Wines Chardonnay 2013 (Hunter Valley) – $18

Hungerford Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Tumbarumba) – $33

Printhie Wines Super Duper Chardonnay 2012 (Orange) – $85

Rowlee Wines Chardonnay 2013 (Orange) – $35

Cumulus Block 50 Chardonnay 2014 (Central Ranges) – $12

First Creek Chardonnay 2014 (Hunter Valley) – $25

McWilliam’s Appellation Series Chardonnay 2014 (Tumbarumba) – $25

Check out Wine Selectors' great range of NSW Chardonnay today.

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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