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Chardonnay Members Tasting

Australian Chardonnay has undergone quite a transformation since the days of ‘sunshine in a bottle’, coming of age as a world-beating white.

I partly blame Selector. For cementing my love affair with Chardonnay, I mean. Seven years ago, Selector hosted the most ambitious Chardonnay tasting ever staged in Australia. In attendance were some luminaries of the industry, including Iain Riggs and Tyson Stelzer and it was my first tasting en masse with a variety I’ve come to adore. It ignited a solid relationship with the many styles and regions in this vast land. Yet weirdly, my affair with Australian Chardonnay had commenced a decade or more before.

It was the golden era for Chardonnay and I remember dinner tables being awash with names like Oxford Landing, Koonunga Hill and Rosemount as we slated our thirsts on cheap two-for-one deals in the bottle shops of London. It personified a new taste on the UK wine scene that found an unquenchable thirst. Looking back, it was risible that such overly fruity and highly oaked wines could have made such a splash, but Australia saw the opportunity and grabbed it. The New World invasion of the early 90s was pulled off with aplomb. As the saying went:

“No wood? No good.”

A Sunny Impression

The other insidious ruse that Australia employed was to label their wines with the variety – virtually unheard of in the Old World and it was a genius bit of marketing. When the English were drinking Burgundy, they may not have known it was actually Chardonnay. A classic example was my mum saying she hated Chardonnay, but loved Pouilly Fuisse – a small sub-region of Burgundy that makes Chardonnay. However, the French are far too proud to put the variety on their bottles, causing mass consumer confusion.

UK consumers were also buying into the image of Aussie life, summed up by the phrase for Australian Chardonnay, “sunshine in a bottle.” The label was seen as just as important as what was inside. Australia made wines that were soft and easy to drink with obvious flavours.

Australia proudly screamed Chardonnay on the label, most often from South East Australia. We had visions of beaches and sun-tanned sheilas picking the grapes; never mind that it actually came from a mass irrigated desert wasteland somewhere near the NSW border and was machine harvested before being relegated to industrial amounts of new oak or worse still, flavoured with oak chips.

A Refining Moment

Yet for all the joy of a tidal wave of wood that Chardonnay brought, it all imploded. The bargain bins remained full as the obvious flavour hit of the New World came crashing down and the wines became increasingly like caricatures of Chardonnay. We had some soul searching to do. Was Australia happy to stand on the world stage offering nothing but bargain basement wines, or did we want to be taken seriously?

A decade later, in the middle of the noughties, a seismic shift began. A new wave of Chardonnay producers were re-inventing the wheel, spearheaded by intelligent winemakers in regions like the Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Margaret River. Chardonnay went from being Dolly Parton (buxom and generous) to Kate Moss (skeletal and lithe), although the best example of Chardonnay for mine is the Cindy Crawford – curvy and ample, but still chiselled and toned.

Earlier picking, less oak, natural acid and throwing away the process of malolactic fermentation saw the rulebook re-written. It was time for Chardonnay to grow up and make an impression.

Then in 2010, one of the UK’s most outspoken commentators, the erudite Andrew Jefford, opined that Australian Chardonnay can “compete effortlessly with the greatest wines of Burgundy.”

He went on to exclaim: “There is no variety that responds better to craft than Chardonnay, and the greatest Australian examples are perfect syntheses of grape, place and intellectual understanding.”

What a renaissance occurred. And the world took notice. Since then, any Chardonnay producer worth their salt has worked hard to improve the breed.

Contemporary Style

Which brings us to today and as Hunter Valley winemaker and Chardonnay craftsman, Usher Tinkler describes, “Australian Chardonnay is in the best shape ever.”

While winemakers and wine critics are well aware of Chardonnay’s contemporary appeal, has the everyday wine-lover caught on? To find out, we invited some Wine Selectors members and guests along to The Dolphin Hotel in Sydney for a dinner matched with a selection of modern Australian Chardonnays. As I chatted with the guests before the wines started flowing, a common theme arose. The reputation of Chardonnay was stuck in the past. As member Kirsty Bryant described:

“Although the Chardonnays that come in my regular selections have always been nice, I still have a mental association where drinking Chardonnay equals drinking a tree.”

- Krysty Bryant, Wine Selectors Member

Guest, Lisa Currie was of a similar mind, saying, “Chardonnay has always been a variety that means an intense oakey, woody flavour, very buttery and heavy, which just isn’t to my taste.”

To help bring our doubting guests around to the charm of Chardonnay, we were fortunate to be joined by Usher, who offered some insights and, as luck would have it, his Reserve Chardonnay 2016 – a unanimous crowd favourite.

To explain why Usher personally loves Chardonnay, he offered a succinct analogy:

“If Shiraz and Cabernet are like Kings, then Chardonnay is the Queen – like the chess piece, it can do anything from anywhere! It’s the most interesting variety to make and to drink.”

- Usher Tinkler, Hunter Valley Winemaker

It’s also extremely food friendly, depending on the style – Chardonnay can be versatile and extremely easy to pair with a variety of dishes. You only need to think of crystalline Chablis with oysters, a generously oaked Chardonnay with roast pork or chicken, and something in between for scallops and lobster. Don’t forget that Chardonnay is also excellent with soft cheeses.

It certainly added an extra dimension to the tasting having food to accompany the wines. This was particularly true of the second bracket, which all had high levels of acidity, and so illustrated how food can really enhance the wine experience. The fusilli with crab, chilli and herbs helped soften the acidity, making for a harmonious matching.

So Many Regions to Love It

Chardonnay is planted in virtually every region in Australia, but the ones that have excelled include Margaret River, Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley, Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills.

Bubbling under for quality there’s Orange, Mudgee and Tumbarumba, Mornington Peninsula and Macedon Ranges, Beechworth and Coonawarra.

On the night, it was the Hunter Valley and the Adelaide Hills that got the most nods with support also going to Mudgee, Coonawarra and Margaret River.

The styles were varying among the different regions, but showed clearly the development of Chardonnay and the multitude of ways that winemakers are manipulating the variety in their favour to create the best expressions.

And for those dubious guests, the tasting certainly had the desired effect. As Lisa described, “I found the flavour nuances really interesting, most were very balanced, yet complex.” Kirsty agreed, saying, “I was delighted to find that when it’s a good Chardonnay, even the more wooded ones don’t taste like trees. They have very inviting flavours.”

For member, Robert Vukasinovic, who was already a fan, he found his “love for Chardonnay has grown stronger after the tasting because there are so many new styles available compared to the past bias towards heavily oaked styles.”

What it certainly showed is there’s no doubting we’ve come of age and the new dawn of Australian Chardonnay has emerged victorious.

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