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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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A Time to Sparkle: Member Tasting
Words by Mark Hughes on 15 Mar 2016
Which Sparkling for which occasion? We asked some Wine Selectors Members: Traditional, Prosecco or Blanc de Blanc? With the festive season in full swing, you are going to want to have a handy stash of Sparkling on hand to make sure you have the absolutely perfect drink to toast any occasion. After all, fun, fizz and Happy New Year/Hooray for Holidays/Cheers to that etc… go together. Traditionally, that meant finding a good Sparkling wine and by that I mean the exquisite Champagne blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and often, but not always, Pinot Meunier. Sometimes, you’d be looking for a smart Blanc de Blanc, that is, a Sparkling made entirely from white grapes (bearing in mind that Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier mentioned above, are both red grapes. Of course, you knew that, but I’m just explaining it for those who don’t). Blanc de Blancs are most often made from Chardonnay, but in Australia you’ll also find impressive examples made from Semillon, Riesling or whatever white varietal winemakers have lots of and want to use to add a Sparkling offering to their cellar door range. Recently, though, there has been a sassy new lady on the scene – Prosecco . Commonly explained as the Italian version of Champagne, Prosecco has become the top-selling Sparkling wine in Europe, and it is trending that way here. It is easy to see why. It is generally cheaper than Champagne, lower in alcohol at around 12%, and has a lighter bubble, so it is a bit easier to drink and it has a stronger fruit profile so it is a versatile food match. Well heeled (or should that be perfectly palated) critics say that Prosecco is a bit simple and lacks the complexity of Sparking wine. Which is true, strictly speaking. One of the main reasons for this is the way Prosecco is made. Stick with me here as I’m going to give you a bit of background data followed by some technical details, so pay attention. Prosecco is made from the Prosecco grape, although outside of Italy you should refer to the varietal as ‘glera’ because the Italians successful petitioned to have the name protected, much the way Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France. However, the Prosecco law only covers Europe, so Australian winemakers can still go about their merry way making Prosecco from Prosecco and calling it Prosecco, at least for now. The method used to make Prosecco is the reason it is generally cheaper and less complex than Sparkling. Unlike Champagne, which undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle (commonly known as the Method Champenoise – once again, you knew that), Prosecco undergoes fermentation in a tank and is bottled under pressure. The Italians call this process Metodo Martinotti, crediting an Italian winemaker called Federico Martinotti with developing and patenting the method. The French call it the Charmat method after French winemaker Eugene Charmat, who further developed Martinotti’s method and secured a new patent. All of this matters very little when you have a glass in your hand and you just want to say, “Here’s to us!” as one does at festive occasions. So to find out who prefers what, we organised one of our infamous Members’ Tastings. Find out more about Australian Prosecco in this article A Festive Feeel
Usually, our Members’ Tastings are fun but also somewhat serious occasions, but seeing as we wanted to see what best to drink for festivities, we decided to make it much more of a party atmosphere. Seven Wine Selectors Members joined Tasting Panellists Adam Walls and Nicole Gow and all were in rarified company with special guest, Sparkling wine guru Ed Carr, winemaker at the mutli-award winning House of Arras, lending his knowledge on all things bubbly. Naturally, the evening started with a glass of bubbles and some delicious canapés in the boutique vineyard adjacent to the Wine Selectors headquarters in Newcastle. Then they got down to the business of tasting. A Prosecco bracket was followed by a Sparkling wine bracket and a Blanc de Blanc bracket. The results were as diverse as the palates around the tasting. Robin Farmer said he was very much in the Italian camp. “I actually enjoyed the Prosecco,” he said. “It seemed to be a little more easy drinking, less bubbles, a bit more to my taste.” Laura Egginton agreed, saying the Proseccos were “deliciously light and easy to drink.” However, once she tried the traditional bracket, she had a Sparkling awakening, describing “flavours that lingered with much more body.” Chantelle Staines agreed with Laura, describing the traditional set as “fresh and the easiest to drink.” On the other side of the equation, Jen Carter, Oonagh Farmer, Louisa Brown and Trudi Arnall said they preferred the Blanc de Blanc. Louisa summed it up when she described the Blanc de Blancs as showing, “more flavour and more depth of character” and being, “more aspiring.” This was perhaps a little unfair given that some of the B de Bs were aged, and with age comes complexity. What does it all mean? The results of the tasting went like this. Everyone generally liked the Prosecco bracket, some more than others, but overall everyone enjoyed them. When they tasted their way through the Traditional Sparkling bracket, everyone enjoyed those too, the majority more than the Prosecco bracket. And once again, you guessed it, everyone liked the Blanc de Blanc bracket, with at least four of the seven guests (and all of the experts) nominating these wines as the highlights of the night. The discussions after the tasting, held over a second serving of canapés with some lounge music in the background, revealed some interesting conclusions. It seems that all the wines were great, it was just a matter of what sort of occasion you were attending that would determine your bubbly of choice. Trudi voiced everyone’s collective thoughts when she said, “If I was to turn up for an afternoon BBQ with the kids in the pool, a Prosecco would be great. But if I was going to a dinner party, I’d go with the traditional Sparkling, and if I really wanted to impress, I’d go with a Sparkling or a Blanc de Blanc with some age.” And with that we all nodded in agreement. It was a sentiment to which we could all toast. And we did. Cheers!
Wine
Salute to Shiraz
Words by Mark Hughes on 19 Jul 2017
We examine the remarkable success of Australian Shiraz through the eyes of some of those who know it best,  Australia's First Families of Wine. Is there any wine more symbolic of Australia than  Shiraz ? Hard working, popular and a great lover of food, it is just as much a descriptor for an Aussie living abroad, as it is for our famed Shiraz. The fact that we call it 'Shiraz' is just the first of many ways we have adopted this varietal as our own. In the rest of the world it is called 'Syrah' in reference to its French heritage, but as is our cultural right, we have corrupted the title to suit our style. To us, it 'Shiraz', with an emphasis on the 'raz'. But Shiraz suits us, too. In its spiritual home in the Rhône region in France, it is seen as a bit of a workhorse varietal, creating solid medium-weight red wines,  but certainly not escalating to the regal heights afforded the Cabernets of Bordeaux or the Pinots of Burgundy. In Australia, however, it is revered as our premium red, and rightly so, as it is capable of producing a range of delectable wines that can be consumed now, or aged for years. "It grows just about anywhere, and suits most of Australia's range of climates," says Hunter Valley winemaker Bruce Tyrrell. "With 61 different regions, there are 61 different styles." Tyrrell's  are one of the 12 members of  Australia's First Families of Wine (AFFW) , along with  Brown Brothers ,  d'Arenberg ,  De Bortoli , Campbells, Henschke,  Howard Park , Jim Barry,  McWilliam's , Taylors,  Tahbilk  and Yalumba. With over 1,300 years combined winemaking experience, and vineyards from coast to coast, the group is perfectly placed to tell the many faceted story of Australian Shiraz. After all, there is a true provenance with Shiraz and Australia's First Families - that sense of place, style and history that a wine develops from its consistent quality across vintages. "My family owns Shiraz vines that are 137 years old, and there are many older vineyards still in production around the country," says Scott McWilliam. "As winemakers, we've had lots of time to learn how to get the best of Shiraz, and we're seeing continued success with regions and new styles emerging frequently."   SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS
In many ways, the success of Shiraz in Australia mirrors that of Australia's  First Families. Starting small, this varietal has, through its proud history, earned integrity and respect deserved and given the world over. Alister Purbrick from Tahbilk in Victoria's Nagambie Lakes points out that the versatility of Australian Shiraz put us centre stage in the world of wine and paved the way for our export market. "This success means that Australia boasts a critical mass of many styles of Shiraz which have captivated the world's influencers," says Alister. "The result is that Australia 'owns' this variety and ownership of a segment is a powerful position to be in."   SENSATIONAL STYLES
Scott McWilliam from McWilliam's Wines   So what are the different styles of Shiraz? In Alister's neck of the woods, where the moderating influence of an inland water mass keeps the climate between cool and moderate, the resulting style of Nagambie Lakes Shiraz is "savoury and mid-weight with a myriad of subtle flavours which tend to change and evolve as the bottle is consumed," says Alister. The Hunter Valley style is also savoury, "light to mid-weight with plenty of complexity with its base more in fruit and acid than in tannin and alcohol," says Bruce, who adds his perfect food match is aged Hunter Shiraz and flame-grilled, medium-rare Angus steak left to rest before it is served. Pioneers of the varietal in New South Wales, particularly in the Hunter Valley , McWilliam's have also been exploring Shiraz from the cooler Hilltops region. "Hilltops Shiraz is a beautiful example of a medium-bodied style," says Scott. "It has fruit forward characters with supple yet complex spicy aromatics and fleshy blue fruits, but it's not quite as peppery or jammy as Shiraz from other regions."   SOUTH OZ SHIRAZ
Jim Barry and Tom Barry from Jim Barry Wines If any region can lay claim to the most recognisable style of Australian Shiraz, it is the Barossa, its big, fruity wines of the 1980s and 90s established us on the world wine map. It makes perfect sense, as the state can lay claim to the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. First planted in the Barossa Valley in the mid 1800s, these vines were around 50 years old when phylloxera decimated the original root stock across France and greater Europe in the 1900s. Now over 160 years old, these same vines are responsible for producing some of the most lauded Shiraz in the world. "Many of the younger vineyards have been planted using these heritage vineyards as sources," explains Robert Hill-Smith, from Australia's oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba. "In the Barossa, we are very lucky to have not only a perfect Mediterranean-style climate, but also a diverse range of soils types and terroirs and Shiraz thrives in them all. "In the higher and cooler Eden Valley , aromas and flavours are more aromatic - red and blue fruits with violets, sage, pepper, and the wines more elegant and linear than in the warmer Barossa Valley where they're round and velvety and show more blue and black fruits - dark cherry, fruitcake, plum, blackberry, mulberry, black olives, chocolate and liquorice." Other wine regions in South Australia can also boast Shiraz of world renown, McLaren Vale , in particular. d'Arenberg's colourful winemaker Chester Osborn says the different soil types and sub-climes of McLaren Vale can result in many different types of Shiraz, but overall attributes "a certain savoury, fragrant, flowery edge to McLaren Vale Shiraz, full, but elegant and quite spicy with a crushed ant character that sets it apart from other regions." Known for its Riesling, the Clare Valley is emerging as a stellar region for Shiraz. Mitchell Taylor, third generation managing director and winemaker at Taylors Wines says Clare Shiraz has a certain powerful elegance and finesse you don't see from many other places. "Because of the Clare's climate of long, warm sunny days and cool nights, the fruit develops and ripens slowly," he explains. "This ensures the rich flavours develop into more subtle and elegant characteristics, but with great concentration of flavour."   EXPRESS YOURSELF
Darren DeBortoli of DeBortoli Wines In the cool climates, Shiraz is expressed as a much leaner wine, while still showing its famed fruit profile. This is certainly true of Victoria's Yarra Valley where Shiraz is still savoury and spicy, but also shows a certain elegance. "Yarra Shiraz is medium bodied and elegant in style," says De Bortoli red winemaker, Sarah Fagan. "Lifted aromatics and grainy tannins are also commonplace." Katherine Brown, winemaker at Brown Brothers, explains they get most of their fruit for their iconic 18 Eighty Nine Shiraz from the central Victorian region of Heathcote and, as such, you may find a touch of eucalyptus in their Shiraz, which she describes as having "vibrant purple colours with rich blackberry and plum fruit and black pepper clove spice." In the warmer Rutherglen region of Victoria, Shiraz is expressed in a bolder style such as Campbell's famed Bobbie Burns Shiraz, which is a rich, full flavoured red with ripe berry fruit balanced by oak with a long, soft tannin finish.   GO WEST
Howard Park's Burch Family   In recent times, Western Australia has proven to be a mecca for many wine varietals, with Shiraz no exception. One of the state's premier producers is Howard Park and its chief winemaker Janice McDonald says the Great Southern sub-regions of Frankland and Mount Barker are where Shiraz reigns supreme. "The cooler, more continental climes of these sub-regions are favoured for growing our Flint Rock Shiraz," she says. "The wines display a great intensity of dark fruits with traces of spice, earth and soft tannins. The use of fine grain French oak crafts a layered and complex wine."   BLENDED FAMILIES
The Henschke Family   One of the other great qualities of Shiraz is that it blends beautifully with other varietals. We are famed globally for our 'great Australian red' - Shiraz Cabernet (see Tyson Stelzer's story on this iconic blen in the July/August issue of  Selector ). The reason these two great wines work so well together is due to the firm, fruity body of Australian Shiraz perfectly filling out the mid-palate of Cabernet, such as we see in the Jim Barry Shiraz Cabernet from Clare Valley. Other popular blends include Shiraz Viognier, Shiraz Grenache, while the GSM blend, Grenache Shiraz Mataro, has a long and successful history in Australia. Henschke's Henry's Seven is a delicious blend of Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro and Viognier. "It is a tribute to Henry Evans, who planted the first vineyard at Keyneton in 1853," explains Justine Henschke, who challenges the traditional steak and Shiraz pairing. "We love to recommend game meats such as duck, venison and kangaroo. Lamb is an excellent match, too."   A SHIRAZ FUTURE
Bruce Tyrrell inspecting the vineyards   Winemakers love Shiraz for its reliability, impressive yields and resistance to disease; drinkers love it because it is delicious when young, even more beguiling with some age and is great with a range of foods. But its crowning glory is its versatility, its ability to express itself beautifully across many wine regions. And that's key to the success of Australian Shiraz globally. "The world now accepts that we do it better than anyone else," says Bruce. "The future for Australian Shiraz is endless, as long as winemakers stay true to the variety and the region where it is grown."  
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