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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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Magic Mediterranean - Vermentino
Words by Daniel Honan on 15 Oct 2017
The Italian varietal Vermentino is winning fans for its wonderfully refreshing characters and textural mouthfeel making it the drink for this summer. You heard it here first – Vermentino is the new white! There are fewer wines around that are as sexy to say, taste as good, and are perfect paired with a spread of fresh seafood on a summer’s afternoon. In fact, drinking a glass of Vermentino is like going on a Mediterranean holiday. Indeed, Vermentino hails from the type of places where warm sun and cool sea breezes, cellar doors and summer afternoons are in abundance. Just off the coasts of Italy and France are the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which lie (almost) in the middle of the Mediterranean, split between the Balearic and Tyrrhenian Seas. Here you’ll find a melting pot of different soils (limestone, granite, sandstone and clay) and climates (maritime and continental) mixed together to provide the perfect growing conditions for this unique grape variety. Aussie Vermentino Just like its home in the Med, here in Australia, Vermentino seems especially at home near the coast, in regions like McLaren Vale , Margaret River , even the Hunter Valley . Yet, this grape variety is also finding favour, and flavour, in other places a little further from the shore, such as King Valley , the Barossa , and the Riverland wine region around Mildura. Inland wine growers, Chalmers, have been pioneering alternative varietals for over 15 years. The family first planted Vermentino back in 2000, and were one of the first wineries in Australia to make wine from the variety. 

“Vermentino was one of our first flagship wines,” says Kim Chalmers. “It’s a variety that loves warm summers and sunshine, which is perfect for our Australian conditions. Its big bunches and juicy berries make it quite resistant to long heat waves. We’ve had a lot of success growing Vermentino at our vineyards in both Heathcote and Mildura.”

- Kim Chalmers, Chalmers Wines, Riverland
That is the great thing we’ve discovered about this (and other) Italian varietals recently trialled across the many wine regions of Australia - their adaptability. If you speak to a European producer of Vermentino, they’ll probably tell you that the grapes must be grown in close proximity to the sea, so that they can possess and express their inherently unique and refreshing sea-spray aroma and flavour. “Our experience growing Vermentino would suggest otherwise,” counters Kim. “We’ve only ever grown the variety very inland, and yet we still get that delicious sea-salt, briny character in all of our wines made from the variety. I think the closeness to the ocean rumour might be an old wives tale.” Key characters
The unique textural and sensual characteristics of Vermentino are what make this variety such a delicious alternative to your typical tipple of, say, Sauvignon Blanc , or Pinot Gris . The dominant aromas and flavours expressed by the grape include juicy lemons and limes, fleshy grapefruit, crunchy green apples and crushed almonds. Sometimes, you may notice the briny scent of ocean-spray drifting over fresh jasmine. At other times, you might smell a hint of beeswax and musk, or taste fresh tropical fruits, crispy pear, with a touch of salt. This all depends, of course, on where the grapes are grown, when they’re picked, and what the winemaker’s intent is when making Vermentino into wine. If the grapes are picked early you will, typically, note freshness and citrus, with bright, crunchy acids. If the grapes are allowed to ripen and are picked a bit later, you get a fleshier, juicier, more tropical style of wine. “The thing about Vermentino is it’s a very late picked varietal, for example, in the Hunter they pick it after Shiraz,” says winemaker David Hook, who has been specialising in Italian varietals for 30 years. “Some go for that lighter, crunchier style, which is picked earlier and is great for everyday drinking. But in Orange, where I source my Vermentino, I like to wait as long as I can to pick it as it gives a bigger, richer style that really highlights the varietal characters and the texture is ramped up.” Phil Ryan, co-Chairman of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel , echoes David’s preference for the fuller, riper style of Vermentino, saying that it offers so much more for the drinker. “The riper style of Vermentino offers far more complexity and intrigue to the wine,” says Phil. “It also allows those delicious stonefruit characteristics to come to the fore and plays to one of its major appeals, which is its texture.” Vermentino’s textual qualities (the way the wine feels in the mouth when you drink it) also boosts its food matching ability and is one of the reasons why this varietal stands out from the rest of the wine crowd.

Vermentino always goes down well by the glass, here. We’ll often get people sitting at the bar snacking on a bowl of salty, crispy white bait. Personally, I love it matched to a plate of grilled blue mackerel with fresh tomato, olives and chilli.

- Stuart Knox, , Owner and sommelier of Fix St James, in Sydney.
For renowned Vermentino producer Joe Grilli from Primo Estate in McLaren Vale, the big attraction of Vermentino is the combination of freshness and texture. “Our Vermentino has aromas of fresh melon fruits, then some intriguing almond notes, followed by the slightest touch of citrus to finish,” says Joe. “What makes Vermentino so delicious is when all these facets are wrapped up in a lighter bodied wine with still enough texture to really satisfy the tastebuds.” In fashion There is no doubt Vermentino is one of the hottest whites around. Its increasing popularity in wines bars and restaurants around the country is reflected in its growing success at wine shows, particularly the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, held each year in Mildura. Organiser, Kim Chalmers says that Vermentino is one of the most popular wines of the show. “It’s massive,” says Kim. “We’ve had a Vermentino class since 2008 and for a number of years only a handful of wineries entered wines into that class. Within five years, the numbers have boomed. Last year there were 93 entries, and now the class has split into two separate classes: one for the lighter and fresher styles, and one for the more fuller bodied, richer styles.” There’s even a third style to be found in Australia, these days. It’s said that the name Vermentino derives from the Italian word, ‘fermento’, which relates to the fizzy characters of the young wine and this might have inspired Fowles Wine, from the Strathbogie Ranges, to make a fun, sparkling style of Vermentino. “I’m a huge fan of the tangy lemon and light florals of Vermentino and thought it might be fun to see those characters sparkle,” says Matt Fowles. “We make our sparkling Vermentino in a Prosecco style, and, I must say, I’ve been surprised just how well it’s been received!” The tasting For this tasting, over 50 Vermentinos were submitted to the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel . For a wine considered to still be an ‘emerging’ varietal, the pass rate was impressively high with around 75% scoring a medal. The top 20 wines were hotly contested and, as expected, the spread of regions was vast with multiple entries from the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Barossa, as well as Riverland, which doesn’t often get much kudos in wine shows, but is proving to be a real contender with Italian varietals. The styles were varied, which is to be expected, given all the variables, but the underlying characters remained true – delicious stonefruit flavours balanced with freshness and texture with subtle sea salt notes and energetic acidity. You just have to find the particular nuances that appeal to you. Yep, Vermentino is here. Whether enjoying a warm afternoon with a sumptuous spread of seafood or sitting in a cosy bar planning a potential Mediterranean sojourn, pairing your activity with a glass of your favourite Vermentino seems like the perfect thing to do. The Standout Vermentino from the Tasting Trentham The Family Vermentino 2016 (Murray Darling) Chalmers Vermentino 2016 (Heathcote) Stone Dwellers Limited Release Vermentino 2015 (Strathbogie Ranges) Lovable Rogue The Italian Jobs Vermentino 2016 (Hunter Valley) Parish Hill Vermentino 2016 (Adelaide Hills) Seppeltsfield Cellar Door Collection Vermentino 2017 (Barossa) Tulloch Cellar Door Release Vermentino 2017 (Orange) Chalk Hill Wines Vermentino 2016 (McLaren Vale) Saddler’s Vermentino 2015 (Barossa) Alejandro Vermentino 2016 (Riverland) Alternatus Vermentino 2016 (Mclaren vale) David Hook Central Ranges Vermentino 2016 (Orange) First Creek Vermentino 2016 (Hunter Valley) La Maschera Vermentino 2015 (Barossa)
Wine
Seven New Wines to Explore this Spring
Celebrate the arrival of spring and explore a whole new world of wine with some exciting alternative varietals guaranteed to become firm new favourites. To take the guess work out of what you think you might or might not enjoy, the Tasting Pane l has selected seven favourite main-stream varietals our Members love and suggested a new alternative varietal that is similar. Chardonnay + Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc + Vermentino, Pinot G + Arneis, Riesling + Gruner Veltliner, Shiraz + Montepulciano, Cabernet Sauvignon + Durif, and Pinot Noir + Nero d’Avola. Favourites you love + new finds to enjoy 1. Roussanne "Wonderfully aromatic, Roussanne delivers all the stonefruit and honeysuckle characters that Chardonnay drinkers can’t resist,” says Tasting Panellist, Dave Mavor . Roussanne hails from the Northern Rhône and its name comes from ‘roux’, French for ‘russet’, which describes the reddish-gold colour of its skin when ripe. It thrives in moderate to warm climates such as Barossa Valley , McLaren Vale and Rutherglen . Its rich texture makes it ideal with creamy sauces – roasted poultry, shellfish with cream sauce, pork dishes. Discover the delights of Roussanne here. 2. Vermentino  “ Sauvignon Blanc fans will love how Vermentino is just as mouth-watering and full of citrus flavours,” says Tasting Panellist, Nicole Gow . Find out more about the variety with Nicole's Vermentino guide here . Most famously grown on the Italian island of Sardinia, it makes perfect sense that Vermentino suits Australia’s warm climate, especially that of McLaren Vale . Styles range from light and fresh to rich and textural. It thrives in cool to warm climates giving different characteristics. Grown increasingly in Australia, most notably in King Valley , McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley . Bright acidity and textural elements make it idea with a range of simply-prepared foods – grilled white fish, calamari, and tomato based sauces. Experience the refreshing citrus flavours of Vermentino here. 3. Arneis “Crisp, floral and packed full of pear with a lovely texture, like Pinot G , Arneis is a fabulously food-friendly white,” says Tasting Panellist, Keith Tulloch . Originating in Italy, Arneis is a white varietal winemakers often blend with Nebbiolo to add a touch of sweetness and perfume. Here in Australia, it’s living up to its reputation as being a little difficult to grow – an emerging hit. It thrives on cool to moderate climates such as Adelaide Hills , King Valley and Mornington Peninsula . A crisp yet generous and versatile variety – pair it with salads, egg-based dishes, antipasto. Discover the food-friendly Arneis here. 4. Gruner Veltliner “ Gruner Veltliner is very similar to Riesling , but with just a little more richness and a distinctive peppery aroma that I know you’ll adore," says Tasting Panellist, Trent Mannell . Gruener Veltliner is the most famous and widely planted white variety in Austria. Here in Australia it’s gaining a great following due to passion of producers including Tomich Wines, Cape Barren and Geoff Hardy . It thrives in cool climates such as Adelaide Hills . An elegant, complex and savoury variety, ideally suited to aromatic dishes, spicy vegetables, tofu and Japanese. Venture into the world of Gruner Veltliner here. 5. Montepulciano “Montepulciano’s (‘Monte’s’) appeal lies in its beautifully generous fruit, including red plum, sour cherry and boysenberry, and moderate acidity, so I reckon if you love Australian Shiraz, you’ll love Monte, too," says Tasting Panellist, Adam Walls. In true Aussie style, Montepulciano has been shortened to ‘Monte’. The Italian varietal has had success in Australia’s warmer and cooler climates, most likely because it’s a relatively late ripening variety. Just like Shiraz, it’s hardy, disease-resistant and can handle the heat and cold. Great examples of Monte can be found in Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Riverland. The general fruit intensity and richness of Monte mean that it’s a natural match to an array of rich and intensely flavoured dishes. Some complementary pairings include mushroom ragu with rag pasta, braised beef shin and pepperoni pizza. Explore this increasingly popular varietal here. 6. Durif “ Durif and Cabernet are similarly luxurious with dark cherry, chocolate and hints of anise,” says Tasting Panellist, Dave Mavor . Hailing from the south of France, Durif is now most prolific in Australia and California. It has great ageing potential and blends beautifully with Shiraz. It thrives in hot climates such as Rutherglen, Barossa Valley and Riverland . Pair it with richer, high fat foods to balance the robust tannins – rich braised meats, casserole and meaty pasta. Delve into the delicious world of Durif here. 7. Nero d’Avola “With its spicy fruits and supple savoury texture, Nero d’Avola will sweep you off your feet,” says Tasting Panellist, Adam Walls . Find out more about the variety in Adam's video here Translating as ‘black grape of Avola’, Nero d’Avola hails from the Italian town for which it’s named. It didn’t arrive in Australia until 1998 and while it’s not widely known, it’s proving to be a delicious drink. It thrives in moderate to warm climates such as Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Riverland, Heathcote and Murray Darling. Pair it with rich dishes that will be balanced by the tannins and high acidity – osso bucco, spicy Indian and game meat. Make a Nero d’Avola discovery here. Expand your cellar with all of these great new finds, and open up a whole new world of food and wine matching possibilities.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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