State of Play Yarra Valley Chardonnay
Matt White and the Selector tasting panel spend a morning poring over one of Australia’s star varietals, from one of its oldest and best-performing regions.
OK, I’m just going to get this out there right now: Chardonnay is my favourite wine. Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, I’m hardly in the minority on this and I’ve rarely met anyone who doesn’t like this most noble variety, since most modern Chardonnay is fresh and vibrant with an appealing mix of ripe fruit and fine oak. Indeed, in its Burgundian homeland it makes some of the most complex and expensive white wines in the world.
But in Australia, where does ‘the best’ Chardonnay hail from? This versatile grape variety tends to grow well and make very drinkable wine across the country, but the experts all agree that it is the cool climate regions that make the most elegant and refined Chardonnays: Tasmania, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, and of course the wonderful Yarra Valley.
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HOW GREEN IS MY VALLEY
The Yarra Valley is just about the perfect place to produce great Chardonnay. It’s a cool to mild climate that benefits from warm sunny days and cool nights. “This allows the sugars to accumulate whilst still retaining natural acidity,” says Scott McCarthy, chief winemaker at Soumah Wines. It appears however, it’s not just the climate.
The Yarra is blessed with many amazing sites, aspects and soil combinations within the one region, and they all give an influence to the wines produced from them. The French call this ‘terroir’ and it explains why Chardonnay can taste so different even from within a relatively small region such as the Yarra. Chief winemaker at Yarra Yering, Sarah Crowe, concurs. “Site selection is crucial when it comes to growing quality grapes, and there are many varied and special sites, from the higher and cooler Upper Yarra Valley to the lower, warmer Lower Yarra Valley.”
While all that sounds quite positive, it’s not all ‘peaches and cream’ with Chardonnay from this neck of the woods. Major challenges such as drought, hail and fire have combined in recent years to cause havoc in the vineyards of the Yarra. This is compounded by the dreaded phylloxera pest which is having a damaging effect on the vines. No other wine region in Australia has been affected to the extent the Yarra has with this evil louse.
“Since it can’t be eradicated, management through replanting on resistant rootstock is the only solution and only those fully invested in the future of the Yarra Valley as a premium region are replanting,” say Crowe. The costs of such an exercise are not insignificant, and is another factor that goes to explain why Chardonnay from this region can often seem to be expensive to the consumer.
So what did our blind tasting of over 30 Yarra Valley Chardonnays reveal? We assessed a range of vintages back to 2017 with most wines coming from the very good 2021 vintage. I was initially struck by the overall high quality of the wines in front of me. All were minimum Bronze medal standard, with many achieving strong Gold-worthy ratings.
But it wasn’t merely the quality that was obvious. There was an inherent style about the wines – their elegance, subtlety, purity of fruit and judicious use of oak – that seemed to set them apart from their peers from the highly regarded and equally lauded Margaret River. That said, there was also this wonderful diversity amongst many of the (mainly) top end wines, each showing subtle terroir characteristics, not necessarily seen from this variety in other less revered regions.
Tasting across five different vintages was also revealing. Panellist Dave Mavor commented that “the 2021s looked pretty tight and youthful, but the older wines from 2018 were delicious and drinking at their peak.”
Fellow panellist Will Figueira agreed on the benefit of a couple of years making a big difference to the approachability of the wines, observing that “the 2021s were wound up, not only suggesting a great vintage, but also demonstrating how these wines, at this age, need a bit of time to soften in the bottle.”
Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli – one of the pioneers of Chardonnay in the Yarra – told me that De Bortoli are heavily invested in Yarra Valley Chardonnay and make no fewer than five different styles, with the flagship 2018 Lusatia submitted for this tasting. Webber explained what helps to make it such a classic. “Deep volcanic soils, mature vines over 35 years’ old, good density in the vineyard that provides healthy competition, a north-facing cool site, timely rainfall and meticulous vineyard management” are all key, in his not-inconsiderable experience.
As they say, good wine is made in the vineyard! In fact, according to Webber at least, the rest of the process is easy: “Gentle pressing, not too much oak, and a malolactic fermentation to calm the natural acidity down.” The Lusatia was indeed one of the top wines tasted, and I noted struck match on the nose with grilled nuts and a superb display of pristine fruit, brioche and deft oak on the palate – reminiscent of good quality Montrachet.
Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering was equally adamant about the importance of vineyard management, stating that “If you get it right in the vineyard, the rest takes care of itself.” The Panel was positive about the 2021 Yarra Yering, with my notes indicating stonefruit aromas and a palate offering ripe fruit, minerals and texture. Another one that will really show itself in a couple of years’ time – like all wines from this fabulous estate.
THE POWER OF ONE
Many of the wines tasted were single vineyard expressions and, not surprisingly, these were at the top end for quality and complexity. One such example happens to be, I confess, a personal favourite: the Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard. The 2020 vintage was challenging – cool and somewhat damp –explaining the resultant lively acidity in the wine.
Winemaker Steve Flamsteed says, “Sexton is located on the steep north-facing slopes of the Warramate Ranges – the vineyard is exposed and demanding, but totally worth it.”
I agree, with the wine presenting hints of lemon sorbet, delicate fruits, impressive weight and length. Every time I taste a Giant Steps Chardonnay, I lament I do not have more in my cellar.
Following the tasting, I felt a real sense of optimism for the Yarra and its signature variety: it really does deserve its status as one of the top regions in the country for Chardonnay. Despite the challenges it has faced, it’s clear the winemakers believe in the Yarra and are dedicated to making truly world class wines.
Whilst some of the wines may be deemed expensive for the consumer, in my opinion – especially compared to say Chablis and Meursault – they really are relative bargains. The future is indeed bright for one of Australia’s most iconic wine and region synergies.
Shop State of Play Yarra Valley Chardonnay pack
Bird on a Wire Chardonnay 2018
UPPER Yarra VaLLEY, RRP $50
From the Willowlake vineyard in the upper reaches of the Yarra Valley, made with 30% malolactic fermentation for balance and depth. Bright yellow-gold with aromas of sweet yellow fruit, toasty oak, grilled nuts and flint. Medium-bodied yet complete and beautifully balanced with white peach, grapefruit, lime juice and cashew. Latent power.
Handpicked Wombat Creek Vineyard Chardonnay 2018
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $70
Deep yellow with a green tint. Aromas of yellow peach, ripe melon, fig, nougat and toasty oak. A rich, warm and full-bodied Yarra Valley expression, with loads of sweet fruit and oak, some buttery-nutty development complexity. Drinking well.
Wheeler East Hill Chardonnay 2020
KANGAROO GROUND, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $33
Bright lemon yellow in the glass with aromas of baked apple, grilled citrus, chamomile and cedar oak. Palate is rich, ripe, full-bodied and quite broad, with plenty of sweet peachy fruit, underlying traces of nougat, marzipan and grilled cashew, toasty oak and a rich finish.
Terra Felix The Regionals Chardonnay 2017
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $40
Vibrant mid-gold in colour with complex and lifted citrus, stonefruit, brioche and toasted cashew notes. Intense, dry and savoury with a deep amalgam of ripe fruit, vanillin oak, nutty lees complexity, minerally wet stone and oyster shell notes, and smoky oak to finish.
Hoddles Creek Estate Syberia Chardonnay 2020
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $65
Bright pale gold. Grilled citrus with subtle grassy undertones and hints of wet rock minerality. Vibrant lemony fruit with a saline and mineral undertow, showing intense flavour in a bright and youthful frame, with good stonefruit depth and limey acid persistence. Mouth-watering and very moreish.
Seville Estate Chardonnay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $55
Handpicked and whole bunch pressed. Vibrant in colour with green freshness, and a nose of melon, peach, grapefruit, tarte tatin and charry oak. Palate is funky and minerally yet with masses of flavour, in a generous yet pristine style, showing beautiful struck match from time in oak and saline minerality. Very deluxe!
Rochford Dans les Bois Chardonnay 2019
GEMBROOK, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $49
Pale to mid-gold in colour with a green hue. Clean, bright and saline aromas of white peach, grilled lemon and toasty oak open onto a tight yet plush palate with subtle ruby grapefruit, fig and grilled nuts, creamy and complex mouthfeel, minerally undertow and beautiful oak. Gorgeous!
Levantine Hill Chardonnay 2018
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $80
Youthful mid-yellow in the glass, presenting subtle but deep aromas with white peach, grapefruit, mineral and sea spray. Aged on lees in barrel with minimal stirring, it’s fine and bright with strong lemon and grapefruit core intensity, hints of cashew and vanilla, and lingering depth and power.
Pacha Mama Chardonnay 2021
GLADYSDALE, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $30
Bright and pale in colour with an expressive nose of fresh citrus, grilled nuts and baking spices. A fresh and fruit-forward varietal expression, with plush nectarine, yellow melon and ripe lime, hints of white blossom and cashew, juicy and silken texture balanced by racy acidity – the fruit really shines here.
Soumah Upper Ngumby Chardonnay 2021
YARRA GLEN, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $40
Bright pale gold in the glass. Peach, fig, grapefruit and cashew aromas open onto a medium-bodied, bright and tight wine, with an elegant mix of white and yellow fruit, an attractive saline layer, latent complexity, fresh acidity and quality toasty oak. Refined and long.
Centare Vineyard Old Block Chardonnay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $70
This Old Block Chardonnay is a cracker: mid-yellow in colour with green freshness, displaying elegant aromas of white peach, melon, lime juice, herb and marzipan. Palate is medium-bodied yet packed with rich stonefruit and fig, balanced toasty oak, slatey minerality and salinity, and a dry, nutty finish.
Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2020
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $65
Deep mid-gold. Ripe melon, fig, grapefruit and charry oak aromas. Palate is rich, generous and full-bodied, with masses of ripe yellow fruit, buttery textural elements, nutty complexity,
and strong toasty oak. Elegant and refined yet with so much going on.
TarraWarra Estate South Block Chardonnay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $40
Bright mid-yellow. Mineral and struck match over yellow peach and blanched almond. Rich and creamy yellow fruit and sweet oak, in harmony with nutty lees, cashew and nougat complexity. Deliciously generous and flavoursome, making it wonderful already. Beautiful now and over the next few years.
Handpicked Collection Chardonnay 2019
YARRA GLEN AND GLADYSDALE, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $49.99
Vibrant pale gold with a green hue. Creamy citrus, stonefruit, fig, nougat and vanillin oak. Full-flavoured, with deep layers of sweet ripe citrus and stonefruit, along with obvious yet well-integrated savoury oak. Creamy mouthfeel and nutty complexity, and still-fresh limey acidity. Lovely!
Santolin Gladysdale Chardonnay 2020
GLADYSDALE, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $45
Simmering pale gold in the glass with a bouquet of fig, creamy citrus and stonefruit alongside some funky notes and balanced oak. Sweet and rich, with ripe yellow peach and grapefruit, well-integrated vanillin oak, leesy complexity and a creamy mouthfeel. Very powerful.
Liv Zak Chardonnay 2021
COLDSTREAM, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $38
Mid-gold colour. Spicy yellow peach with notes of vanilla and grilled nuts. Very flavoursome with clean layers of peach, fig and melon, fresh oak, light honeyed notes, clean lemony acidity and good length and balance. A naturally expressive Chardonnay that is true to both region and vintage, which was an idyllic season for cool climate wines.
Helen & Joey Alena Chardonnay 2018
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $50
Deep mid-gold in appearance with a green fleck. Aromas of ripe yellow peach, pear, melon, fig, nougat and toasty oak open onto a wine that is deep, ripe and fruit-forward, yet showing a degree of elegance and restraint, with fine balancing acidity, pure mineral notes, and oak in balance with the fruit.
Rob Dolan White Label Chardonnay 2021
GLADYSDALE, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $35
A fine example of delicious regional Chardonnay. Bright pale gold. Fresh lemon and nectarine with hints of vanilla and marzipan. Bright citrus fruit entry with youthful power and flavour intensity, tight acid structure, and underlying minerality showing as wet rock and oyster shell. Will develop.
TarraWarra Estate Chardonnay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $35
Bright mid-yellow with subtle aromas of lemon, grapefruit, fig and vanillin oak presenting. Palate is tight, clean and understated, with apple and lime layers, bracing citrussy acidity and well-judged quality oak in support. One to pick up for its latent power and potential!
Yering Station Chardonnay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $40
Youthful mid-yellow in appearance with a nutty and intruiging nose of peachy fruit and toasty oak. Very dry and quite savoury, with underlying nutty complexity throughout, limey acidity and plenty of toasty oak, extending with a typical, lingering Yarra Valley finish.
De Bortoli Lusatia Chardonnay 2018
WOORI YALLOCK, UPPER YARRA VALLEY, RRP $89
De Bortoli’s Lusatia Park vineyard doesn’t disappoint. Fresh and bright lemon yellow. Complex fruit and oak under funky struck match reduction. Vibrant and youthful with good flavour intensity, nutty complexity and vibrant limey acidity, with delicious oyster shell minerality lingering on the classy finish.
Yarra Yering Chardonnay 2021
GRUYERE, YARRA VALLEY, RRP $110
Youthful and bright with green freshness. Aromas of fine lemony fruit with notes of rockmelon, marzipan, cashew and oyster shell. Fresh, minerally and almost salty, with refined grapefruit intensity and persistence. Very youthful with terrific development potential –one for the cellar.