One prime reason for my visit to Australia—to look for insights into why the wines seem to be on the outs with Americans—turned up much less hand-wringing by vintners than you might expect. The Aussies are smart enough to know that they are caught in a perfect storm: the rise of Argentina, Spain and other parts of the world competing effectively against their big-volume wines, coupled with a wrenching change in the exchange rate between the Aussie dollar and ours, capped off by a financial crisis that has most people thinking twice about spending money on anything they’re not entirely certain of.
The Aussies have a healthy attitude about all this. As such, they are diligently at work trying to broaden perceptions of their wines here, and looking for other places to sell them. A growing number of sommeliers and retailers have noticed that Australia produces a range of styles at higher price points. Its widespread growing regions offer specific differences in character. Inspired winemakers, some young, others experienced, are gung-ho to try something different.
In the 1990s, when Penfolds spent years secretly developing a high-end white wine counterpart to its Australian icon-status red wine Grange, Chardonnay was not a slam-dunk choice. A great deal of effort went into experimental bottlings of Sémillon and Riesling, then considered Australia’s classic white wines. But in the end, Penfolds chief winemaker John Duval told me then, Chardonnay won out because it was most compelling. Truth be told, there was also a feeling that there were fewer classic Chardonnays to compete with.
The result was Yattarna, an aboriginal name translated as “little by little.” Although it quickly rose to the top tier of Australian Chardonnay, it was and is developing incrementally. Penfolds chose an approach to Yattarna that is, well, unique. As it has come into focus, especially in the past five years, the style goes for the crisp, lean, racy balance that comes from cool-climate grape sources, not at all in vogue in Australia when Yattarna was introduced, but does not rely on Burgundian winemaking methods.
Today I tasted a complete vertical of Yattarna all the way back to the 1995 debut vintage. Here are my non-blind scores and tasting notes.
Everywhere I went on my recent visit to Australia, winemakers, wine writers and sommeliers all wanted to talk about Chardonnay. Prevailing opinion suggests that an emerging style modeled more on white Burgundy may supersede Australia’s reputation for making broad, big-fruit Chardonnays.