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.
The first vintage centered on vineyards in Adelaide Hills and the much warmer McLaren Vale. Adelaide Hills (also the source of icon-level bottlings from the Tiers vineyard, shared by Petaluma and Tapanappa) is still a minor part of the blend, but the core of the wine gradually moved to high-elevation cooler sites such as Henty and Tumbarumba in the mountains of New South Wales and, more recently, Tasmania. Closest to the South Pole, Tassie’s weather is the coolest in Australia. In an era of rising alcohol levels, Yattarna has never exceeded 13.5 percent. The past five vintages have averaged 13.1.
But Yattarna also avoided the complex flavor and texture possibilities that come from wild yeasts, barrel fermentations, malolactic fermentation, aging on the lees and stirring the lees. These Burgundian methods are trendy now (see Action in Australian Chardonnay, my previous blog), but Penfolds’ current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, steadfastly holds to Yattarna’s original design.
“Yattarna was always built for the longer term,” Gago explained as we sat down to an array of glasses and bottles in the cottage at the historic Kalimna vineyard (best known for its contributions to Grange and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon). “We didn’t succeed in the 1990s but I think we’re doing better.”
The first vintage, 1995, received a 95-point score from me. It was impeccably made, and it had layers and layers of fascinating flavors. I gave it a 10-year drinking window. Now, six years past that use-by date, it tastes a bit tired, as expected, but it’s still worth drinking.
Although the next vintage, 1996, received the same score, I stretched the drink window to 2011. And it is certainly livelier and more complete today than the 1995. Though not quite the complex wonder it was on release, it is by far the most successful Yattarna of the 1990s. It was not lost on the winemakers that it was made entirely from cool-climate grapes (Adelaide Hills and Tumbarumba). Where 1995 contains some McLaren Vale, 1998 and 1999 some Fleurieu (the appellation that includes McLaren Vale), the past decade’s wines use all cool-climate fruit. And barrels that show a buttery or wild character are winnowed out. (The rejects go to the $15 Thomas Hyland bottling.)
The contrast with Penfolds’ other high-end Chardonnays dramatically illustrates the difference between Yattarna and what's happening in Australia. “Bin 09A helps explain what Yattarna is, better than [tasting] Yattarna itself,” said Gago. “The wine uses every trick in the book. It’s ostentatious and showy. It’s trying to be the style that's winning trophies in Australia now.”
Indeed, the Chardonnay Reserve Bin 09A 2009 (not yet released here) lavishes the palate with supple texture, rich, leesy character and hints of sweet oak, all of it swirling with ripe pear and spice flavors that extend onto a long and expressive finish. It’s made to drink sooner rather than later, while all the pieces are singing. I rated it 93 points, non-blind.
Most tellingly, the 1995 Bin 95A, all Adelaide Hills, smells fresher, feels lighter and balances more deftly than the first Yattarna. It was actually made from leftover Yattarna material, so it’s a fair comparison. With its open texture, it gains complexity on the finish and it feels satiny. Today I rated it 92 points, non-blind, three points higher than the 1995 Yattarna.
Yattarna, explained winemaker Kym Schroeter, “is more about refinement and tightness—very tight. The reserve bin, we want ostentation, more of whatever the style of the day is.” (Watch a video of Schroeter explaining the differences.)
“There’s no wild yeast ferment in Yattarna,” he added. “It’s truly minimal intervention, almost no risks, nice clean winemaking. Since 2004, we haven’t even used new oak barrels.”
1995 (McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills) Creamy texture, satiny, with toast and butterscotch flavors against fine acidity. Fruit has faded, and it shows its age, but it’s still a good drink. Drink now. (89, non-blind)
1996 (Adelaide Hills and Tumbarumba) Smooth and creamy, very fresh and vibrant, and the acidity doesn't grab. Has that pinpoint balance of tree fruit and citrus, with bottle age character. Drink now. (93, non-blind)
1997 (Adelaide Hills and Henty) Riper style, with pineapple, spice and oak prominent, a bit of an acid bite against the ripeness, lingering nicely. Reminiscent of a good California Chardonnay of the era. Drink now. (90, non-blind)
1998 (Fleurieu, Adelaide Hills) Seems a bit tired, lacks the fruit of the preceding vintages, but still spicy, complex and tight. Drink now. (90, non-blind)
1999 (Adelaide Hills, Tumbarumba, Fleurieu, Henty) Tight, with a crisp underpinning to the spicy, caramel-tinged pineapple and lime fruit, holding together on the lively finish. Fruit, spice and citrusy acidity combine nicely. Drink now through 2015. (91, non-blind)
2000 (Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills) Has a tangy edge behind the ripe pineapple, pear and quince flavors, lingering nicely. Has the feel of a nice California Chardonnay of the era. Holding up. Drink now. (90, non-blind)
2001 (Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills) Feels light, more focused, more deft on balance, refreshing, with integrity and length. Picks up a mineral note that chimes in nicely through the long finish. Drink now through 2016. (93, non-blind)
2002 (Adelaide Hills, Tumbarumba) Smooth, with a nice tang of kumquat on the finish, balancing against refined pear and pineapple flavors, lingering easily. Drink now through 2015. (92, non-blind)
2003 (Adelaide Hills) Has pretty good integrity for a warm year. The acid sticks out a bit, but the creaminess brings it together on the finish. Pear and spice; classic Chardonnay with a hint of mineral. Drink now. (92, non-blind)
2004 (Henty, Adelaide Hills) Still not quite together, with acid over here and flavors over there, pear, pineapple, vin jaune notes, finishing with a freshness that bodes well. Drink now through 2018. (92, non-blind)
2005 (Adelaide Hills) An acid tightness plays against the pear and quince flavors; feels lean and bracing. Does better with food, but as the fruit has faded a bit, the acid feels like squirting lemon onto the dish. Drink now through 2015. (91, non-blind)
2006 (Tasmania, Adelaide Hills, Henty) A bit more harmonious, complete, generous without weight, offering pear, toast, spice, classic Chardonnay flavors. Not so much mineral, but texturally much more welcoming than previous vintages. Best after 2014 (93, non-blind)
2007 (Tasmania, Adelaide Hills, Henty) Ripe, generous, balanced with a sharpness to keep it from going too far, pineapple, pear, hint of toast, finishing with refreshing balance. Benefits from the food more than the 2008 did. Drink now through 2019. (93, non-blind)
2008 (Tasmania, Adelaide Hills) Supple, a bit broader and more generous, with more lime and pear than pineapple this time, finishing with delicacy and refinement. Has depth and intensity without weight. Best after 2015. (Current vintage on sale; 93, non-blind)
2009 (Tasmania, Henty, Adelaide Hills) Tangy and refreshing, lots of pear and several kinds of citrus flavors on a zippy, refined frame. Has impressive length. (Not yet released; 92–94, non-blind)
2010 (Tasmania, Adelaide Hills) Light, tangy, with a slightly burnt edge to the citrus and apple. Nice texture. (Not yet released; 90–92, non-blind)
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