Down Under on Top: Australian Chardonnay Excellence

Three winemakers reveal a lesser-known side of Oz with exciting expressions of this white wine
Down Under on Top: Australian Chardonnay Excellence
From left: Leeuwin Estate co-owner Simone Horgan-Furlong, Giant Steps founder Phil Sexton and Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago (Rick Wenner)
Oct 22, 2018

In diverse and far-ranging cool climates, Chardonnay is coming up Down Under in a big way. The 2018 New York Wine Experience seminars started at the bottom, with three top Australian winemakers pouring whites still unknown to many U.S. wine lovers.

“I’ve always wondered why you guys are on top, rather than us!” laughed Phil Sexton, founder of Giant Steps winery, gesturing toward a world map, with Antarctica at its center, to show his home’s proximity to the coldest place on earth. Australia’s image in the wine world is often reduced to “critter wines, rock star wines, cult wines,” acknowledged Sexton, but it should come as no surprise to find cool-climate, terroir-driven wines on the country’s southerly fringes.

“We should be talking about Australian wine in terms of regionality,” said Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec, introducing Sexton, Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago and Leeuwin Estate co-owner Simone Horgan-Furlong.

Sexton concurred: “We’re going to talk about wines with a sense of place and a sense of presence.” He poured a white of precision and vibrancy: the 2017 Giant Steps Chardonnay from Yarra Valley, in the southeast pocket of the continent, from Wombat Creek Vineyard (92 points, $42), 1,200 feet above sea level. The chill of the altitude and iron-rich red volcanic soils yield grapes that make wines with “lower sugars, lower alcohols, which are the antithesis of the style of wines that people think of Australia.”

“You should start thinking of Tasmania as one of the most exciting places for cool-climate wines in the world,” said Worobiec of the island, introducing the Penfolds Chardonnay Tasmania Yattarna Bin 144 2011 (93, $130), from magnum.

Gago explained that no one in Australia had even bottled a wine labeled “Chardonnay” until 1971, and “we were making whites in the early days as we did reds,” with too much new oak. For Bin 144, they turned to “Burgundian techniques” and a new clonal selection to produce a wine of “lovely grip, tightness, good definition.” Gago noted that at age seven, the wine had maintained freshness, comparing its bright color to the younger Giant Steps. That, he said, “depicts the future of Australian winemaking. Many years ago, these Chardonnays did not have that propensity to age … now they do.”

The tasting traveled back another vintage and west across the continent, to the 50-years-young winegrowing region of Margaret River. Here, explained Horgan-Furlong, the Indian Ocean brings “a maritime influence to our Mediterranean climate.” Her father was attracted to the then-remote site because the surfing was good, but in 1972, Robert Mondavi identified their property as prime vineyard land and set the family on track to creating a world-class estate. The Leeuwin Chardonnay Art Series 2010 (95, $89 on release) is “opulent, powerful and ageworthy,” assembled from low-yielding vineyard parcels.

Horgan-Furlong concluded: “Thanks for coming off the beaten track and discovering us!”

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