All Aussie Chardonnays Are Not Alike

Contrast between Devil's Lair and Giant Steps couldn't be more obvious
Sep 3, 2009

Phil Sexton, one of Australia's Chardonnay pioneers, stopped by to show me a vertical tasting of two wines from vineyards that he planted. The wines could not be more different, and that was the point.

“I am taking these wines to London. The trade and press there have been bashing Australian Chardonnay, saying that they all taste the same,” he said. “I want to show them a couple of single vineyard wines that prove otherwise.”

“So ... I’m the guinea pig?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he laughed.

Sexton planted the Devil’s Lair vineyard in Margaret River, in Western Australia, in the 1980s. Devil’s Lair consistently rates among the best Chardonnays in Margaret River, which makes it one of the best in Australia. In 1996 he sold it to Southcorp (which became Foster’s) and moved to Yarra Valley, near Melbourne. He started a winery, Giant Steps, and planted a vineyard, called Sexton.

“The only thing these vineyards have in common is that I planted them,” he noted, “and most of the clonal material is the same. It’s what we call the Jin-Jin clone, which some people know as Mendoza.”

Jin-Jin is well known in Australia. It is one of the key elements in several of the top Chardonnays, including the renowned Leeuwin Estate Art Series, made in a vineyard about a mile from Devil’s Lair. In Margaret River, it makes a wine of full tropical fruit and supple texture. It gets its natural acidity from the green grapes that always remain in Jin-Jin bunches, which is affected by a phenomenon called “hen and chicken” (large ripe grapes and tiny pea-sized unripe ones mixed with lots of perfect, golden berries).

In Yarra, which is cooler, the chickens outnumber the hens, and the little green grapes contribute a big zing of acidity. In tasting through the Giant Steps wines, the electricity of acidity that runs through is the most distinguishing feature. It takes several years for the wines to develop some flesh and start showing the depth of flavor they really possess.

That was the first thing that jumped out at me as we tasted the wines. We started with the youngest vintage, 2008, and worked back to 2002. The Giant Steps wines came off as tart and crisp, with flavors of green apple, citrus and mineral. The 2005 started to show some lanolin, and by 2002 the complexity and flavor lurking under the racy surface was coming through.

The Devil’s Lairs were all creamy, spicy and giving from the get-go. They showed supple textures and pretty nectarine and peach and tropical fruit character. The older wines maintained their freshness (except for one 2003 that was oxidized by the cork), harmony and the depth they gained with age.

I told Sexton the wines should underline a message that says Australia has different terroirs that produce highly distinct and excellent wines. You would have to be deaf to their obviously different songs to miss it.

Australia White Wines Chardonnay

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