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Action in Australian Chardonnay

New styles modeled on Burgundy make it the buzz of the country now
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 2, 2011 11:16am ET

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.

From what I have reviewed in my own tasting room here in the U.S. and at various wineries, homes, restaurants and trade tastings in Australia, they might be right. I see a definite trend toward Chardonnays with less alcohol, less obvious oak, more savory flavors and smoother textures from wild ferments and aging on lees. Although I like the better examples of this trend, sometimes I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far.

Australia is not alone in this. In California, reaction against broad-beamed, high-octane Chardonnay has spawned examples of lean, racy bottlings. Some are marvels, while others rattle the teeth with high acid levels and leave a Chardonnay lover like me searching in vain for the fruit flavors the variety can produce so well.

Australia has its Chardonnay icons, of course, wines that aim for something classic, well beyond pleasant everyday wines such as Lindemans Bin 65 or Yellow Tail. Leeuwin Estate (with its Art Series), Pierro, Giaconda, Mount Mary, Yeringberg and Tyrrell’s (with its Vat 47) all have histories of 25 years or more, and plenty of devoted fans. These are consistently outstanding wines, and best of all, distinctive. You would not easily confuse one with any of the others.

In the past year, Chards I have rated outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) include the light, silky Sidewood Adelaide Hills 2010 (90, $18), the polished, elegance Heggies Eden Valley 2010 ($24), the lively and litchi-tinged Robert Oatley Mudgee 2009 ($18) and the redoubtable Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills M3 2009 (92, $44), with its nutmeg and clove overtones to pear and grapefruit flavors, the finish lingering impressively.

One common thread in my conversations was that no single style has emerged as identifiably Australian. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. Australia is a huge country with widespread wine regions that range all over the board in climate, elevation and yes, style. Does anyone expect a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay to taste like one from Sta. Rita Hills, let alone Oregon, Washington or New York? Why try to force all of Australia’s into one basket?

But that, I fear, is what some gatekeepers, wine writers and, significantly, winemakers want to happen. While some can recognize an outstanding wine in any style, the idea of sleek, racy Chardonnays so enamors others that they seem willing to toss out the classics.

At my very first lunch, veteran wine writer James Halliday plucked Oak Ridge Chardonnay Yarra Valley 864 2010 off the wine list for us to drink. I was impressed. The wine was silky in texture (remember that word, "silky"—it will come up a lot). It brimmed with smoky, leesy hazelnut and spice nuances around (here’s the important part) a rich core of pear and apple fruit. And it balanced it all on a structure that contained no bulges. Non-blind, I rated it 95 points. It was, it turns out, the poster child of the new wave, the big winner in wine competitions and wine writers’ ratings. (Not yet exported, however.)

Several other wines seemed to aim at the same brass ring. Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay Adelaide Hills Reserve 2010 was supple, a bit leesy, with very clean pear and guava flavors, finishing savory and silky (91 points, non-blind). Frogmore Creek’s Chardonnay 2010 from Tasmania struck me as satiny, with complex flavors from wild fermentation and an open texture, charming and polished (90 points, non-blind).

On my last weekend Down Under, at dinner with sommelier Michael Engelmann, I saw the other side of the coin. Engelmann presides over the wine list at Rockpool Bar and Grill in Sydney, the country’s lone Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. I asked him to choose a Chardonnay that best represents the new style. He picked Eden Road Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2008, which comes from a high-elevation vineyard in the chilly mountains of southwest New South Wales. Very crisp in texture, it struck me as a slight wine, lacking in drama or charm. The fruit reminded me vaguely of quince.

“I’d call that a pretty skinny Chardonnay,” I said. Engelmann agreed. Having worked in San Francisco for five years, including a stint at Grand Award-winning Gary Danko, he knows what wine drinkers want in their Chardonnay. Most want grace and elegance, but they want it to come with plenty of flavor and real charm. “There is a tension,” he said, “between what customers like and what sommeliers think they should like.”

Could this focus on a new style marginalize wines that are truly and distinctly Australian, and can stand with the world’s best? The Chardonnays of Margaret River, for example, include the great Leeuwin Estate, Pierro, Voyager, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Cullen. Margaret River’s widely planted clone, which they call Gin-Gin and is probably what’s known as the Mendoza clone elsewhere, contributes a spicy, floral character and a hint of tartness. In this fairly warm region the wines tend to be richly endowed with flavor, which runs counter to the view that Chardonnay ought to be sleek.

I encountered a great example of this divide as I tasted through some of the winning wines after a major wine competition in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. I was there mainly to get a handle on the local cool-climate wines, but the show is open to entries from all over Australia , so I took the opportunity to make comparisons. Mostly, I focused on Pinot Noir and sparkling wine (Tasmania excels at those), but in tasting through the winning 2010 Chardonnays I found a sameness among the gold-medal winners. They were good, but they all more or less hewed to this new paradigm of lean and racy.

And then I spotted an old favorite, Devil’s Lair, from Margaret River, which its parent company, Treasury Wine Estates, has not exported to the U.S. for several years. I took a taste. Wow! This one had depth and power, combined with elegance. The rich fruit— pineapple, pear, tropical fruits—layered nimbly in a plush-textured package, finishing with length and finesse. Yet it only won a bronze medal.

I offered a taste to my host at this trade tasting, Jeremy Dineen, the personable winemaker at Chromy Wines. Though he makes a very different style, he loved the wine. As it happens, his panel had judged it. They split. He had voted it a gold medal, the second judge a silver, the other judge, a young winemaker, no medal. “He complained it was too ripe,” said Dineen. “I couldn’t talk him up, so it wound up getting a bronze.”

Margaret River's is not the only Chardonnay style Australia can produce, but it has given us some classics. It would be a shame if a backlash were to marginalize undeniably great wines like these.

Next: Can a tasting of Penfolds Yattarna put the Chardonnay questions into perspective?

You can follow Harvey Steiman on twitter at twitter.com/harveywine.

James Moseley
Rome,GA —  December 2, 2011 2:40pm ET
I miss the old Devil's Lair, particularly the 03. I still have the Leeuwin Art Series 01 and 02, which are aging beautifully. I hate to see this trend toward "skinny chardonnays" but it is even happening here in the US. Thankfully we still have the likes of Peter Michael, Aubert, Marcassin, Peirson Meyer, Chasseur, Lewis, Tor, etc., to keep the barbarians at bay.
Matthew Segura
San Francisco, California, USA —  December 2, 2011 7:38pm ET
I wonder if some of the wines, made in the lean style that may not show a wide range of flavors now (early), might gain with age?

Harvey, were you able to taste any older vintages of this "new" style?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 3, 2011 9:14pm ET
Matthew, you've homed in on the main point of my Yattarna vertical. Stay tuned for that next week.

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