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Chardonnay is now safe to drink

My mother can well recall the face I would pull when asked to consume the brussels sprouts that I had artfully attempted to conceal beneath the bones of chops and other debris remaining on my dinner plate. I see it mirrored all the time when i present a chardonnay at a wine event. Sometimes I have to get quite stern event to get people to sniff it.

06 Jun 2010

My mother can well recall the face I would pull when asked to consume the brussels sprouts that I had artfully attempted to conceal beneath the bones of chops and other debris remaining on my dinner plate. I see it mirrored all the time these days with adults, especially when I present a chardonnay at a wine event. Sometimes I have to get quite stern even to get people to sniff it. One day, I can imagine, I will have to use a cattle prod.

Australian winemakers are still discovering for themselves just how powerful a tool aversion therapy actually is. For a decade or more they poured over-ripened, over-oaked and over-malolactic-ed chardonnay down the throats of wine drinkers, whose enjoyment of their fullness and richness then soured towards a profound distaste of their fatness and broadness. Most Australian chardonnay was past its best within a year of bottling, as it quickly acquired the pungent staleness and amber colour one might more expect from an aged mule than the wine list from an expensive restaurant.

This, of course, paved the way for the invasion into our shores from parts southern and eastern of sauvignon blanc, something Australian wine drinkers are finally beginning to view with a similar level of scepticism. That, however, is another story.

The point is simple: Australian chardonnay is now safe to drink. No longer is it habitually a soupy, raw-oaked phenomenon that tastes of marmalade thickly spread over burned, butter-soaked toast, but is instead a vibrant, fruit-driven, finely textured and carefully oaked wine tightly wrapped in refreshing acidity. It tastes fresher while young and retains more brightness as it ages, which takes longer than before. This spectacular change of direction has taken place nationwide, from the elite wines from the premier regions all the way to the cheaper riverland brands.

The contemporary Australian chardonnay is more elegant and restrained, with a tightly integrated background of oak instead of the plankiness of not so yesteryear. The best have a chalky, powdery texture rather than fattiness or oiliness. They might even be quite savoury, with a mineral or even a briney finish. Because their fruit is more reserved, subtle nuances of complexity that might derive from winemaking input or even from the individual vineyard itself are more noticeable and distinctive.

Their balance and fineness helps them age better. Instead of the typical pungent bottle-aged Australian chardonnay bouquet of honeysuckle, toast and butter, the modern wines will age towards a more waxy, floral, lanolin-like expression with a more vibrant presence of fruit and acidity supported by more subtle possibilities suggestive of nougat, smoked meats, minerals and grilled nuts.

While it’s natural that producers found in the cooler regions – which typically cultivate chardonnay of more delicacy, complexity and natural acidity – are likely to find it easier to craft the contemporary chardonnay, I am delighted to see that the chardonnays from labels like Oxford Landing, Jacob’s Creek Reserve and Deakin Estate, whose fruit is largely sourced from regions along the Murray River, are right on the button.

A number of chardonnays of distinctly finer style come from cool regions like the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and the Adelaide Hills, while even cooler locations such as the Macedon Ranges and several Tasmanian regions appear to be amongst the better chardonnay sites for the future, especially if that future is a warmer one. Site and season permitting, the penetrative flavours, sculpted shape and focused acidity of these wines are frequently enhanced by underlying mineral elements, which winemakers often accentuate with the deliberate introduction of reductive complexity. It gets better every year.

From the Yarra Valley exciting new chardonnays are coming from makers like Mount Mary, Yering Station, Coldstream Hills, Lillydale Vineyards, Clos Pierre and Coombe Farm, while makers like De Bortoli, Oakridge and Phi are really pushing the style envelope towards texture and minerality. Mornington Peninsula chardonnay is slightly more angular and tropical, but makers like Kooyong, Main Ridge Estate create examples that age with great finesse. The better expressions from the Adelaide Hills come from the stables of Petaluma, Shaw and Smith, Starvedog Lane, Grosset, Penfolds and Tapanappa. From the cooler Macedon Ranges area to the north and west of Melbourne come very fine, mineral chardonnays from Bindi and Epis, while the emerging pack from Tasmania is headed by those like the tightly focused, Hardy’s Eileen plus modern releases from Freycinet, Bay of Fires and Stefano Lubiana.

Slightly warmer than some of these regions, Margaret River still produces more high-end Australian chardonnay than any other Australian region. While its chardonnays have historically tended towards concentration and power, the current releases from makers like Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle, Voyager Estate and even Pierro, whose chardonnay was once the most sumptuous in the land, have eased back significantly with more freshness, focus on fruit and acidity, better balance and longevity. Xanadu’s return to centre stage also brings with a tiered hierarchy of excellent modern chardonnay.

So the lights are no longer flashing amber for Australian chardonnay; they’ve turned green. But not as green as the abominable brussels sprouts of my childhood!


Wine of the Month: Bindi Composition Chardonnay 2009 ($45)

Lifted by a fragrance of white flowers and delicate aromas of grapefruit and melon backed by fresh vanilla oak and hints of cloves, this pure, brightly lit chardonnay is fresh and youthful. Its vibrant, crystalline presence of citrus and stonefruit is backed by sweet oak and supported by a fine, dusty mouthfeel. It finishes with tangy, lemony acids, a hint of minerality and a lingering core of fruit.

Published: 06 Jun 2010