The Lowdown on Chardonnay

Written by
Vintage Cellars
February 24, 2019
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It's come a long way from its roots, but this adaptable and versatile grape is the ideal variety to take on Australia’s equally variable wine-growing conditions.

Thirty years ago, a top Australian winemaker and show judge remarked that chardonnay was a “non-area-specific” grape variety. Asked to clarify, he replied, “it will grow any-bloody-where.” And that’s been its biggest problem: chardonnay is a basic, everyday wine (Kath and Kim’s favourite bag-in-a-box ‘chardy’) when grown in our warm Riverland areas.

When sourced from a cool region, however, such as the Yarra Valley (home to Innocent Bystander), chardonnay blossoms with tight fresh grapefruit and white stone fruit flavours, finishing with a flourish of mineral acidity. It’s this understated style that’s taking chardonnay back to its rightful place as Australia’s leading white grape.

Chardonnay’s synergy with a cool climate harks back to its historical French homelands. It is the white grape of Burgundy, where it appears under top-notch appellations such as puligny-montrachet, meursault and corton-charlemagne. Generic Burgundian chardonnay from across the region is known as bourgogne blanc. The Cave de Lugny is a classic example - an echo of the Yarra style with a French accent.

Chablis is Burgundy’s northern outpost, its cooler climes and chalky soils delivering a laser-sharp, more floral, citrusy style that makes it a perfect match with oysters. Try La Chablisienne Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Léchet and you’ll get the picture.

Chardonnay reappears in the Champagne region, sharing the limelight with its Burgundian stablemate pinot noir and its rustic cousin, pinot meunier. Chardonnay brings energy and vitality to champagne, and Australia’s premium sparkling wines. A pure chardonnay sparkling is known as blanc de blancs.

The story of Australian chardonnay

Although chardonnay was among the vast collection of vines James Busby brought to Australia in 1832, it took more than 100 years for it to be considered as a singular varietal wine. A French ampelographer (they study the genetics of grape vines) discovered healthy chardonnay clones in Mudgee in the 1960s.

Years later, Murray Tyrrell allegedly pinched some cuttings from a Hunter Valley vineyard planted with old vines of "pinot chardonnay" dating back to the 1920s. Tyrrell kick-started Australia’s chardonnay boom and set the Hunter style - fuller bodied with lots of melon and fig flavours - the De Iuliis Winemakers Selection Chardonnay being a perfect example.

As the white wine boom of the 1970s took hold, chardonnay spread across the country, popping up in sites such as the Eden Valley, where David Wynn planted the Mountadam vineyard in 1972. Brian Croser (of Petaluma fame) headed for the Adelaide Hills a decade later, while Coonawarra stalwart Katnook Estate planted chardonnay vines on the region’s limestone-based soils.

In Victoria, the Yarra Valley flourished first, with the De Bortoli family setting up there in 1987 to great success. Victorian chardonnay grows well alongside its Burgundian alter ego, pinot noir, with the Yarra soon joined by Gippsland, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, the Macedon Ranges and Beechworth.

New South Wales winemakers have moved to cooler regions across the Great Divide, such as Orange and Tumbarumba, the source of the grapes for the excellent McW 660 Chardonnay. Tasmania is another outstanding site for chardonnay, its pristine climate perfect for still wines, even better for the chardonnay grapes destined for Tasmania’s superb sparkling wines.

However, the Australian chardonnay story is inextricably entwined with Western Australia, especially the Margaret River region. When the Hunter Valley winemakers were pioneering chardonnay, Margaret River was still run-down dairy country. By the second wave of Margaret River plantings (following those of the founding doctors in the late 1960s at Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Cullen), chardonnay was on the radar, with Leeuwin Estate and Cape Mentelle leading the charge.

The Margaret River style emerged quickly, made with the Gin Gin clone, its vineyards cooled by breezes off the Indian Ocean. Its hallmark aromas are of tropical fruits (particularly pineapple), with a mouth-filling richness and decisive acidity tightening the finale. Newer producers, including Grace Farm, Deep Woods and Forester Estate, echo the Margaret River style to great success.

Jump across the Tasman and chardonnay plays second fiddle to New Zealand’s ubiquitous sauvignon blanc. The styles tend to be more "old school", with generous flavours and the thumbprint of their maker.

The evolution of winemaking styles

Finding the right site to plant chardonnay is the key to quality, but the diversity of Australian chardonnay revolves around our winemakers. Charismatic chardonnays need oak for shape, substance and complexity. However, the early pioneers tended towards "the more, the better" approach, and their buttery, blowsy, over-oaked styles drove a generation of chardonnay lovers into the arms of (Marlborough) sauvignon blanc. The reaction was to do a U-turn and make unoaked or unwooded styles to emulate a racy sauvignon blanc. It didn’t work, and these simple chardonnays waned quickly.

Oak is still an important "spice" but it’s there to enhance the fruit flavours, not dominate. The best chardonnays are fermented in oak, but not all new barrels. Most remain on their lees - the post-ferment dead yeast cells - which add a biscuity, bready flavour and textural richness that can be enhanced by stirring.

Malolactic fermentation is another winemaking tool, changing harsh, edgy malic acid to the softer, creamy lactic (dairy) acid. The aim of these winemaking techniques is to build a multi-layered chardonnay while allowing the stonefruit and melon flavours to shine. Our winemakers now have it right.

Chardonnay loves food

Chardonnay is made for food: a lean, tight chablis style is ideal for pairing with oysters or Vietnamese rice-paper rolls. Chicken and chardonnay are best friends, as well as full-flavoured fish such as barramundi or salmon. Creamy sauces also work well and if you have a fondness for richer "butter-and-toast" style of chardonnay, try it with a ripe brie or camembert, or even better, a stinky washed-rind cheese - one of the best food-and-wine matches imaginable.