Charming Chardonnay: The Evolution of a National Superstar
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Charming Chardonnay: The Evolution of a National Superstar

Written by
Michael Jappy
February 16, 2017
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Butter, toast, spice and all things nice. Good classic descriptors that were once the norm when discussing the flavour profile of Australia’s favourite white grape variety, the one and only Chardonnay.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for this classic, yet controversial, grape variety over the last few years. Equally loved and loathed by the wine drinking public, Chardonnay was once the darling of the Australian winegrowing fraternity but quickly became a victim of its own success. Thankfully more recently, there has been a revolution in how Chardonnay is expressed, and once again Aussie Chardonnay is on the lips of just about every wine drinker - not only in Australia, but the world over.

Chardonnay is one of those grape varieties that is so versatile that it is almost a bit of a blank canvas for the winegrower to wisp their winemaking brush at and craft the juice into a ‘style’ that they want to express. It sucks up oak well, yet it can express itself nicely enough when only brought up in stainless steel tanks. It fills itself out when left to go through malolactic fermentation (a process by which the harsh malic acid found in grape must be transformed, either naturally or by winemaking wizardry, into softer lactic acid), yet it can provide oodles of pleasure when it stays lean and mean when malolactic is prevented. It can be all things to all (wo)men. Which was probably part of the problem.

During the halcyon days of ‘Aussie Chardonnay’, the trend was for winemakers to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at their chardonnay fruit. The wines were often fermented and aged in lots of new oak (and quite often cheap oak chips and staves were used to replicate the use of more expensive oak barrels!) to give the wine a rich, toasty profile. The wines packed buckets loads of flavour and the wine drinking public at large came to expect that this was what Australian chardonnay was all about. The good times rolled. But as with most good things, the thirst for big, oaky, fruit-forward Chardonnay dried up. Wine lovers became more experimental, and as a result many moved away from big, burly wines in search of wines with more elegance, greater suitability for food and that expressed the bit of land on which they were grown. No longer were the public looking to drink wines that were made to a formula in a winery. They were looking for wines with personality, wines with style and wines that had energy and tension. And on the back of this revolution, the Anything but Chardonnay (ABC) club was formed.

In response, many Aussie Chardonnay producers tried to replicate this leaner style in an attempt to win back the humble wine drinker. The pendulum had swung. The fat, rich, buttery wines of yesteryear were replaced by skinny, skeletal wines: wines that were tough to drink and that lacked any body and generosity. Wines that were so far removed from their predecessors that they were barely even recognisable as Chardonnay at all! Once more, the Australian Chardonnay scene was stuck at a crossroads.

Thankfully, whilst all this toing and froing was going on, a merry band of quality-conscious producers were busy plying their trade in regions that they knew had the ability to produce world-class Chardonnay. These producers were only interested in making balanced wines, from vines grown with love and care, that truly expressed the region and the variety without being forced or overworked. And today, as a result of the work of these producers, thankfully Australian chardonnay is now rightly at the forefront of the winemaking revolution that is taking part all across the country. World class chardonnay is now being produced from Margaret River in the west, stretching all the way over to the Hunter Valley in the East.

The quality has never been higher and it feels like the Chardonnay revolution is only really just beginning. Producers such as Pierro, Voyager and Leeuwin fly the Chardonnay flag the highest in Margaret River. In the Adelaide Hills, Tapanapa and Shaw + Smith regularly release wines that are up there with the best in Australia. In Victoria, Chardonnay excels in most of the quality regions in the state. In the Yarra Valley there’s no better producer that Oakridge. Oakridge disciple Adrian Rodda makes stunning wines very much in the Oakridge mould. And for value for money it’s tough to look past the wines of De Bortoli. Down in Mornington, Tom Carson and the Yabbly Lake crew year in year out are producing wines of incredible intensity and quality whilst the teams at Kooyong and Oceans Eight are no slouches when it comes to releasing wines of balance, power and clarity. On the other side of Port Philip Bay we stumble across the Moorabool Valley and the incredible Chardonnay produced by the likes Nick Farr at Farr Rising, and the iconic Bannockburn Vineyards. And you can’t talk about Victorian chardonnay without a mention for the awesome Curly Flat up in the Macedon Ranges whose wines can’t be overlooked for their sheer quality and great drinking.

We’ve barely even scratched the surface of Victoria and haven’t even touched on Tasmania, the Hunter Valley and other pockets of NSW. The Chardonnay revolution is in full swing so it’s time to grab your goblet and reacquaint yourself with this most beguiling of grapes before the rest of the world catches on to just how good the wines being produced right here on our shores really are!