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12 May 2022

Australia: 50 years of Chardonnay.

Indeed, fifty years young. As Wine Australia put it in the intro to a recent celebratory tasting: "With the first varietally-labelled Chardonnay produced in Australia in 1972, now is the perfect time to revisit the story of Australia’s most iconic white wine. From the first vine cuttings in the 1830s to the big buttery wines of the 1990s, to today’s regionally distinct refined styles, Australian Chardonnay has come a long way."
(Tyrrell's, Leeuwin, Forest Hill, Penfolds, Moorooduc, Giant Steps, Shaw&Smith, Tolpuddle. And a wine geek warning!)
Did the eight varied Chardys showcased prove the point? They come from vineyards right across Australia from the east via Tasmania to the far southwest, so in theory the wines should (and do) reflect some kind of climate regionality as well as different soils, vine age and altitude, proximity to the ocean etc. Add to that a variety of approaches to winemaking of course, particularly the use of oak not surprisingly.
There are 21,442 hectares of Chardonnay in Australia (third globally behind California or France depending on the source) equating to 15% of the total surface area under vine, which is the country's most widely planted white variety grown in 58 out of 65 wine regions. This says as much about its adaptability and versatility as it does about its enduring appeal, despite being in and out of fashion, and in again, over the years.
The regions and sites where the eight Chardys were sourced offer significant differences in growing environment. Latitude varies greatly from 32º 34' (Hunter Valley) to 43º 08' (Tasmania: yes it's that far south), although Margaret River and Great Southern in Western Australia and Adelaide Hills in South Australia lie on a similar level (34 to 35 degrees south) albeit nearly 3000 km apart (west to east)! Yarra Valley is somewhere inbetween at 37º 73' latitude while being the wettest place (1094 mm annual average rainfall), closely followed by Margaret River and Tasmania with Great Southern the driest (666 mm) of these regions, strangely being just round the corner from Margaret River (on a map at least).
Hunter Valley is by far the warmest area and Tasmania by far the coolest (mean January temps. of 23.3ºC vs 15.7ºC); and again Margaret River, Great Southern and Adelaide Hills share similar conditions at approx. 20-21 degrees average, while the Yarra is also cooler (18.9ºC). Vineyard altitude plays the biggest role in Adelaide Hills with plantings ranging from 149 to 714 metres, although is important elsewhere too: up to 250 metres in Hunter and nearly 400m in Great Southern and Yarra.
That's more than enough data to set the scene: what was the verdict? Without stating the obvious, these are all expensive Chardonnays (£24 to £75 UK; US $39-$99; €30-€90) therefore I'd expect them to be very good. But there was plenty of class and pleasure to be had here, while offering a satisfying mix of contrasting and complementary styles.

Tyrrell's Winemaker's Selection Vat 47 Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2019 (abv 13%): Sandy loam soils, vines planted in 1968. Fermented in stainless steel vats then French oak barriques for nine months (20% new) without any malolactic fermentation. Apparently one of the first Chardonnays to arrive in the UK, Oz Clarke also commented that the Hunter Valley: "Wasn't a logical place to grow grapes... but because it's near Sydney." There's a lot of cloud cover in the summer which tempers the direct sun heat.
Light toast on the nose, aromatic with creamy yeast-lees tones and sweet tropical fruit blending with the toasted notes, attractive texture and surprisingly elegant showing fair depth of buttery flavours with peach and pineapple, subtle crispness and bite of lees with elegant length. Well-made and balanced for "the subtropical Hunter." Expected more concentration maybe for 50 year-old vines although I guess it's the regional style?
UK importer: John E. Fell's & Sons; stockists include Bordeaux Index, Vin Quinn, Hennings Wine Merchants £45.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Chardonnay 2018 (13.5%): Iron rich gravel soils with clay subsoil; vine age: Block 20 1975, Block 22 1977. Barrel fermented in all new French oak barriques and matured for 11 months in new French oak with no malolactic fermentation and regular lees stirring. Leeuwin was a pioneer in Western Australia - this wine comes from the first Chardy plantings - when Robert Mondavi came to consult. Vineyards are close to the ocean.
Much more buttery yet (ripe) citrusy in style, toasty too while rich and aromatic, not that oaky for 100% new wood though, concentrated tasty and well textured, buttery rounded finish vs crisper acidity (than the Hunter wine), lovely lingering flavours and long finish. Oak is now nicely integrated with that full flavour and texture profile, delicious fine Chardy (and dear of course).
Imported by Flint Wines, stockists include Stannary Street Wine Co. and Salusbury Winestore £75.

Forest Hill Vineyard Block 8 Mount Barker Great Southern Chardonnay 2018 (13% abv): Soil type is gravelly loam over clay; the region's geology is 'mainly Precambrian granite and gneiss.' Block 8 dates from 1985 and is dry farmed. Wild fermented with full solids in French oak (225L, 300L and 500L) then aged for nearly ten months in oak with a fraction of malolactic ('less than 5%').
Much more subdued on the nose to start and a steelier style overall (pH is quite low and total acidity quite high), crisp tight mouthfeel in a Chablis-esque way, buttery though while with lemon and lime citrus notes, elegant zesty lees-y palate yet with subtle body and oak tones, still surprisingly crisp and structured. Very good wine with more to come. Importer: Yapp Brothers £28.
Forest Hill bottle shot from www.foresthillwines.com.au.

Penfolds Bin 311 Tasmania Adelaide Hills Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2019 (13% abv): Obviously a cross-regional blend (Tumbarumba lies to the west of Canberra by the way) hence a variety of vineyard soils, from Tumbarumba with weathered granite or basalt loam over granite rock, Tasmania with black clays on rolling basalt and Jurassic dolerite (what?!) and Adelaide Hills with deeper free-draining alluvial loam soils. All the wine is fermented in French barriques and matured for eight months in one-third new French oak with 100% malolactic fermentation and lees-stirring.
Closed nose at first and again surprisingly unobvious oak (given the barrel treatment), yeast lees-y and crisp mouthfeel turning more buttery and lusher on the finish while still tightly structured, weighty yet balanced palate, quite steely actually with subtle underlying wood notes and attractive creamy flavours / texture. Very nice Chardy.
Importer: Treasury Wine Estates, stockists: BBR, Lay & Wheeler, Laithwaites, Honest Grapes, Harvey Nichols, Cheers £29.99.

Moorooduc Estate Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2018 (13.4% abv - photo above): Sandy loam topsoil on sandy clay, vines planted in 1994. Wild fermentation with full solids in mostly barriques and a couple of puncheons (about 500-litre capacity so roughly the same as a demi-muid), 20% new oak in total, then matured for eight months in barrel with malolactic fermentation and light lees-stirring monthly. Mornington is a cool climate zone and not as well known as the Yarra Valley, even though it's located just out of the southern suburbs of Melbourne.
Aromatic with aniseed tones on the nose and crisp citrus fruit flavours, again there's subtle oak influence, weighty and rounded mouthfeel with creamy yeast-lees notes tempered by tight acid structure; that acidity is perhaps a tad bitter although the wine is concentrated long and elegant.
Importer: Vindependents. Stockists: Caviste, The Sampler, Vineking, Woodwinters, Planet of the Grapes, Cambridge Wine Merchants, NY Wines of Cambridge, Le Vignoble, Hennings Wine Merchant, Quaff Fine Wine £24.

Giant Steps Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2021 (12.5% abv): Grey clay loam soils (Tarraford, Sexton and Applejack vineyards) and red clay loam (Primavera and Wombat Creek); vine age: 1988, 1997 and 2001 (it's a blend from these five vineyards). Wild fermented with solids in French oak puncheons (some new) and aged eight months in the same type of casks with 10% of barrels going through spontaneous malolactic fermentation.
A little unrevealing on the nose to start, developing juicy peachy notes with attractive zesty yeast-lees tones, concentrated and textured palate with nice crisp bite, once again the oak influence is understated, tight closed up finish; fairly delicate fine white with plenty of subtle flavours, needs a few months in bottle to round out and express itself more.
Importer: Liberty Wines; stockists: Specialist Cellars, Noel Young Wines, Oz Wines, 9 Vines, The Secret Cellar, The Wine Reserve £27.

Shaw+Smith M3 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2020 (13.5%): Brown loams over clay and thinner topsoil on the ridges with broken shale; vines dating from 1999 and 2001. The 2020 vintage was described as 'cool with difficult flowering.' Wild fermented in French oak barriques (228L) and puncheons (one-third new), matured nine months in 25% new French oak (mainly 500L puncheons) with malolactic fermentation and monthly lees-stirring.
Much toastier style Chardy yet intense and lees-y (slight 'reduction' apparently), develops tasty creamy sweet fruit in the mouth pinched by crisp bite of acidity; the oak is a tad intrusive for me although it's still youthful and tight while concentrated for sure. Another one to watch perhaps, certainly has a high reputation.
Importer: Liberty Wines; stockists: Cambridge Wine Merchants, Oz Wines, Hedonism £33.99.

Tolpuddle Vineyard Tasmania Chardonnay 2020 (13%): From a 'cool' site, vineyard composed of light silica over sandstone and vines planted in 1988. Wild fermented in French oak barriques (one-third new) then aged for 12 months in cask with malolactic and monthly lees-stirring.
Toasty nose and a hint of 'reduction' in that yeast-lees way, the oak character is a little charred although there's nice ripe texture underneath with buttery vs crisp fruit, tightly structured wine with lingering flavour; pity about that oak (IMHO) but I suspect it's a very good Chardy with concentrated fruit and a bit of class in there somewhere, maybe the toastiness will integrate better over time...
Importer: Liberty Wines; stockists: Fortnum & Mason, Hedonism £65.

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