Out of the ashes of sav blanc’s demise comes the welcome re-invention of Australian chardonnay
Now that sav blanc is social death; now that young women realise pinot gris is awful; and now that no-one even remembers what
the great white hope, viognier, is, or even was; everything old is chardonnay again. Australian chardonnay is undergoing a self-made renaissance.
The sunshine-in-a-bottle tropical fruit chardies of yore are now being made in a more restrained and elegant style. Indeed, when compared to the old-fashioned styles, these new chardonnays seem to have no aroma, no flavour, and no texture. Yet the wine connoisseurs can’t praise them or drink them quickly enough. More importantly, if you are not stocking them you will look more yesterday than a current release, viscous, 14 per cent alcohol pinot gris.
The trend has started because we now have Australian winemakers born into wine. They actually have taste and they actually like drinking more keenly balanced styles of wine, as opposed to growing moustaches, buying cricket memorabilia, or collecting sports cars.
The old more-is-better approach which produced the oaky, buttery and fruit bomb chardies of the ‘80s and ‘90s copped a whacking at the hands of Kiwi sauvignon blanc come about the year 2000. These no-oak, crisper fruit-flavoured savvies where—and are—fresh and distinctive, and also much cheaper than the heavily over-made winemaker chardonnays. Ten years on again and a new breed of chardonnay makers are bringing some balance back to the wine bar—at both a flavour and price angle.
And it has a good take-up rate because the current generation of wine drinkers don’t want the wine to get in the way. Chablis-styled chardonnays with higher acid, little or no malo-lactic creaminess, and a much lighter mouth-feel, are seen as wines you can actually drink whilst holding a conversation. They don’t dominate or get you all giddy. More importantly, their aromatics, their bouquet, and their flavours and textures have a more beguiling and ethereal quality than sav blanc, whose pungency and overtness is always in your face. Modern chardonnay is subtly interesting.
The best news here is down to what it promises—culturally. Australian wine drinkers now seem to be heading further into a more natural and everyday enjoyment of wine. This is particularly good news for licensees, as they will see a more regular and less rowdy clientele, who will drink two quality glasses of wine after-hours most nights, rather than twelve rum and cokes Friday at 4pm. The endgame is that Australian chardonnay in its new guise may yet help the number of licensed bouncers fall, being replaced by more educated wine waiters. Education defeats a licence every time.
Your own wine list’s role in this is about understanding the style of modern Australian chardonnay, and where its personality comes from: Chablis and Burgundy. Imparting some of this knowledge can therefore help your customers feel even more imbued with the wine.
Concentrate, therefore, on cool-climate regions producing chardonnay fruit with greater natural acidity—like Chablis achieves. Higher natural acidity in chardonnay helps keep it taut and keen; such wine also tends towards the greener and leaner fruit flavour end of the spectrum, allowing the winemaker to build subtle richness into the wine with barrel work, like a small percentage of malo-lactic fermentation or lees stirring—like they do with White Burgundy.
From regarded regions, drill down to find the more highly-pedigreed producers—that is, the ones who have the runs on the board and who’ve been making good chardonnay for a while. This will give you your bearings, from which position you can then more confidently test and taste the ‘affordable’ LUC chardonnays of the regions in question and, faster than you can say ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) you’ll have an emerging brand on your wine list, at a mark-up that makes business sense. Regions and chardonnays thereof worth considering:
Latitude equals attitude in noble wine grapes. This is why Tasmania is quickly emerging as Australia’s quality future when it comes to chardonnay and pinot noir. They get ripe, but they also hang on to natural acidity, thanks to the state’s more southern latitude. Tasmanian chardonnay can have a wonderfully pristine quality. Look for such labels as Stoney Rise ($20LUC), Goaty Hill ($19), Freycinet ($25), and Josef Chromy Pepik ($13)
Perched above the right fetlock of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, this wine region has traditionally been where dentists go to die. There’s no questioning the vineyards’ qualities, however: their microclimates, terracing, soils and the bayside breezes wafting in every evening make for chardonnay with a more robust lineage, but some good cool-climate breeding. Kooyong Clonale ($18), Port Phillip Estate ($28), Ten Minutes By Tractor 10X ($20)
Micro-climates and some minor altitude help here to trap acidity. Other geographical considerations that are more of humankind’s making help: a close-knit and well-informed winemaking fraternity all of who egg one another on. The first among equals rule applies here; and the wine shows that fantastic blend of purity and complexity. There are some real bargains, too. Oakridge Over The Shoulder ($14), Innocent Bystander ($14), Punch Lane ($30), Yering Station ($16).
Continental climate factors help make for a good diurnal shift in Canberra—hot, dry days but cold nights. The cold night help the grapes lock their acidity. Mount Majura Chardonnay has, in recent times, been in excellent form ($19). Also consider some of the very affordable and restrained chardonnays from Orange, such as Logan ($13).
Altitude and aspect. Cooler conditions thanks to height above sea-level, and vineyard aspect—which way the vines hit the sunrays—make for wine that’s neither too under-ripe or too burnt. Shaw & Smith M3 ($26), Petaluma ($30), Paracombe ($14). Elegance but understated power.
Here the full maritime climate effect takes place. The south-western corner of a hot continent’s edge meets the enduring horizon of the Indian and Southern Oceans. Soils and well-studied vineyard practices combine to make for grape heaven. Cabernet likes it, but so too does chardonnay, with the grapefruit acidity underscoring more nectarine and stone fruit flavours born from the grape. Stella Bella ($18), Forest Hill (from Great Southern, $16), Voyager Estate ($28).
(NB: All prices quoted are LUC)