Australian chardonnay: fashion victim or leading the trends?

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I believe that most consumers are still disoriented about where to stylistically place chardonnay as it is a variety that has swung widely from one particular expression of style to another over the last few decades. Who remembers the super ripe examples of the late eighties and nineties, which were using tasting descriptors that have never been seen since, such as butterscotch and vanilla peach! Many were caricatures of chardonnay displaying broad and flabby flavours with acidity so low that they would fall over after only a few years in bottle.

We since have learned a lot about ripeness and vineyard management and most importantly about the importance of acidity to impart freshness and longevity. But these were not the only learning curves to overcome; the use of wood was another one. Winemakers were so enamoured with new oak barrels that tasting a chardonnay a few decades back was like licking a stave of oak. If you asked a taster to describe the wine, the descriptors used were mostly relating to wood with very little reference to fruit. Most people had little idea what true chardonnay really tasted like.

The market reaction to this overabundance of oak, supported by clever winemakers, was to avoid the use of oak altogether, creating the unwooded chardonnay style. We all know that there is nothing wrong with the use of oak in chardonnay the trick is just the amount of new oak used. In fact the uses of barrel does much more than just contribute notes of vanilla, spice and wood to wine, it will also add complexity to the blend, structure and depth through the minute exchange of oxygen between the stave of the barrel and the wine.

Needless to say that unoaked or unwooded chardonnay didn’t really go far in the marketplace as a style and I believe the case for fashion victim has been made!

The subsequent trend in the last decade was the rise of the minimalist chardonnays; wines with more tension, austerity and higher acidity but that were often mean and lean! I still remember hearing Yarra Valley winemakers competing between each other on who makes the most Chablis-like chardonnay. The less favourable result of this tendency was to have wines that were harvested below the ripeness level required in order to keep high acidity with often high levels of sulphur additions. The pendulum effect had come around full swing.

Of course if you only started to drink chardonnay in the last few years you are rightfully wondering what on earth I am talking about. The current examples of chardonnay from leading producers are inspirational, with great elegance, texture and complexity accounting for some of the most exciting whites in Australia.

We are now at the best possible place for chardonnay in any given time in Australia's short winemaking history. The oak is integrated (more often than not!) or kept to a minimum, ripeness is balanced and importantly a good healthy acidity is present in order to impart freshness and drinkability.

On the popularity chart chardonnay has always done well and has weathered the onslaught of popular sauvignon blanc and the rapid surge of pinot gris/ grigio. The best expressions of white wines in cool climate Australia are often chardonnay wines, setting the benchmark for what is to be expected from a top white.

An old-world perspective and point of view and certainly a Burgundian one would be to let the fruit shine forth with the specificity of the area it is grown in, thus creating a distinctive style directly linked to the area of production and so avoiding relying on passing and vanning stylistic trends. This is exactly what we are slowly seeing in the Yarra Valley, for example, with some producers now bottling different vineyards and parcels of chardonnay individually under their range.

If history is anything to go by I wonder where it is going to take us next but I believe that we are finally reaching a level of maturity and understanding, leaving aside extreme experimentations in order to just savour the pure and simple result of the fruit in vineyard.

Written by Christian Maier
June 26, 2017