Australian Chardonnay

The changing face of Australian Chardonnay

It seems hard to believe, but Australian Chardonnay is a relative newcomer to the wine scene.  In the early 1970s, Murray Tyrrell of Tyrrells, and of Bob Oatley of Rosemount, led the way in creating a full-flavoured, oaky, dry Chardonnay, to replace Riesling which dominated at the time.  It became a phenomenal success in export markets, where begrudgers claimed it was “over-oaked, and over here.”

Why so successful? Bernard Hickin, Chief Winemaker for Jacob’s Creek, claims it was its generosity of flavour, and ability to pair easily with food.

By the late 1990s it had become a victim of its own success, and a change in style was needed. Several changes occurred.  Cooler sites were planted – Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, and then Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. Grapes are now picked as soon as natural acidity is reached, resulting in fresher wine and lower alcohol levels. Vines matured, delivering better quality fruit.  Night-picking, and using premium quality first-pressed juice deliver better flavours, acidity, and longevity. Stirring up and ageing on the lees (yeast cells) are adding texture.  Less oak is now used, and it’s not more than 15-20% new, mostly French.  Finally, Bernard Hickin reminds us that screwcaps are ensuring wines age better than ever before.

The result is that entry level wines are more fruit-driven, with better balance of acidity and alcohol – 12.5% is now the goal.  At mid-price, expect creaminess, less butteriness, with vibrant acidity, well-married fruit and a slight touch of oak, for texture rather than flavour.  The big buzz for premium wines is using wild yeasts, which give a funky ‘struck match’ character. In addition to the above, you will see first-pressed juice, and much more judicious layering of oak, giving wines which are complex and nutty after about 5 years.

Tyrrell’s Old Winery Chardonnay 2012 is a fabulous mouth-filling style, but with wonderful balance and super length. Enjoy its clean, remarkably concentration of spicy clove and cashew, combined with peach and a touch of vanilla. €17 from 1601 in Kinsale, On the Grapevine, Dalkey.

Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay 2010 is a premium version of its popular little sister, from the cooler climate Adelaide Hills. Fresh leafy aromas are married with hints of vanilla, smoke and peach. This wine is rich without being cloying, with warm cloves, melted butter and assertive crispness, against tropical and citrus fruit and oak.  €14.99, widely available.

Penfolds Thomas Hyland Chardonnay 2007 shows how beautifully premium Chardonnay ages. Incredible complexity – tropical fruit & citrus, but more importantly, spice, toast, butter, citrus, peach, cashew and fabulous lengthy butterscotch finish.  €24.49 from good independents.

Stonier Chardonnay 2005 from Mornington Peninsula was a smash hit at a WSET wine course tasting a few weeks ago.  It was beautifully mature, with pronounced flavours of oak, dairy, maturity (hay, cereal), sweet spice (cloves), citrus fruit (lemon, grapefruit), tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, melon), herbaceousness (leaf), nut (hazelnut), minerality.   Beautifully balanced and marvellous length.