The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay?

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Emma Symington MW

This year’s pre-Annual General Meeting tasting focused on only one grape variety from just one country. But when the variety is Chardonnay and the country is Australia there was no chance of it becoming a one-trick tasting. Instead, the wines were chosen to showcase the diversity of styles and regional differences in this vast country. With the tasting booklet asking two incisive questions, the task was on for the attendees to see for themselves: Has the search for restraint led to market-unfriendly austerity? Or, has the reaction against the bold, rich styles of the 1990s led to generally greater complexity, terroir expression and age-ability?

Alongside Shiraz, Chardonnay was one of the grapes that put Australia on the global wine map back in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time the style was all about ripe, tropical fruit flavours combined with sweet oak and a buttery texture. Consumers worldwide embraced this new style and Aussie Chardonnay production sky rocketed from less than 40,000 tonnes in 1990 to 340,000 tonnes in 2015.

But of course trends change with time, and a decade or so ago consumers started to move away from the rich, buttery styles of Chardonnay – looking instead for more restrained, crisp styles of white wine. And so the pendulum began to swing. The focus shifted to cooler climate regions such as Yarra, Mornington and Tasmania and to earlier picking, older and larger format oak, no MLF and increased use of indigenous yeast fermentation. For some winemakers this was what they had been doing quietly all along, for others it was breaking new ground.

It is fair to say that in some cases the pendulum swung too far and the wines became too skinny and acidic, lacking a core of fruit. But that was perhaps an understandable result as winemakers spent time experimenting and perfecting their styles. Which brings us back to the pre-AGM tasting and the chance for the attending MWs and MW students to taste and compare a selection of today’s Australian Chardonnays.

The wines in the tasting were arranged regionally, allowing attendees to pick out the stylistic differences from each of the 15 regions featured. These crossed the breadth of Australia from Margaret River in Western Australia to Hunter Valley in New South Wales and featured cool-climate regions such as Tasmania alongside warmer, inland Riverland. Established names such as Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Shaw & Smith M3 shared the spotlight with lesser-known newcomers like Ochota Barrels The Slint and Ministry of Clouds: a true cross-section of contemporary Australian Chardonnay.

For me, and others I talked to, the tasting more than demonstrated Australia’s credentials as a producer of world-class Chardonnay. Where once there would have been lashings of tropical fruit, now there isn’t a pineapple in sight. Instead lemon, peach and apple form the ripe fruit core of the wines, surrounded by layers of mealy oak – occasionally smoky, but never buttery – all wrapped up with bright, zesty (and, importantly, natural) acidity. Indigenous yeast and high solids ferments certainly lent a funky, textural edge to many wines and the reductive, struck match note on some wines added a controversial element, splitting opinion in the room. But this just served to underscore how far Australia has come from the ‘sunshine in a glass’ one-size-fits-all type of Chardonnay. Instead there were wines to suit all palates and all occasions.

So, have we entered the golden age of Australian Chardonnay? Certainly this tasting showed the pendulum has settled and found its sweet spot between ripe fruit and bright acidity. But with winemakers continuing to search out the best vineyard sites in their respective regions, with vine age getting gradually older and with continued experimentation in the winery who knows what else Australia has got to come in the future. We will just have to wait, watch and taste.