In its youth, chardonnay will show varying fruit characters depending on ripeness. At the cooler end, expect flavours like lemon, yellow grapefruit and green apple, a little riper and white stone fruit, pear and some pink grapefruit might appear, riper again and you may see yellow stone fruit and fig, along with tropical notes like pineapple, mango and even guava.
“You can’t hide anything with a five-year-old – and older – chardonnay. You’ve really got to have that core drive of fruit with embedded acidity. You’re seeing it all come together with time, turning from primary fruit to more complete flavours. And further than that, you start to see tertiary flavours come into the wine.” Those tertiary flavours – rather than primary (fruit) and secondary (winemaking) – are the product of extended ageing, and may include notes like nuts, honey, hay or wax.
Sometimes, chardonnay’s fruit flavours can be overt, and sometimes they can be balanced – or overwhelmed – by notes of caramel, char, butter, wood, lees (a cheesy yeasty character) and the like, which are derived from winemaking practices. Many older styles of Australian chardonnay had lots of everything – ripeness and winemaking tricks aplenty – and they were impressive at times, but few of them aged very well, often becoming broad and flat.
Reacting to those big buttery wines, many makers veered towards the lean and unadorned. But a recent swing closer to the middle has seen many Australian chardonnays become world class. Michael Downer believes that both extremes have informed the best wines of today, which has made them serious contenders for ageing.
“In the last five or so years, people haven’t been making chardonnay as lean, but they’re still looking for lovely natural acidity, which helps age-ability,” he says. “There’s less heavy-handed use of wood and bâttonage [stirring the lees in barrel], keeping the focus on the fruit, and there has been more play with malolactic to build layers of texture.”
Downer sees that building of texture and detail as vital. “A little bit of phenolic structure can contribute to the age-ability, adding texture and a structural element.” It’s not so much that that structure increases its ability to age, he says, but rather that it makes for a better wine that will invariably present better in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.
“That more taut, focused, mineral style of chardonnay has attributes that contribute to age-ability, but first and foremost, you’ve got to have beautiful fruit to work with,” Downer stresses.
“Depending on when you bottle and release your wine, after the first year, you’re still in that primary fruit stage. After two or three years, all the youthfulness of the fruit is subdued and there is a softening of acidity, and the further that goes, you see it integrate more and more with the fruit. Top quality chardonnay will still be showing that line and length, that persistence of fruit.”
Downer’s personal collection of his own chardonnays as well as those from other growers, stored in his Liebherr wine cabinet.
It’s at this point where Downer believes the real mettle of a top chardonnay is revealed. “You can’t hide anything with a five-year-old – and older – chardonnay. You’ve really got to have that core drive of fruit with embedded acidity. You’re seeing it all come together with time, turning from primary fruit to more complete flavours. And further than that, you start to see tertiary flavours come into the wine.”
Those tertiary flavours – rather than primary (fruit) and secondary (winemaking) – are the product of extended ageing, and may include notes like nuts, honey, hay or wax. While white Burgundy and Chablis are still seen by some as just about the only chardonnays that develops real interest with age, Downer disagrees.
“I recently drank an Adelaide Hills Chardonnay that was so youthful and fresh, and that came from 2006, which was an excellent vintage in the Hills. When you get all the stars aligning, you see everything come together, balanced and still holding fruit, with that length of fruit so important through the palate.”
“Top Australian chardonnay” says Downer, pausing “…and that’s the key if you want to be going over 10 years, you should be putting away the top chardonnays and keeping them in ideal cellaring conditions, and especially those under screwcap, which retains everything so beautifully.”
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