Chardonnay is a grape that can make some of the world’s humblest and also most dizzyingly rare and expensive wines. From its home in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, where Grand Cru bottlings can fetch thousands of dollars on release, to row upon row of chardonnay grown in the irrigated strips that flank the Murray River to make bottled (or bag-in-the-boxed) sunshine, it is a grape that snares the attention of connoisseurs and casual wine drinkers alike. In this country, there is no other white grape that produces an array of pinnacle, highly priced wine and everyday wine, with everything in between.
“I love the way chardonnay varies from site to site, and the way winemakers can coax it towards various iterations,” says winemaker Alan Varney of Varney Wines. “Any grape that stars in Champagne through to white Burgundy must be magic! I’ve seen clean as a whistle acid-driven beauties sit alongside chunky butterballs, and they both have their time and place to shine.”
Much maligned but undaunted
The ebbing fortunes of Australian chardonnay are part of our wine folklore. Or rather, the stylistic rollercoaster of trending styles is intimately documented, while the grape’s actual fortunes in terms of popularity remained ever ascendent, oblivious to the critical barbs thrown its way.
“I usually pick three or four parcels over a two week period to give me some early material with high acid, the bulk at the ‘spot on’ perfectly ripe stage, then a cheeky little parcel with a touch more guilty but oh-so-enjoyable riper flavours to round out the final blend.”
That many drinkers were eventually put off by the grape’s richer expressions of the ’80s and ’90s – with ripe peach and melon piled onto slabs of vanillin oak and drizzled in butter – is not in doubt. Nor that just as many drinkers rued the passing of the old opulent days when chardonnay all of a sudden got tense and a tad severe – a couple of decades back – reluctantly giving up fruit flavour before being arrested by searing acidity.
Regardless, chardonnay marched on, and that is just as true today.
In 2022, chardonnay accounted for 46% of all white wine grapes harvested in Australia, nearly four times the quantity of its nearest rival, sauvignon blanc. That’s quite a lead on the competition, and even though yields were down across all the top ten white varieties in 2022 (except for gewürztraminer – go figure!), it was down by the lowest percentage. In other words, it is still very much a powerhouse.
A winemaker’s wine
People like chardonnay. And winemakers like making it, too. Also, it’s much more tolerant of warmer and colder conditions than say its typical vineyard companion, pinot noir, so it is not surprising that plantings proliferate. While winemakers are prone to say that wine is made in the vineyard, chardonnay is also ideal for being upholstered with character from winemaking techniques, with the art all about enhancing without distracting. The results, when well handled, tip the hat to place and maker in near-equal measure.
For Varney, he’s never employed new oak, but with his production hopefully growing from ten barrels to a dozen or a little more, a new barrel will both be a subtle enough inclusion and also help refresh the oak program. “Currently, I don’t have enough money for new oak, and my production is so small that the addition of one new barrel would result in a wine too oaky for the wine I aspire to make,” he says.
Typically, oak inclusion can build complexity by using different types of barrels – sizes, forests, toast levels, coopers, ages – but without a critical mass, the choices are limited. That doesn’t stop building flavour detail and texture in other ways, though.
“The last couple of years I have been playing with some very small parcels that I put through whole bunch carbonic maceration followed by foot-treading and a brief stint of skin contact,” details Varney. “I’m aiming to enhance the texture of the wines while still maintaining fruit purity. 2022 was the first year I incorporated some of this into the final blend, and I love the added aromatics and slight suggestion of grip it lends to the palate.”
Tillie Johnston, who makes wine in Victoria’s Yarra Valley says balance of nature and nurture is vital for her – the fruit and site “set the tone”, but she’s keen to avoid wines without additional nuance, however subtle. “We have so many tricks up our sleeve to craft an amazing chardonnay,” she says. “Lees and lees work, secondary fermentation, fermentation vessels and oak selection are just a few embellishments that can add flesh to structural bones. A great chardonnay has it all – it’s neither too light and insipid or too generous or syrupy and cloying.”
Based in McLaren Vale, Varney makes chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, which has emerged as one of the country’s premier locations for the grape. “What I love about Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, and the Adelaide Hills in general, is the many different approaches winemakers are taking,” he says. “It is a large area geographically with lots of little subregions providing varied elevations and aspects.”
Varney sources from just outside Echunga from a relatively high altitude vineyard, as well as one in Macclesfield that has four close-planted Burgundy clones and a large diurnal temperature shift. “I usually pick three or four parcels over a two week period to give me some early material with high acid, the bulk at the ‘spot on’ perfectly ripe stage, then a cheeky little parcel with a touch more guilty but oh-so-enjoyable riper flavours to round out the final blend.”
That’s a fair web of diversity, with those parcels fermented separately and assembled before bottling after trialling blends to find the most compelling whole. The variation in site and winemaking methods are important, but miss the picking window(s) and all that site selection and technique will come up short, says Turon White of Turon Wines.
“Following the flavour development and picking on the ideal date sets up the whole wine and captures the spectrum of flavours the wine expresses,” he says. “It’s amazing the difference a couple of days will make in the flavour profile of a wine. In the winery, I like to let these flavours drive my decision making to make sure the wine is balanced, pure and wrapped with as much texture as possible.”
White also makes wine from the Adelaide Hills, where his winery and young close-planted pinot noir vineyard are situated. Like Varney, he takes fruits from a mix of sites. “Classically I find Lenswood and Piccadilly fruit provide a rigid backbone of acid,” says White, “For Lenswood, that’s surrounded by pithy lemon, green apple, white flower, pear and white peach, while Piccadilly generally offers richer examples with generous white to yellow peach, orange blossom, cashew and creamy texture.”
The Yarra Valley doesn’t have the official subregions that the Adelaide Hills has (Lenswood and Piccadilly), but is generally divided into the Upper and Lower Yarra. “The Yarra is characterised by beautiful purity, poised acidity and unmistakable citrus notes,” notes Johnston. “Ripe, juicy lemonade, citrus curd and saline preserved lemon on the valley floor, where the wines receive a little more sunlight and overall warmth… The upper reaches are known for their pithy notes, grapefruit rind and seamless elegance.”
In Tasmania, Luke Andree of Sonnen believes that chardonnay is ideally suited to the catch-all region, pairing with riesling as being the preeminent white grapes that can make truly world class wines. “We have long ripening seasons so that the grapes are hanging out into autumn developing flavour but not being cooked by the harsh summer sun. This allows the fruit to develop complexity and a spectrum of flavours, as well as a ripeness of the skins and phenolics that many other regions of not just Australia but also the world just can’t.”
Those conditions both elevate the quality potential of what is a versatile grape and set it up for many applications. “Tasmania shows them all,” he says. “From Champagne method blanc de blancs to table wines of a range of styles, the top quality ones are all linked by a fruit and acid balance that makes them highly enjoyable to drink.”
Cutting edge classic
Raquel Jones has a meaningful focus on Iberian varieties for her Beechworth label, Weathercraft. However, she’s just as focused on the regional classics that were planted in the established vineyard when she and her husband bought it in 2014. “In my view, the benchmark for chardonnay in Australia would have to be Giaconda,” says Jones.
Chardonnay finds its way into an amphora-raised blend with albariño but she’s also wedded to representing variety and place in a more traditional way. “My preference is for the more textural chardonnays, where elements such as acid, alcohol and oak are more balanced, and no character overpowers. That’s what makes Beechworth chardonnay so special. For me, chardonnay is one of those grape varieties that really expresses the place it is grown, how it is grown and ultimately, what you do, or do not do in the winery.”
That focus on tradition while till pushing boundaries is something that Andree echoes. “I like to try and live on the edge with the wines I make and drink, but the truth is, when it comes to some things, I’m a bit of a purist at heart,” he says. “Chardonnay is one of those things. I’m surrounded by so many different and great examples, so it’s probably the wine that I’m trying to live up to the most.”
It’s here to stay
While the chardonnay pendulum has famously swung to extremes, there’s little doubt that we’re in one of the most exciting phases for the grape in this country. With premier regions now established with certainty, makers are focused on the intricacies of specific sites and the fine-tuning of their making to elevate, accent and enhance. For long-term chardonnay afficionados, that’s no surprise, as the best expressions of the grape always shrugged off the dictates of fashion.
“Chardonnay has long been the king of white grapes for a reason,” says White. “Few other varieties can touch the nuance, complexity and sheer joy this wine can provide. There are few white varieties that offer the refreshing aspects and pure drinkability of a white with the complexity, texture and depth that a red can provide. With chardonnay, you can really have your cake and eat it too.”
Although not tagged obviously on the label, this is all chardonnay, and it’s on the bright end of things. Notes of green and golden apples, cool white peach, custard apple and the subtle smokiness of fig leaf lead the way. This feels like it’s spent time in barrel, but oak flavours are absent. The fruit intensity and a gentle softening of texture and flavour are key, while the acidity provides a neat whip-crack of vividness through the finish.
There’s real zip and drive here, with yellow-skinned citrus fruits to the fore overlaying coolly ripe white nectarine and hint of mandarin and crystallised lemon peel. The palate follows suit, with a crisp freshness upholstered with well-judged texture, adding flesh to the structural bones, a succulent line of acidity closing out.
There’s the classic regional intensity here but also a charming level of finesse. White nectarine, yellow-skinned citrus and cool peach notes are accented by pops of nougat, praline and lemon curd across a refined play of fruit and concentration. The palate has a richness of texture and depth, but it’s held subtly across a vibrantly bright frame, with real drive allied with intensity.
2021 Varney Wines Chardonnay
Adelaide Hills, 12.8%, $35
There’s a sleek coolness to this, from the white stone fruit and citrus flavour palate through to the refreshingly brisk line of acidity that everything is hung off, but there are all the trappings of a seriously complex chardonnay, too. That comes in the form of a seasoning of quality but older oak, adding gentle spice notes and a savoury dimension, while some oatmeal and praline add more complexity. A slip of texture precedes the unfurling of that acidity, which is electric but never tart, invigorating rather than aggressive.
There’s a lot going on here, with an intense nose of white nectarine, grapefruit and peach skin, but then there’s a big but entirely complementary winemaking component, with crystallised citrus peel, smoky struck match notes, roasted nuts, praline and candied ginger. The palate continues that theme, with stone fruit accented by a generously appealing influence of oak, lees and refined detail, a ripe but refreshing architecture of acidity holding the line through the finish.
2022 Tillie J Chardonnay
Yarra Valley, 12.5%, $45 RRP
Aromas of lemon curd, stone fruit kernel, cinnamon, cut pear and almond meal notes feature on the nose, with a backdrop of cool nectarine and peach. This is lightly poised on the palate, energetically fresh but layered with subtle winemaking cues, with succulent acidity and a gentle pithy chew providing structure.
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