It’s hard to imagine the Australian wine scene without chardonnay and pinot noir taking pride of place, rubbing shoulders with shiraz, cabernet, riesling et al. But it’s not all that long ago that those most familiar of grapes were far from the limelight. Over the last few decades, and accelerating dramatically over the last two, the quest for finding the best sites for chardonnay and pinot noir – as well as evolving the making to produce even more compelling expressions – has been relentless. The 2021 Young Gun Top 50 features Turon White (Turon Wines), Greer Carland (Quiet Mutiny), Stuart Dudine (Alkimi Wines), Ben Mullen (Mulline) and Will Gilbert (Gilbert) who are all pushing the envelope in defining today’s styles. (Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
“I would rather make wine to the climate and soil rather than fashionable style.”
Chardonnay and pinot noir have asserted themselves over the last few decades to occupy a significant place in the psyche of Australian wine drinkers. Chardonnay has had a particularly stellar boom. It was a fringe variety until the 1970s, with a surge in popularity in the ’80s seeing plantings steadily increase to now account for nearly 45 per cent of all white wine production.
Pinot noir has not quite had the same ascent, but it similarly moved from the shadows to occupy a prime position, with over three times the amount of grenache, for example, now planted. It’s not surprising that pinot lags chardonnay in some respects, with the latter performing well in warmer zones if managed carefully. Pinot noir is not so versatile. Regardless, both are cool climate grapes, with quality wine production largely centred in brisker climes, with Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills, Macedon, Gippsland and Geelong notable regions.
The relatively rapid rise of both varieties has also seen a sharp learning curve, with the greatest heights for both requiring ample experience in the vineyard and winery. That arc has seen the wines made in differing styles, often with a trend of the moment providing a dominant overlay. However, more and more makers are now finding their own way, rather than relying on what is seen as the ‘correct’ path of the day.
Chardonnay has gone from largely rich, ripe and golden wines, full of buttery, creamy barrel ferment notes and peachy fruit to taut, linear offerings more in a green apple and citrus spectrum, with oak well in the background. Today, the dominant paradigm avoids the extremities.
“I feel the beautiful thing about pinot noir and chardonnay is they’re varieties that the winemaker can really play with to achieve something that can be quite unique and interesting. Major thumbprints can be accredited to clonal selection, timing of picking, oak treatment and fermentation decisions.” Says Stuart Dudine of Alkimi Wines, Yarra Valley. “The pendulum has very much swung back towards a less-lean style of chardonnay, which opens the door for more variation and acceptance of this expressive variety, while pinot noir shines a magnifying glass on viticulture and winemaking – creating the perfect pinot has led many of us to become obsessive!”
Pinot noir went through no less dramatic an evolution as chardonnay, with early efforts veering between the overripe and the very herbal, with everything in between. Somewhat of a quiet revolution saw whole berry ferments become more common in the early 21st century, notably championed by a young Bill Downie, while many makers also pulled the ripeness back, making wines paler in hue and firmly in the red-fruit spectrum. Today, like chardonnay, diversity is king.
“I think most people know Tasmania as north, the east or the south. The individual valleys are not well recognised, but I think it just takes time and education. For example, the Huon valley makes very pretty and elegant pinots, whereas the Derwent Valley makes more structured tannin-driven pinots.”
“I would rather make wine to the climate and soil rather than fashionable style,” says Marco Lubiana, who makes chardonnay and pinot noir under his eponymous label from a family vineyard – one of the state’s oldest – in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. “I think the Burgundian style has a strong influence on all winemakers in Australia, showing strongly in the chardonnay styles. As for pinot, 100 per cent whole bunch pinots have been gaining my interest of late. I usually found the wines too herbal and lacking concentration, from vineyards not suitable. Winemakers now understand this, and we’ll see more wines from vineyards that have better terroir and lower yields.”
This vineyard-first approach is critical for Lubiana, who works alongside his father – Steve Lubiana, a giant of Tasmanian winemaking. They farm biodynamically, with their home vineyard in the Derwent Valley certified, while the Lucille Vineyard in the Huon Valley is in conversion.
“Organics or biodynamics are essential for premium wine,” says Lubiana. “If more grape-growers move to organics and stop killing the soils with chemicals, we will see a big shift in quality. Density is interesting, and it’s cool to see some vignerons experimenting with it, but soil type will always trump density. A large mixture and random distribution of clones is also very important, as it brings more complexity to the wine. Another area to consider is vine age. It is often overlooked in pinot noir regions, and Tasmania is just starting to get some really good old vine material, which I find very interesting.”
With chardonnay and pinot noir making up over 70 per cent of production, Tasmania has established a firm identity for its wines. However, sometimes the local detail can be lost, with the entire state one region, and a varied one at that. Tasmania has distinct subregions, but these are not formally acknowledged. It’s a theme that pervades most of Australia’s regions, with the definition of these zones very much up to the makers.
“I think most people know Tasmania as north, the east or the south,” says Lubiana. “The individual valleys are not well recognised, but I think it just takes time and education. For example, the Huon valley makes very pretty and elegant pinots, whereas the Derwent Valley makes more structured tannin-driven pinots.”
“The Moorabool Valley and Bellarine Peninsula are so diverse in the soils and climates, even though we are classified as one region. Our ‘Sutherlands Creek’ wines, from the old limestone soils of the Moorabool Valley, always look totally different to our ‘Portarlington’ cuvees, which sit on sandy loam and volcanic soils.”
While not as generic as the catchall regional classification that is Tasmania, Ben Mullen of Mulline notes that his adopted region is also far from homogenous. “Our focus is to showcase the subregional differences of these varieties in Geelong,” he says. “The Moorabool Valley and Bellarine Peninsula are so diverse in the soils and climates, even though we are classified as one region. Our ‘Sutherlands Creek’ wines, from the old limestone soils of the Moorabool Valley, always look totally different to our ‘Portarlington’ cuvees, which sit on sandy loam and volcanic soils.”
On the other side of Melbourne, Stuart Dudine says that his region is blessed with a head start. “The Yarra has a large group of talented leaders who’ve been here for decades,” he says. “These innovators have identified many sites and shown just how special they can be. The best example in a broad sense is the distinct identification of Upper Yarra versus Lower Yarra. But we are really drilling that down, and as more time passes, the ability to talk about pedigree of site will only become stronger.”
That quest to further define the Yarra Valley’s subregions – outside of the generality of the Upper Yarra being typically cooler and the Lower Yarra generally warmer – has been pursued deeply by makers like Mac Forbes, Giant Steps’ Steve Flamsteed and De Bortoli’s Steve Webber who work across townships to tease out distinctly different expression of soil and climate, framing the diversity of the region and building consumer recognition along the way.
In the Adelaide Hills, Turon White notes that the young region already has two legally defined subregions: Lenswood and the Piccadilly Valley. “Both are cool and high but have distinctly different soils,” he says. “Lenswood with brown clay over a shale and gravel base, and Piccadilly with light brown clay over sandstone bedrock. I make pinot noir from both, and I see the Lenswood wines with dark red fruits, gamey meats, chewy tannins and tension, while Piccadilly offers huge amounts of candied red fruits, ethereal perfume and a very fine and dusty tannin structure.”
White refers to chardonnay as “the golden child variety” of the Hills, with high-quality wines of great diversity made in the recognised subregions, as well as in those not formally acknowledged. “Pinot noir has often been a hit and miss endeavour, with some excellent wines from a select few,” he says. “So, it is very exciting to see the large number of people taking this grape seriously – planting better vineyards, with better clones, in better sites and wineries making it with a gentler hand.”
And while the differences between the established subregions are clear, White stresses that there is still much to be revealed. “While these sites may have been recognised years ago, there is a huge amount of refinement still to be done,” he says. “When you look at the people that are really excelling with these varieties, usually the common factor is a vineyard where no corners are cut, quality is all.”
“Lenswood with brown clay over a shale and gravel base, and Piccadilly with light brown clay over sandstone bedrock. I make pinot noir from both, and I see the Lenswood wines with dark red fruits, gamey meats, chewy tannins and tension, while Piccadilly offers huge amounts of candied red fruits, ethereal perfume and a very fine and dusty tannin structure.”
In that spirit, White recently planted his home site to chardonnay and pinot noir, “to have total control in growing the best fruit possible”. That site is at a lofty 470–500 metres in Lenswood, with the rows oriented to catch more filtered rather than direct sunlight, while the planting density is up from the regional average of 1,800 to 5,550 vines per hectare.
Like many growers across the country, White has also opted for broad clonal diversity, focusing on “heritage later ripening” material, which he says is suited to their site. “These can almost look like different varieties next to each other and will produce very different wines from the exact same block – which is part of what makes these varieties so cool to work with.”
That clonal mix is something Mullen also believes is critical. “We are really starting to see the benefits of different clones and sites within Geelong,” he says, “especially as the vines get older and really showcase the sites. I have also seen some new clones planted, and they have shown some really great promise from their first and second crops, which as blending components have really elevated the wines.”
It’s fair to say that chardonnay and pinot noir are in a very good place right now, with an increasing focus on vineyards and farming driving the wines to ever-greater heights, while winemaking is less trend and recipe driven, with makers adapting methods to the uniqueness of their sites.
“With so many talented producers experimenting, we’re well on the way to raising the bar even further, developing and refining what are already high-quality wines,” says Dudine. “We can see the positive results already from new plantings that have come online and vineyards that challenge conventional farming by encouraging biodiversity and ecology. We are looking for the one-percenters now, leaving no stone unturned in the vineyard and winery – every management technique, philosophy and style is on the table now to be picked apart and put back together.”
There’s a complex play of white nectarine and peach, yellow grapefruit and lemon on the nose, with very subtle matchstick notes and a chalkiness. Those grapefruit and lemon notes carry to the palate, with an attendant zip of acidity against that chalkiness giving it a textural chew. There’s plenty of racy drive, but it’s paired alongside carefully built mouthfeel, with an unfiltered, leesy, phenolic feel giving this real character and textural interest.
A gleaming green-gold, this lifts from the glass with a combination of white stone fruit and racy lemony notes, with a seasoning of nougat and oat barrel-ferment character. There’s a really driving quality to the acidity here, which is keenly aligned with the lemon-scented flavours, with flashes of nutty stone fruit kernel adding savoury complexity. Ample fruit presence is allied with an insistent driving quality, gently commanding but with exuberant and persistent freshness.
There’s a bit of power here, with dark plum and inky forest berries meshing with earth and dark mineral notes intermingled with a gentle suggestion of oak. This wine of Huon Valley has drive and depth, but the mineral/earthy dimension adds plenty of contrast. Tannins run super fine and long, with the mineral notes carrying long on the finish.
This starts out super taut, but relaxes with a bit of time and air, unfurling layers of fruit, with white nectarine and peach, yellow grapefruit and a kiss of red apple skin. There’s neat integration of oak, which guides the fruit, rather than intruding or overriding, with a faintly toasty char to it. There’s an elegant drive to this, with gentle textural flex wrapped around the fine line of driving acidity.
This is lightly coloured, but with a serious lift of fragrantly red-fruited notes of dried cherries, redcurrants, cranberry and wild raspberry, accented with smoky herbal notes and a firm minerality. It’s a wine that has a fine cool line of fruit and a savoury overlay, but there’s also a defiantly bright side, with the fruit lifting from the glass in a bell-clear way. The palate is lightly weighted but with plenty of flavour with prominent but finely focused tannins.
From the Coal River Valley, this is darkly coloured and deeply flavoured, with brooding notes of wild berries, damson plums, black cherries and graphite. This is richly supple in a very balanced way, with its intensity cloaking a real core of tannin that gives this commanding drive, depth and line. It’s a wine of power and silky depth but also with a serious level of structure.
From the Piccadilly Valley in the Adelaide Hills, this is expressly bright, vibrant and fine with white nectarine and lemon pith notes, gently accented with a dusting of oak. That vibrancy kicks through the palate, with an overwhelmingly elegant feel, but with no lack of flavour, the winemaking inputs very lightly applied, acidity punchy but never robbing from the gentle texture and finely tuned flavours.
From Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills, this has a lift of gently spicy whole bunch notes, struck match, cherry-scented fruits, dried cranberry and spiced plum. This is savoury, taut and structured, with tightly wound tannin, but it’s got a vibrant grape-derived quality, rather than being from oak, which gives this real life and line, with fresh acidity backing it up. A wine full of flavour but savoury with it.
Starting out is not always easy for a new wine project, with some makers taking years before taking the solo leap, while others tumble in headfirst with limited experience but a firm vision and a whole lot of chutzpah. Amongst the new labels in the YGOW Awards 2021 Top 50, Château Comme Ci, Comme Ça, Worlds Apart Wines, Sven Joschke, Tillie J and Cavedon. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
After a series of false starts dating back to the early 1900s, viticulture on Kangaroo Island has grown steadily since 1985, though there has not, as yet, been anything like a boom. This year’s Top 50 features Nick Dugmore of The Stoke.