While chardonnay got a bad rap for some time – and it still does in some circles – chardonnay never took much notice, with it still comfortably topping the charts for white varieties grown in this country. That supremacy was no doubt enhanced by makers moving away from the big and buttery styles, introducing more elegance and refinement and comfortably positioning the best wines on the world stage as worthy foils to the great whites of France’s Burgundy, and arguably the best of the New World. The swing away from big and buttery went considerably in the other direction, often too far, but today’s makers are as intent on flavour as they are elegance, with no single recipe for success, but rather a site-specific approach that is seeing the chardonnay landscape becoming an increasingly exciting one.
Chardonnay only really started to catch on in this country in the late 1970s and ’80s, but catch on it certainly did. It has weathered the storm of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) brigade, and it has risen over stylistic missteps to comfortably dominate white production. Chardonnay accounts for about 45 per cent of vineyard land planted to white grapes, lapping its nearest rival, sauvignon blanc, a few times with a mere 12.6 per cent. It’s quite the gulf.
“Chardonnay is one of my favourite wines to drink, and there is such a large scope of wines to choose from in Australia,” says Mulline’s Ben Mullen. “As we see vineyards get older and with a finer touch on the wines, we are seeing some great examples from the key chardonnay producing regions. It is world class, and there is a style for everyone. I am finding consumers are educating themselves in what they are looking for in terms of style, whether that be the bigger richer styles or the finer, fresh and textural styles. It’s an exciting time for chardonnay in Australia.”
Mullen makes wine from the Geelong region, which is an expansive area that ranges across different soils and geologies, with the climate stretching from maritime to distinctly continental, with warmer days and cool nights.
“The two different chardonnay cuvees I make are the Portarlington from the Bellarine Peninsula and the Sutherlands Creek from the Moorabool Valley,” says Mullen. “Both are very different in climate and soil types. The Portarlington site is maritime in climate, being situated 200 metres from Corio Bay and on clay loam base with ironstone. Lots of oyster shell, sea spray and good acid retention. Sutherlands Creek is on Limestone and silt soils situated 20 minutes inland from Geelong and more continental in climate. More stone fruits and minerality.”
While there is little doubt that Australia is well-equipped with winemakers that know how to make high-quality chardonnay, it is this reflection of site, of identifiably individual character that is a critical element in many of the best wines. While larger companies have traditionally made top-flight flagship chardonnays that are a blend of sites and often regions, the pursuit of a truly special singular site expression remains the holy grail for any chardonnay specialist.
Marco Lubiana grew up on his family’s Derwent Valley vineyard, and now makes wine both from there and a site in the Huon Valley that they bought a few years ago and have since converted to biodynamics. For Lubiana, the expression of place is a critical one, with his approach vineyard focused with an uncluttered methodology in the winery.
“I’m just trying to make it better every year by growing the best fruit,” Lubiana says. “Chardonnay winemaking is very simple for me: don’t over oak it and don’t rush it is my mantra. I am looking for concentration and fineness, which means I need low yields on good terroir with good acidity, the rest just works itself out as long as it is picked at the right time.”
Lubiana also notes that the cool conditions mean the fruit can hang for longer, building flavour and concentration without loss of freshness and tension. “Tassie chardonnay is a different kettle of fish,” he says. “We have very good natural acidity that allows for full malolactic fermentation. This gives smoothness to the wine but without losing the backbone acid line. The palate is more linear, which gives the wines length and freshness.”
Naturally, Tasmania is a large region with many sub-regional nuances, but the generality holds true. “The Huon has less sunshine, and it is often cloudy, which produces fruit with more floral and citrus notes rather than ripe stone fruits associated with the Derwent valley, due to more sunshine,” says Lubiana. “The chardonnay market has been dominated by the other bigger regions for such a long time, but Tassie has that unique elegance that other areas don’t have.”
Liv Maiorana and Mijan Patterson’s South by South West is based in Margaret River, one of Australia’s internationally recognised chardonnay hot spots. “Chardonnay is Queen in Margies, and we figure you need to respect the Queen!” declares Maiorana. “There is stylistically so much that you can do with chardonnay. You can take it so many places, or you can pull it back and focus on the delicate aromatics, intense fruit concentrations or minerality. Plus, its ability to cellar and develop secondary characters, complexities and tertiary aromas…. For me, it is all of this that makes it rightly the queen of the whites.”
Maiorana and Patterson make a raft of progressive and alternative styles from a range of varieties, but the scope afforded by chardonnay sees them play in a fairly classic zone. “There are so many choices that can be made along the way,” Maiorana says. “There is choice of clone, choice of subregion and soil profile, harvest timing and technique, whole bunch press vs destemmed, natural or cultured fermentation, solids management and lees work… to malo or not to malo… while then driving down to maturation vessels, sizes, age, cooperages and maturation time.”
It’s a complex web, and one that the pair clearly revel in, placing key importance on both a focused acid line and texture built through barrel fermentation and time on lees. There’s no doubt that Margaret River chardonnay comes with consumer expectations, and while much of Maiorana and Patterson’s processes are fundamentally very traditional, they are still very much forging their own path. That’s a route that Phoebe Grant from Nature of the Beast is similarly intent on.
In 2020, Grant made her first chardonnay from the old Cope-Williams Vineyard in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. And while there is less regional expectation than Margaret River, Grant comes from a winemaking family, who own and operate Beechworth’s Traviarti. “I have felt no weight coming from a winemaking family, maybe people have preconceived ideas of what I’m doing and what my wines should be like, but I’m doing my own thing,” she says.
“My chardonnay was fermented and aged on full solids in old oak for roughly 12 months, with no malo. I’m not super interested in malo-driven, rich, new oak styles of chardonnay, especially when dealing with such beautifully delicate fruit from Macedon. My point of interest is creating something savoury and textural, while still expressing site.”
That use of malolactic fermentation is very much a personal and site-specific thing, where Grant feels it intrudes with Macedon fruit, Lubiana believes it adds complexity to the fruit he farms, adding texture without sacrificing acidity or site expression. In Geelong, like Grant, Mullen eschews malolactic. “Pressing the fruit a little harder to gain some phenolic grip and fermentation in oak on full solids is part of building weight and texture,” he says. “I’m trying to showcase sub-regionality and site through the wines, and I find if they get worked too much during the winemaking we start to lose where they come from.”
In the Adelaide Hills, James Ellis of Ada Wine Co. tells a similar story to Mullen. “I think sometimes site gets lost particularly with oak in its infancy,” he says. “In the winery I tend to not be afraid of oxygen early on. I think oxygen can provide a really nice vehicle to elevate the natural texture in chardonnay without exacerbating the harsh phenolics that can sometimes come with a naturally phenolic variety like chardonnay. But too much oxygen during ageing can also cloud site, so it’s a fine line.”
A wealth of choice
These different approaches tailored to both style preferences and suitability to region and site make for a wealth of consumer choice, notes Grant. “I think it’s a really exciting time to be a winemaker in Australia, and especially one who works with chardonnay, because the market is open to diversity within a variety. There is no formula for what a good or classic chardonnay is, because the market covers all ends of the spectrum.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Ellis. “I think chardonnay is being defined in a lot of different ways here in Australia. There are definitely some great examples that have been around for a long time and some that continue to emerge with each new vintage that passes.”
And while there are still prejudices towards chardonnay based on its sometimes-chequered history in this country, that baggage is certainly not weighing down our most progressive makers. “I also work in hospitality,” Grant says, “and I was once confronted with a young customer saying they will drink ‘anything but chardonnay, because chardonnay is for old people’. Unreal. If loving chardonnay makes me old, sign me up!”
2021 Tillie J Chardonnay
Yarra Valley, 13% ABV, $42
There’s plenty of flavour here, though it sits at a pretty elegant weight, but there are pops of gentle winemaking upholstering the cool Yarra fruit. Yellow and white stone fruit, peach kernel, lemon curd, nougat, and a hint of green almond and caramel. The palate sits midweight, but there’s a slip to the texture, a gentle viscosity up front that is tightened by calm but insistent acidity and a gently pleasing grip.
2020 Site Wine ‘Duke’ Chardonnay
Mornington Peninsula, 12.5% ABV, $50
This sits golden in the glass, and the flavours are intense but savoury, with notes of beeswax, warm hay and sea spray overlaying cool stone fruit and yellow citrus. Those flavours crash onto the palate, with a finely tuned feel through the mouth, a coolness to the fruit and structure, but with waxy and nutty notes complementing a gentle chew to the structure along with bright acidity, leaving a distinctly savoury impression.
2020 South by South West Chardonnay
Margaret River, 13.5% ABV, $40
There’s ample flavour and power here, with notes of yellow peach, crystallised pineapple and white nectarine, with winemaking notes adding a little caramel and a gently creamy texture. But equally there’s restraint, with oak a background player and the acidity zippy and linear. It’s a flavourful style of line and finesse.
2021 Ada Wine Co. ‘The Rift’ Chardonnay
Adelaide Hills, 13.1% ABV, $38
A savoury nose, hints of beeswax, dried apple and stone fruit kernel, with a nutty, saline edge, hints of honey, chamomile and bright citrus lifts. There’s a savouriness that carries to the palate, with a gently chewy texture giving this a moreish food-friendly quality, sitting fresh, vibrant but with an intriguing savoury tussle of grip and acid adding plenty of intrigue.
2020 Marco Lubiana ‘Lucille Vineyard’ Chardonnay
Huon Valley, 13% ABV, $50
Bright and lifted, this is breezily complex, with notes of white stone fruit, lemon pith, sea spray, nougat, crystallised citrus peel and mineral notes. There’s depth and chardonnay luxuriousness, but there’s also real poise and verve. That theme continues on the palate, with gentle texture and subtle grip carrying flavours of lemon curd, cool stone fruit and struck flint.
Lifted notes of white and yellow nectarine, stone fruit kernel, apple blossom and citrus stretch out on a finely tuned and cool-fruited nose with an elegant and refined demeanour, savoury, nutty, detailed but not flashy. There’s plenty of nuance and character here, but it’s finely wrought, sculpted in rock, in minerals, fine and zippy, with a saline sea spray brightness, a fine grip knitting with citric acidity through a long and pleasingly drying finish.
2020 Nature of the Beast Chardonnay
Macedon, 12.8% ABV, $45
There’s plenty of flavour here in a complex, savoury way, with nutty and waxy notes overlaid on stone fruit kernel, dried citrus peel, struck flint, salted caramel and nougat. That theme continues on the palate with a neat meshing of savoury notes and subdued fruit, cool nectarine notes chiming in, ripe but driving acid sculpting a refined and direct palate, with a saline nuttiness adding ample complexity, a chalky, chewy finish rounding out a very sapid finish.
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