November 8, 2012 8:50 pm

Chardonnay: Australia answers back

Sometimes it seems the world of wine is riddled with more lazy stereotyping than any other: German wine is always sweet, rosé is for girlies, all wines improve with age, and so on.

Perhaps one of the biggest lies is that all Australian Chardonnay is overripe, overoaked and over here.

It is true Australia was almost single-handedly responsible for the Chardonnay revolution in the 1990s, when we discovered those marvellous vanilla and butterscotch-scented Chardies filled with the tropical flavour of pineapple. This was a new experience for wine drinkers brought up on much more acidic white wines with far less fruit and flavour.

But our post-millennium drinking has switched wholesale to Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and even such former obscurities as Picpoul de Pinet and Albariño.

What these wines have in common is no oak, fresh flavours and good levels of acidity – the opposite, in fact, of those 1990s Australian Chardonnays steeped in oak (quite literally, as bags of oak chips were often the cheap alternative to barrel ageing), extremely ripe fruit and low acidity. Australian Chardonnay was dead in the water.

Or was it? If there is one thing the Australian wine industry is good at, it is listening to the market. Australian wine, particularly Chardonnay, has changed out of all recognition over the past decade.

The changes have been philosophical for sure, and have led to adjustments in viticulture and winemaking, all aimed at transforming Aussie Chardonnay from the overstuffed pantomime horse it had become, to a sleek thoroughbred. Wine competition judges in Australia have rewarded finesse.

In the vineyard, a simple trick has been to harvest a little earlier: picking grapes when sugar levels are a touch lower and acid levels a smidgen higher.

Changes to canopy management (how the umbrella of foliage shades or exposes the growing bunches of grapes) has been another ploy.

More fundamentally, though, the sites where Chardonnay was planted have been reconsidered. True, large swaths of the grape still grow on undistinguished sites for commodity wine production, but many growers have found elevated sites or ones with a southerly exposure, where sunlight intensity and temperature are lower.

In the winery, avoiding 100 per cent use of oak to ferment and age wines has become the standard, as has reducing the toast of barrels (the amount of charring done by the cooper, which can add those coffeeish tones).

Another trend has been the stopping of some or all of the wine from going through malolactic fermentation. Avoiding “malo” stops the green apple bite of malic acid from being converted to the softer milkiness of lactic acid. This is a natural process in winemaking but can be encouraged or blocked by the winemaker.

Raciness and elegance are the new watchwords for Australia’s quality Chardonnay producers, and they are proving as adept with this style as they were with those 1990s blockbusters.

So what are the hotspots and key winemaking names for the new Chardonnay? The change has been fundamental, so most areas can stake a claim, but Burgundy-style Chardonnays full of verve and energy can be found from many producers.

The Adelaide hills are just 30 minutes from the city, but the altitude produces cooler, damper conditions. Vineyards here to check out include Shaw+Smith, First Drop, Petaluma, Penfolds (especially its reserve Chardonnays such as Bin 10A and Yattarna, although the latter is a cross-regional blend).

In Victoria, look at Kooyong and Ten Minutes by Tractor from the Mornington peninsula; De Bortoli, Coldstream Hills and Giant Steps from the Yarra valley; and cool-climate exemplars such as Giaconda and Bindi from the less well-known Beechworth and Macedon Ranges subregions respectively.

In Western Australia, pioneers such as Cullen and Leeuwin from Margaret River are still going very strong, but watch out for wines from even cooler subregions further south, such as Great Southern (Plantagenet, Marchand & Burch) and Pemberton (Picardy, Houghton).

On the island of Tasmania much of the excellent Chardonnay finds its way into some of Australia’s best sparkling wines, but look out for Ninth Island, Domaine A and Tamar Ridge.

Each of these locations is a relatively chilly outpost where altitude or southerly latitude does the cool-climate trick.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and even at everyday levels Australian Chardonnay has trimmed off the fat to wonderful effect.

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