Langton’s Classification: Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay one of the few white elites

Whoever it was who called white wine foreplay, must’ve had a Langton’s Fine Wine Investment Guide at hand. As if to confirm that white wines are fun, but lead to something more satisfying, Langton’s classification cites just seventeen whites amongst our sixty-three highest priced, most frequently traded Australian wines in auctions.

In what Langton’s call the ‘Outstanding A’ category, a holy trinity of reds (Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace and Mount Mary Quintets) perches on the very pointy part of the high-price pyramid.

Not a white in sight! Not even the $150-a-bottle Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay gets a guernsey. It can’t get in for ten years under club rules that favour long-term performance over one-night stands.

On the next level down, in the ‘Outstanding’ category three whites – all Chardonnays – stand beside nine reds. Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River, Piccadilly Valley and Tyrrells Vat 47 Hunter, all have pedigrees stretching back into the seventies – about the time the chardonnay phenomenon started in Australia.

Tyrrells Vat 47, the oldest of the three, kicked off (from memory) in 1971, gradually carving a reputation for itself. Only in the last three years has the cellar-door price broached first the twenty dollars a bottle a mark and then thirty dollars – still quite modest in comparison with Leeuwin’s seventy dollars, or the one to two hundred dollars a French white Burgundy fetches

Vat 47 looked good in the seventies, put on weight in the eighties as Californian wine-making styles influenced the Tyrrells, then trimmed down again from 1987 before settling into the stunning quality we’ve seen in the nineties.

While the eighties vintages appear to be fading, some of the seventies Vat 47s power on, as Bruce Tyrrell demonstrated at Len Evans’ house after the recent Hunter Valley wine show.

Asked for a good old white Burgundy (the French region famed for its chardonnay) for the occasion, Bruce showed up with a 1973 Vat 47. Evans demurred at serving it masked alongside a bottle of 1982 Corton Charlemagne (one of the very greatest French chardonnay vineyards). Bruce insisted. Evans poured.

Well, it was an experienced wine group gathered. And they decided that the two chardonnays served in unmarked glasses were, in fact, very fine examples of Corton Charlemagne.

I guess we might call that another blow for French mystique and reason to question our views on Australian chardonnay – not just on how well it ages but on current wine-making practices that might influence ageing potential.

Bruce Tyrrell says he was greatly influenced by a tasting of all the Vat 47s in 1992. The less manipulated 1970s wines were ageing gracefully, while the fatter 1980s simply grew fatter. “I could’ve switched the wines around and no one would’ve noticed”, recalls Bruce referring to the deceptive youthfulness of the 1970s wines.

By the time of the tasting, Bruce had already altered wine-making practice, having totally eliminated malo-lactic fermentation from the 1988 vintage onwards. Malo-lactic fermentation reduces totally acidity in a wine and converts malic acid to soft lactic acid.

The process can give a soft, creamy texture to chardonnay. But it also introduces an aroma and flavour resembling butterscotch – quite a strong characteristic in many   of our better quality chardonnays.

Tyrrell’s view is that in the Hunter’s warm climate, Chardonnay grapes develop ample, ripe flavours and that acid levels, if anything, tend to be too low, not too high. In contrast, cooler areas experience higher grape-acid levels and produce wines that often benefit from the mid-palate boost given by malo-lactic fermentation.

Since abandoning malo-lactic fermentation, Tyrrells see greater freshness in Vat 47 Chardonnay and has great confidence in the cellaring capacity of recent vintages. Only time will tell, of course. (Chateau Shanahan’s experience supports the Tyrrell view).

Of course plenty of other factors influence how chardonnay ages: age of vines, vineyard management, climate, soil, clone of vine, timing of harvest, crushing and juice handling techniques, fermentation temperature, type of oak and maturation regime are vitally important.

But, just as an intrusive oak character marred some chardonnays of the eighties, excessive malo-lactic character (a cloying butterscotch aroma and flavour) spoils my pleasure of some of today’s generally much better wines.

In some ways this is a quibble on a quite a valid wine-maker technique to reduce acidity and increase flavour. But I do wonder if, when it’s overdone, it reduces the ageing capacity of some wines. Could this be the next area for fine-tuning by our chardonnay makers now that oak usage is pretty well under control?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998
First published 20 September 1998 in the Canberra Times

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