Chardonnay a perennial favourite. But beware the unoaked versions

Twenty years ago Australia’s chardonnay plantings were too small to be noted in official statistics.

In 1988 we harvested 21,800 (1.5 million dozen bottles) tonnes of chardonnay — just one eighth of 1998’s record 173,000 tonnes (12.1 million cases).

1988’s chardonnay harvest accounted for just five per cent of Australia’s wine grape production; 1998’s represented eighteen per cent of the total harvest and half of premium white production.

Even in 1988 people spoke – as some do today – of chardonnay going out of fashion. But for all the talk, the flow of chardonnay continues to increase – suggesting that as long as people drink dry white wine, chardonnay might remain number one.

Clearly, consumers prefer it to riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc, the other leaders in Australia’s white-wine popularity stakes. Perhaps the reason for chardonnay’s sustained success lies not just in an inherently pleasant flavour, but also in its tremendous versatility and, ironically, that at the cheaper end of the scale it makes pleasant whites that don’t make the mistake of having too much flavour.

(You only have to taste beer to see what I mean by that last remark. Modern, mass-produced lagers appear to be ‘de-brewed’ – literally stripped of any distinctive malty or hop aromas and flavours in order to please the widest range of palates and offend none).

If the very cheapest chardonnays tend to blandness it’s not such a bad thing. At least they’re clean, fresh, very, very cheap and don’t have the distinctive flavours of sauvignon blanc, semillon and riesling that turn some drinkers off.

A short step up from commodity chardonnay we find distinctly more colourful beasts like Lindemans Bin 65 and Rosemount Diamond Label. These globally loved whites were decades in the developing.

Besides showing good varietal flavour from a continuously evolving range of vineyards, each benefits in its own way from considerable wine-maker added aromas and flavours. Philip John at Lindemans Karadoc winery and Philip Shaw at Rosemount’s Denman winery between them know (or invented) every chardonnay trick in the book.

Unoaked chardonnays have been with us a long time, although the proliferation of brands and popularity with marketers is a relatively new phenomenon. The first brand to make a virtue of not having contact with oak, as far as I can recall, was a 1977 Saxonvale Chardonnay, released alongside its oak-matured cellarmate.

My impression of the new-age unoaked chardonnays is that they were a reaction to the worst of the over-oaked chardonnays of the 1980s. This was a period of learning by wine makers and, not surprisingly, many wines tasted more of resin and fresh timber than they did of the grape.

However, the unoaked craze is well and truly sprinting, even if the majority of the runners, to my palate, come close to water. My advice is to approach with caution. Region of origin, wine maker reputation, vintage and price should all be watched. Above all, since these wines come to the market without expensive oak maturation, they should be offered at a discount not a premium.

These three, tasted recently, appealed to my palate, offering various expressions of rich, clean, crisp varietal flavour: Antipodean Eden Valley Unwooded Chardonnay 1997, Goundrey Unwooded Chardonnay 1998, and, at the budget end of the market, the new Lindemans Cawarra Chardonnay 1998 (predominantly from the old Seppelt Barooga vineyard on the Murray River in New South Wales).

Unoaked’ is not the only adjective to excite chardonnay marketers. It’s been joined recently by a ‘gentle press’ product, Sarantos, from Kingston Estates (referring to the common practice of using only the finest cut of juice in making some premium products) and ‘malo’ unwooded chardonnay from the old master, Brian McGuigan.

Malo’ refers to the also common practice amongst chardonnay makers of reducing malic acid by inducing a secondary fermentation and converting malic acid to lactic acid. The result is a softer wine with, quite often, a distinctive ‘butterscotch’ aroma and flavour derived from the malo-lactic ferment. McGuigan’s wine certainly has buckets of this character, although I was hard pressed to spot any chardonnay flavour.

This merely highlights the fact that chardonnay is perhaps the most highly-manipulated of any grape variety. It’s flavours mix and match readily with a number of wine-maker inputs and this only adds to the diversity created by nature. More on this next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998
First published 13 September 1998 in the Canberra Times