Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay: ahead of its time, still a leader

Champions, whether they be wines or sportspersons, don’t just happen; nor do they suddenly disappear. When 17 year old Boris Becker blasted his way through Wimbledon it was hardly his first outing with a racket. Equally, he didn’t win every competition thereafter. But he was always in the running and seldom far from the top.

Like Becker at Wimbledon, Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay blasted its way onto the Australian wine scene in the early 1970s. Unlike Becker, it faced very little competition as the chardonnay grape was barely planted in Australia at the time.

But like a true champion, Vat 47 grew in quality and stature to match anything arriving on the scene in the following twenty years. Today it is one of the few chardonnays on the auction scene consistently fetching more than its release. And its perception in auctions is matched in wine shows.

At the prestigious Sydney Show, for instance Vat 47 consecutive vintages (1994 and 1995) have each won two of the most important trophies: the Bert Bear Trophy as best young white and the Albert Chan Memorial Trophy as best white of the show.

At the NSW Wine Press Club lunch held after presentation of awards just after the 1995 won those trophies, Chairman of Judges Len Evans praised Tyrrells “for making Vat 47 as well as they can and having the guts to put it in the show.” Evans made the point that having won a reputation it’s all too easy to step away from the Wine Show circuit and the risk of not winning. He challenged Petaluma and others to follow Tyrrell’s lead.

Like other great wines, Vat 47 grew from a vision. Murray Tyrrell wrote in Langton’s Vintage Wine Price Guide, “My first introduction to chardonnay was through my great friend and wine judge, Rudy Komon, in the early to mid 60s. The great flavours and the resemblance to aged Hunter semillons drew me immediately to this variety. I must admit that in those days we drank huge quantities of White Burgundy and when I realised that the French ones were getting too expensive for me, I became determined that we could grow and make chardonnay here as well as they did in Burgundy… ”

To fulfil his vision Tyrrell required chardonnay grapes. And since the best were next door, he jumped the fence of Penfolds HVD Vineyard in 1967, and from these planted a 0.6 hectare vineyard on the sandy flats near his home in 1968.

A few bucketsful of an experimental chardonnay were made in 1970, followed by the first Vat 47 in 1971.

Murray’s son Bruce recalls that through the seventies, Vat 47 Chardonnay was made pretty much along the lines of the company’s well-established semillons. But some oak maturation was introduced and Murray claims that the 1973 Vat 47 was the first oak matured white entered in Australian shows.

Bruce says that from 1980 a Californian influence crept in, and until 1989 Vat 47 carried more wine-maker induced aromas and flavours thanks to malo-lactic fermentation (converting harsh malic acid to soft lactic acid) and stronger oak flavours.

The style was altered from 1989 as the Tyrrells realised that wines of the 1970s were aging better than those of the eighties. Tyrrell says he abandoned malo-lactic fermentation as he believed it was not appropriate to the low-acid, high-flavour grapes grown in the Hunter Valley.

And where oak from Nevers in the 1970s gave way to more pungent Limousin oak in the 1980s, the 1990s have seen the use of about 50 per cent Limousin, 30 per cent Nevers and 20 per cent unoaked material in the final blends.

From the start grapes for Vat 47 have been sourced from vines propagated on sandy soils using cuttings from the HVD vines (believed to descended from the Busby collection of 1832). But with production of just 3,000 to 5,000 cases annually (new plantings might lift that by 1,000), Vat 47 will always be scarce.

The quality glimpsed in those early years has been fully realised in the 1990s. Vat 47 is a true champion created from Murray Tyrrell’s vision of re-creating that wonderful amalgam of oak and fruit flavours perfected in France‘s great white Burgundies.

The arrival on the scene of Australian super chardonnays Penfold Yattarna and Petaluma Tiers (both selling at triple Bin 47’s price), in no way diminishes Vat 47’s appeal at Chateau Shanahan. We’ve monitored the cellaring potential of those terrific vintages, 1994 and 1995, and reckon it’s one of the safest bets around when it comes to top-shelf chardonnay.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1999
First published 11 July 1999 in the Canberra Times

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