Australasian bulls eye in Chardonnay shoot out

On a recent blustery Friday afternoon, Canberra hosted an international chardonnay shoot-out. The bullets may ricochet around the world for some time. While the event may never take on the legendary status of Steven Spurrier’s 1976 judgement of Paris – where a handful of Californian wines out gunned some of France’s best – the Canberra tasting is sure to upset more winemakers than it pleases.

On this occasion, the biggest losers were the American wines, stuck, it seems, in a winemaking style that Australian makers tried then abandoned 20 years ago. While the French fared better, their schadenfreude will be quickly transferred to the victorious Australians and New Zealanders.

On the aggregate scores of 16 judges (I was one) Australasian wines took nine of the top ten spots, with a French wine rated ninth. The five American chardonnays occupied five of the last six positions in the field of twenty.

So, what were the wines, how did they fare individually, who were the judges, and what do the results mean?

The tasting, conducted during Winewise magazine’s annual Small Vignerons Awards, included five chardonnays each from France, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. The wines were served blind – all we saw as judges was 20 glasses of wine in front of each of us. We knew they were top examples of 2005s and 2006s, five each from the four countries. We didn’t know the serving order.

The judges were mainly Australians with a couple of expat New Zealanders, but no Americans or French (one of the big upsets in the 1976 Spurrier tasting was the inclusion of influential French tasters).

However, the panel, including wine show veterans James Halliday and Ian McKenzie, had a great depth of international experience.

As a group we appreciated and enjoyed top French, New Zealand and Australian wines. But it would also be fair to say we felt some scepticism towards American chardonnays, albeit based on experience. To that extent the tasting confirmed our fears about the American wines.

We tasted the wines without discussion (it’s so easy to be influenced by someone else’s comments), awarding each wine a score out of 20 in half point increments. In the show system we give bronze medals to wines scoring 15.5, 16 or 16.5; silver medals for scores of 17.0, 17.5 or 18.0; and gold medals for scores above 18.5.

For this tasting I thought less of medal scores (because we weren’t awarding medals) and more along the line that scores should reflect the range of quality in front of us. And it turned out to be wider than I’d expected, ranging my notes from 19.5 for the glorious Coldstream Hills Reserve Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2006 to 12 for the cloudy, out of condition Kistler Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2005.

Now, as Hugh Johnson once said, giving wines scores can create a spurious sense of precision. And when we look across the scores of 22 people tasting 20 chardonnays the range of individual scores on any one wine is pretty wide. The scores for the group’s top ranking wine (Coldstream Reserve 2006), for example, ranged from 16.5 to 19.5 – a 15 per cent variance. But nine of the 16 judges and one of the associate judges rated it 19 or above; and four judges and four associates scored it at 18.5. Clearly it pushed the right buttons for most tasters. But there were dissenters.

The official scorecard, when Winewise publishes it, will show our aggregates and averages – fair enough for getting the general drift, but hiding the quite wide range of opinions on each wine. The group’s wooden spooner, for example, averaged 15.5 points but one taster gave it 18.5 ¬– a gold medal score. Its scores ranged from 13 to 18.5 points.

One thing that I took away from the tasting is how difficult it would have been to nominate the country of origin of most of the wines – something I think many of the experienced tasters on the panel could’ve have done with ease twenty years ago.

I attribute this to the amazing quality advances by Australian and New Zealand wines over that period. Both countries have experienced a great finessing of chardonnays achieved through attentive winemaking and viticultural management, including the expansion and maturing of vines in the right regions.

While Australia’s and New Zealand’s winemakers steadily closed the quality gap with France – indeed blurred the boundary between great Burgundy and home-grown stuff – American chardonnay, if what we tasted was indeed a representative sample, seems to have stayed in the over-oaked, heavy styles that we made in the eighties.

Another great competitive advantage we have over the French is our embrace of the screw cap. Our wines were bright and fresh, but a couple of the French wines in the line up seemed a little dull, perhaps the result of oxidation caused by a poor cork.

While in my books the Coldstream Hills Reserve 2006 stood above the pack, I’ve grouped my own ratings into four categories – A grade, Reserve grade, Reserve grade reserves and Thanks for coming.

A grade
Coldstream Hills Reserve Yarra Valley 2006, Cloudy Bay Marlborough 2006, Voyager Estate Margaret River 2006, Leeuwin Estate Margaret River 2006, Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles (Louis Jadot) 2005, Giaconda Beechworth 2006, Ata Rangi Craighall 2006, Meursault Les Perrieres (Pierre Morey) 2006.

Reserve grade
Kumeu River Coddington 2006, Batard-Montrachet (Leflaive) 2006, Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels 2006, Bindi Quartz 2005

Reserve grade reserves
Kansgaard Napa 2006, Church Road Tom 2006, Chablis Grenoilles (Louis Michel) 2006, Corton-Charlemagne (Marc Colin) 2005

Thanks for coming
Mount Eden Estate 2005, Peter Michael Winery Ma Belle Fille Eastern Sonoma 2006, Kenwood Family Vineyards Tor Sonoma County 2005, Kistler Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley 2005.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009