The finessing of Australian chardonnay

Quietly, as the great wave of New Zealand sauvignon blanc swept across Australia, Australian winemakers perfected chardonnay. Despite sauvignon’s dominance on Australian dinner tables over the last decade, chardonnay remained our most widely planted, consumed and exported local white variety.

Where sauvignon blanc unleashes it true character only under cool growing conditions, chardonnay makes tasty varietal wines across a surprisingly broad range of climates. And even if it retreats from the hottest Australian growing areas, chardonnay’s here to stay in a diversity of climates – from the warm Hunter Valley, to moderate Margaret River to cool southern Victoria and Tasmania.

Chardonnay arrived in Australia in the nineteenth century. But it rose to prominence only after an explosion in table wine consumption during the 1970s and 1980s.

When it did take off, demand exceeded supply for the best part of a decade. According to one early eighties estimate, Australia sold more chardonnay than it produced. And to stretch their precious chardonnay supplies, some makers blended it with hard-to-sell semillon. But the successful, if curious, semillon-chardonnay hybrid faded as chardonnay production grew.

Pioneering small vignerons planted chardonnay in cool climates, modelling their wines on the superb oak-fermented whites of Burgundy, especially the renowned vineyards of Corton Charlemagne and Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet.

The steady, and ultimately profound achievements of these pioneers, though, occurred parallel to the rise of mass-produced, largely warm-climate chardonnay.

In the late seventies few Australians drank chardonnay, if only because we produced so little of it. Those that did, probably cut their chardonnay teeth on Burgundy or even one of the growing number of Californian versions.

As chardonnay plantings exploded during the eighties, our winemakers learned how to deal with what was for them a new variety. Never in our long winemaking history had our vignerons faced such large volumes of grapes from newly planted vines.

Not surprisingly, they threw every winemaking trick they knew at it – oxidising grape must, fermenting in oak barrels, fermenting in stainless steel and transferring finished wine to barrel, encouraging malolactic fermentation, ageing on yeast lees and adding oak chips.

In the early days when much of the crop probably delivered little grape flavour, these practices tended to overwhelm varietal character. But the wines proved popular, attracting many fans to the rich, peachy, buttery style – the latter a reference to a strong buttery, or sometimes butterscotch or caramel-like, flavour derived from the secondary malolactic fermentation (converting malic to lactic acid and reducing total acidity).

Later, consumer resistance to more over-the-top styles sparked a rash of “unwooded” chardonnays, notable for their blandness, or in some instances, reliance on a buttery malolactic character. The late, great Len Evans described these as a great con – not arguing against unoaked chardonnay per se, but against the cynicism behind so many of the bland offerings.

Meanwhile, winemakers were making progress, albeit slowly. Tyrrell’s, for example, began making chardonnay in the 1970s after Murray Tyrrell famously pinched cuttings from a neighbouring Penfolds vineyard.

At a vertical tasting in the early nineties, Tyrrell’s how well the seventies chardonnays had aged, while the eighties wines had turned fat, flabby and tired. In the seventies, they’d made the wine much as they made semillon. In the eighties, they’d adopted all the tricks described above. It took a decade to realise they’d gone too far.

Rather than retreat to the techniques of the seventies, though, they retained the Burgundian practices that suited Hunter grapes. This meant less new oak, more temperature control in the maturation environment and the complete abandonment, for a time of malolactic fermentation. Bruce Tyrrell questioned at the time why they’d used this acid-reducing technique in a warm area where grapes often lacked acidity.

They’ve continued to fine-tune their approach, making a distinctive, complex chardonnay capable of long-term cellaring. We continue to enjoy mid-nineties vintages at Chateau Shanahan.

By the mid nineties, the finessing of Australian chardonnay was well advanced, especially at the top end. The vines and winemaking skills of small makers had matured. And the big companies had poured resources into their flagship products. Penfolds produced its first Yattarna Chardonnay in 1995 and by the turn of the century its quality was as good as any in the country. Likewise, by 2000 Hardys flagship Eileen Hardy chardonnay had settled largely into the style and fruit sourcing it has today.

What the big companies learned flowed down into better, finer, mass-produced products, too. Meanwhile mid-tier companies, notably De Bortoli and McWilliams, developed their own styles – joining the big and small makers in the chardonnay revolution.

The finessing we’ve witnessed over the last 20 years puts Australia firmly among the world’s top chardonnay producers. The world talks about our shiraz now. But chardonnay could be the variety that finally breaks the stereotype of us as one big, hot county making homogenous wine.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 25 April 2012 in The Canberra Times