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James on Australia's new wave of world-class chardonnay

Publish Date: 21 Dec 2016

Authored by: James Halliday

There’s a diverse and affordable range of chardonnay available in Australia, and it’s a wine that’s changed considerably over time. Here James discusses its trajectory and compares it to its counterparts in France.

Having been the face that launched a thousand ships in the late 1980s, chardonnay fell from grace as consumers wearied of its oaky, buttercup yellow, sunshine-in-a-bottle style. So did the winemakers, who began a root and branch change in the way it is made. The grapes are picked earlier, reducing alcohol; high-toast oak has been replaced by low toast; barrel sizes have doubled; lees stirring is no longer standard practice; and the time in oak has been shortened.

The result is chardonnays that are brighter and fresher, with greater length and intensity, more subtle and fruit-driven. The most important wine critic in the world, Jancis Robinson OBE MW, wrote recently: “From about 2012, Australia has been producing a raft of truly world-class chardonnay, very much in the savoury, steely, super-crisp style of refined white Burgundy, but often with more apparent potential for future development than a typical white Burgundy."

The annual five-day Len Evans Tutorial held recently included blind tastings of 30 varietal wines (chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon) with heavy emphasis on Australia and France. Twelve “scholars” taste the wines in silence, knowing only the oldest and youngest vintages, and score them out of 100 points, with gold medals for 95 points or above. The five tutors also blind taste the wines and score them before moving to another room to call out their points and agree on an average score.

This year the vintages were between 2009 and 2015 inclusive; there were nine white Burgundies, seven of them grand crus; and 18 from Australia. Only three Burgundies received gold medals, compared to Australia’s eight – a success rate of 44 per cent compared to Burgundy’s 33 per cent. The cost? $200+ for the Burgundies.

2015 Serrat Yarra Valley Chardonnay
98 points

Hand-picked, whole bunch-pressed, wild-fermented in French puncheons (20% new), matured for 11 months. Yarra Valley embedded in its DNA; it is super-intense, almost impossibly long, the oak merely a vehicle. Despite its energy, it has a flowery delicacy. 13% alc.

RRP $42 | 2027 | Serrat

2015 Seville Estate Yarra Valley Chardonnay
96 points

Very different from Seville Estate’s The Barber; the fruit profile is much tighter, the length greater, the flavours more intense and longer. Clearly barrel-fermented, not so much from the point of view of flavour as mouthfeel. 13% alc.

RRP $36 | 2028 | Seville Estate

2014 Cullen Wines Kevin John
96 points

Hand-picked, whole bunch-pressed, wild-fermented in new French oak, matured for eight months. The seemingly simple vinification has not resulted in a simple wine. Multiple layers of fruit and oak (the percentage of new oak up to 100% from 30% in ’13), ranging through white peach, nectarine and fig, enter the world of wild fermentation in new oak. The result is a complete wine of very high quality. 13.5% alc.

RRP $105 | 2029 | Cullen Wines

James looks at alternative varieties fiano and tempranillo.

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