By James Halliday
Chardonnay has the same absolute dominance with white grape vine plantings, and hence white wine. In 2011 the crush exceeded that of shiraz due to the impact of the rain and cool weather, problematic for red wines, but good to very good for the white varieties. As the bar chart shows, shiraz edged back in front in 2012, and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Like shiraz, the original cuttings were collected by James Busby; here the two sources were Clos Vougeot in Burgundy and Champagne. Itmade its way to Smithfield on the western outskirts of Sydney (thence toMudgee) and to the Hunter Valley. It was also grown in the Grampians (notably at Best’s) and in the Yarra Valley.
Unlike shiraz, plantings were very small, and it was not grown in South Australia until the late 1970s, that state’s strict phylloxeraquarantine protocols delaying its arrival. Once established in the market place in 1971 when the first wines labelled chardonnay were released by Tyrrell’s (Vat47) and Craigmoor (Mudgee), it began its march to every one of Australia’s official regions and subregions.
The reasons for its success are eerily similar to those of shiraz: it flourishes in very cool to very warm regions (and everything in between), always producing a wine with varietal character, white stone fruit and grapefruit in cool regions, yellow stone fruit and tropical flavours in the very warm regions. Initially wildly popular here and in the UK, it (and shiraz) led Australia’s amazing export success story from 1987 to 2003.
To a degree, it fell out of favour at the end of the last millennium as consumers grew tired of the buttercup yellow colour, its ripe,tropical fruit flavours, obvious oak and sugar-sweetness. Right now, it is the star performer here and in the UK, as winemakers have picked earlier, valuing natural acidity over alcohol (consequently reduced), backed away from a high percentage of new oak (now always French), and fine-tuned wild yeast and malolactic fermentation. Moreover, screwcaps have played a major beneficial role with all white varieties: 99.7% of Australia’s best white wines are sold herewith these closures.
Sauvignon blanc has in no way been obliterated by the Marlborough tsunami; it is distinctly different, especially when barrel-fermented and/or blended with semillon, Margaret River to the fore.
Semillon still hangs on to second place, the Hunter Valley its bastion in terms of quality, although not quantity – this comes from the Barossa Valley. There it was made using techniques more in tune with red wine than white, until Peter Lehmann and his chief winemaker Andrew Wigan decided to mimic the Hunter Valley’s approach, picking and bottling much earlier, doing away with oak. Its flavour develops in a similar way to riesling, and over asimilar timeframe, with 20 years a conservative end point with screwcaps.
Sauvignon blanc is usually best in its youth; semillon changes from a chrysalis-like youth to theshimmering butterfly that emerges within five or more years old. It is highlyprobable it will become even more complex and multi-flavoured when 20 years old(under screwcap).
It is utterly sacrilegious that the high-yielding, bland and boring pinot gris/grigio should have pushed that great (wine) riesling into fifth place. While there are exceptions to prove the rule, the best that can be said of pinot grigio is that it contains alcohol, and won’t detract from the social conversation at brasserie/café lunches. And don’t for one moment imagine that more time in bottle will create some magical transformation.
Which leaves riesling, which in Germany and Alsace can produce wines that seriously challenge chardonnay’s claim to quality primacy.There, as in Australia, riesling can be sublime when one, five, 10 or 50 years old, never losing the acidity that is its backbone (as it is with Hunter semillon) while moving from steely lime juice in its youth, adding honey next,then lightly browned toast. And it can achieve this whether bone dry, off dry or ravishingly sweet.
NEXT: Read James' article, The Chardonnay Revolution