Meet the winemaker

Winemakers on the evolution of Australian chardonnay

By Halliday Promotion

Four local chardonnay masters discuss the evolution of this classic variety from big and buttery to refined and textural.

    Chardonnay is one of the world's most beloved white wines. Australian examples were once exclusively known for golden hues and toasty, buttery characteristics, but as this durable variety has flourished in climates across the country, a far more diverse style spectrum has emerged. These wines act as flavour conduits for regional expression and pair full-flavoured complexity with simultaneous restraint. Here, four local producers discuss how we define modern Australian chardonnay – and how they make theirs.

    John Belsham – Winmark Wines, NSW

    H. What defines modern Australian chardonnay?
    J. Modern chardonnay is expressed in a multitude of styles thanks to the versatility of this variety, and they vary depending on the skills of winemakers and the diversity of the market opportunity. It would be disingenuous to attempt to define the infinite capacity of this variety in a small phrase, however, the evolution continues toward embracing its core rather than 'over-seasoning' it. The unique aspect of any great chardonnay is always the fruit and the site. Fermentation can also be very definitive as we can manage this process, yet never predict the outcome.

    H. How do you approach the winemaking process?
    J. As a team we always have a very clear idea of the style of the wine that we endeavour to craft. We approach our task with a strong sense of continuous improvement and are very respectful of each season and the variables that we need to adapt to – this is the challenge and the fun in our profession. My winemaking is constantly evolving with the combination of an inquisitive mind, knowledge, experience, respect for nature and confidence with technology. In my experience, consumers are constantly seeking incremental improvement rather than seismic shifts in interpretation. It is our job to respect this so that we can all enjoy the journey and learn from each other.

    Jonathan Hughes – Mewstone Wines, TAS

    H. Why do you love working with this variety?
    J. The versatility of chardonnay makes it a unique white variety, with outstanding examples from growing regions around the world. It can be pushed and formed into an array of styles, but underlying the array is always a sense of place and season. Many modern Australian chardonnays have a lighter touch than past generations. The focus has moved toward brighter acid, complexing reduction, supporting oak. Chardonnay is still a broad church with balance, length, intensity and complexity at the heart of the many great yet diverse examples

    H. How do you approach the winemaking process?
    J. We keep the winemaking fairly simple. We get natural variation from the different parcels of fruit, wild yeast and contrasting barrels. Some add reduction, some are fruit driven, some have pure acidity. When brought together we find the complexity and balance we’re looking for. The majority of our chardonnay is made by simply whole bunch pressing and fermenting in barrel. This traditional approach is complemented by a small portion that is destemmed and held cold for five days before being pressed to barrel. This technique adds a layer of texture and lifted stonefruit aromas to the finished wine.

    Harry Rigney –The Ridge North Lilydale, TAS

    H.  What makes chardonnay unique?
    H. As a variety renowned for expressing regional influences, chardonnay is a showcase for the Upper Piper region of North East Tasmania. It is shaped by coastal rains from Bass Strait, complex soil composition and more than half the year between budburst and vintage. Winemaking styles change, but terroir is constant. It is the context of each and every chardonnay vineyard which frames the choices in the winemaking styles. Perhaps like no other variety, chardonnay is the standard bearer of the vineyard – its winemaker is its muse.

    H. How do you approach the winemaking process?
    H. The process for our chardonnay starts with winter pruning. The choices which shape canopy density for the coming vintage go a long way to determining the bottled outcomes. Once shaped, management of our chardonnay canopy guides and hones the new iteration to the skills of the winemaker. As with each and every chardonnay vineyard, the climate and terroir are paramount in the making of our wine – the volcanic soil of Tasmania has not known weather without change, but managed to maintain the composition which yields the tensions between acidity, fruit sugars and tannins, which ground the balance in our unwooded chardonnay.

    Sarah Crowe – Yarra Yering, VIC

    H. What defines modern Australian chardonnay?
    S. Modern Australian chardonnay should taste of the place where it was grown. There is a real respect for the fruit and the concept of terrior and sense of place is paramount – winemaking should play a supporting role and take a backseat. They are elegant yet detailed wines, ethereal and salivating. You want more of it, but you don’t know why. Chardonnay is my go-to drink of choice anytime of the year, in a glass with a large bowl so you can really enjoy the aromas. Start with it nice and cold and watch it evolve as the temperature rises.

    H. What is unique about your product and how it is made?
    S. Our chardonnay is unique because it is from our vineyard and nowhere else – the style may be replicated but the taste cannot be. It is unique like all of us, similar in so many ways yet completely independent. It is also a snapshot in time and represents the vineyard plantings in that year, these things change over time and the resulting wine changes with it. Over the years we have invested in winery equipment such as cool rooms and a larger grape press to give the chardonnay the best chance and the oak regime has been paired back to let the fruit shine.

    This article was produced in partnership with the featured wineries.

    Top image credit: Wine Australia / Ian Routledge