Big whites are back. The overwhelming trend towards longer and leaner white wine continues apace, but demand for more substantial white wine is on in earnest. Oak, fruit, richness and texture. They’ve almost been made to seem like dirty words in recent years… but no more.
And for good reason. For all the talk of Euro this and elegance that, the truth is that drinkers are smart. Style is one thing, flavour is another. One without the other is like work without play.
Importantly, we’re not just talking about any old big whites. Quality still has to be high. These aren’t flabby monsters; they’re stylish but substantial. The most obvious examples involve chardonnay, but creamy-smooth examples of many white varieties (marsanne, roussanne, viognier, arneis and even gruner veltliner among them) are also up to the task. Intensity of flavour and the feel of the wine in the mouth are more important than variety. Or fashion.
“The majority of white wine is drunk by people who rarely or never touch red,” says Tony Titheridge, co-ordinator of Dan Murphy’s tasting panel
“So every single time they're eating a rare steak, reduced and intense ragu, or anything else mega-hearty, they have no lever they can pull to wine match other than to add to the build of their white. So while some will move away from a flinty and linear chardonnay with a cut of beef to instead choose a full-bodied red, others can't go with them there because they don't drink red, so instead simply want to change (in this example) the style of chardonnay they drink with their meal.”
In short, it makes sense. Big-flavoured whites to go with big-flavoured meals.
Anecdotally, both sommeliers and retailers galore will tell you that the demand for big white wine is as strong or stronger than ever. Indeed, big whites probably never were and never will be a trend; they’re an essential (Titheridge says big white drinkers “have made a deliberate decision that they are not buying one of those (leaner, crisper white) wines”.) It’s just that no one’s been talking about or recommending them.
Which is why we’re happy to step in and help. The following selection follows two rules. A) Top class. B) No wimps allowed.
Evans & Tate Metricup Road Chardonnay 2012 ($19)
Powerful chardonnay. Lengthy too. Butter, tropical fruit, toast and oak-spice flavours. Not quite an exaggerated style but clearly at the big end of the spectrum. Impact guaranteed.
Turkey Flat Butchers Block White 2014 ($22.50)
49% marsanne, 35% viognier, 16% roussanne. Excellent power and intensity of flavour. Toast, nougat, stone fruit and lemon butter. Rich but zesty. Spicy too. Thoroughly prosecutes its case.
Xanadu DJL Chardonnay 2013 ($24)
Something of a benchmark. You can call this restrained, even elegant, but it’s also indisputably creamy, nutty, toasty and well fruited. Xanadu – a pioneer of the Margaret River region – is a star of flavoursome chardonnay.
Yalumba The Virgilius Viognier 2012 ($50)
Sophistication is the order of the day. This label has come such a long way over the course of its history. This release retains its trademark power but presents as a refined, complex wine with a sizzling crackle of flavour bursting through the finish. Stone fruits and spice, but pulling this wine’s flavours apart doesn't do it justice. It is, simply, sensational.
MadFish Gold Turtle Chardonnay 2014 ($25)
Shop around and buy up. This is just the ticket. Lots of smoky barrel work meets peach, citrus and grapefruit. The fruit, the oak. The power, the glory. It’s all here.
View Road Picked by my Wife Arneis 2014 ($22)
Punchy white with spice, hazelnut and wheat-like notes to the fore. Promoted as 'smashable' but there's a bit more to it than that. Slinky texture and jets of flavour through the finish.
Centennial Vineyards Reserve Single Vineyard Arneis 2013 ($25)
Wild fermented in French oak, or at least partly so. Neutral in some ways but it promotes an impression of richness, mostly via body and weight on the palate. It sure makes an impression. Would work especially well alongside shellfish, especially sans spice.
Montalto Pennon Hill Chardonnay 2013 ($23)
This really has it going on. Sunny, peachy fruit aplenty and then licks of toast, oak-spice, mineral and citrus. It slinks and slides deliciously through the mouth. Keen buying, keen drinking.
Scotchmans Hill Swan Bay Chardonnay 2013 ($18)
Straw-yellow colour but lively on both the nose and in the mouth. Beautiful integration of oak and fruit. Cashew, lemon, melon and peach. Creamy texture. Its quality transcends fashion; it's neither modern nor old-fashioned, but it tastes delicious.
Yering Station Village Marsanne 2013 ($25)
100% barrel fermented. Rich and satiny as it first strikes your tongue. Tastes of wheat, custard apples, honeysuckle and white peach, with an element of grainy, textural grippiness to the finish. It works. The wine's length is not inhibited and at all points along the palate there is much to admire.
Ten Minutes X Tractor McCutcheon Chardonnay 2013 ($65)
Not lean, but searing. Not fat, but loaded with oatmeal, yellow stone fruit and sweet, creamy, cedary oak. It’s generous for the most part but savvy enough to stash away a few tricks for a later date; despite the flesh, it’s taut, it’s both ready to enjoy now but will age well medium-term. Essentially it’s an essay on the beauty of the chardonnay variety. Special-occasion wine.
Lillian Marsanne Roussanne 2011 ($20)
65% marsanne, 35% roussanne. Straw-yellow; rich and creamy with peach and spice notes rushing to the scene. Full-bodied but lengthy; the creek of minerally flavour running through the finish is beguiling.
Scarborough The Obsessive Chardonnay 2013 ($40)
Aroma. Flavour. Silken mouthfeel. This wine really delivers. The fruit builds and maintains an impressive sense of momentum. Peach, citrus, gunsmoke, sweet cedar-laced oak. Takes centre court and holds it.
Domenica Roussanne Marsanne 2013 ($40)
Rich and luscious with various stone fruits, spices and a rocky minerality ricocheting around the palate. Powerful flavour continues on through the finish. Absolutely one to seek out. The power of the Beechworth region, writ large.
Hahndorf Hill GRU Gruner Veltliner 2014 ($28)
Continues its excellent run of recent form. This is a white wine of feel, flavour and interest. It tastes of stone fruit, crushed spice/white pepper, Turkish delight and crunchy apple. It's fleshy and fun but there's a bit more to it besides.
Wanted Man Single Vineyard Marsanne Roussanne 2012 ($25)
Maturation in oak has proven an astute step. Mid-palate fruit richness, lactose and spice notes, citrus and smoke-like through the finish. In short, it works beautifully.
Leeuwin Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay 2013 ($33)
Power of fruit. Less oak than in days past but it still revs up the flavours. Leeuwin Prelude (and even more so, its iconic Art Series) is a great go-to option if you want chardonnay flavour in all its glory. Exhibit A.
Yeringberg Viognier 2013 ($35)
Looks bright in the glass and is alive with scent. Ginger, apricot and hay-like aroma/flavour. Balanced and textural. Bursts with flavour through the finish. It’s matured in oak, which has mostly just softened the wine’s texture. Makes deliciousness look easy; no mean feat for this variety.
Hay Shed Hill Chardonnay 2014 ($28)
Margaret River chardonnay. Bless it. It’s matured in French oak, new and old, but it’s the power of fruit that puts this wine – and the region – on the map. Fresh white peach, darted with grapefruit, then laced with a gentle nuttiness. Delicious.
The Story Westgate Vineyard Marsanne Roussanne Viognier 2014 ($28)
Wild yeast, malo, oak. Richness and complexity aplenty, though it’s elegantly styled. Wax, honeysuckle, stonefruit and spiced toast flavours. This is from a small patch of vines in the Grampians region. It’s a conversation-in-a-glass style – with plenty to say.
Read next: Campbell Mattinson on the age of chardonnay