Evolution of wine styles over time is an interesting subject. It’s complex. Many factors have come into play, from the perceived changing of consumer tastes and fashion, through to increased clonal diversity, vine age and a willingness to push the envelope in the vineyard and the cellar. One thing is for sure, chardonnay has seen the most profound change over the past couple of decades. So much so that if I were to become Minister of Wine and Cheese, come Australia Day I’d be handing the humble chardonnay grape the “most improved” award for services to Australian wine drinkers. It’s come a long way.
Over the years, the pendulum has swung from the buttery, oaky, blousy come-hither wines of the ’80s and ’90s to the struck-match lean machines of recent times, and all shades in between. I guess it’s fashion, or at least what marketing types think we want to drink. If it is fashion, we’ll consider the those early examples to be the equivalent of shoulder pads, the OTT sulphide-bombs to be Spinal Tap, and perhaps the brief flirtation with unoaked styles in the ’90s to be chardonnay’s “disco” moment – one that is probably best forgotten, in my humble opinion.
It’s been a wild ride. Chardonnay began to wane in the late-’90s as New Zealand sauvignon blanc began to wash onto our shores and the cruel moniker of ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) echoed down the aisles of bottle shops. It was a tough time, but something happened. Producers began to dial back the oak, the wines tightened up, and they became fresher and more detailed. And then, ever fashionable, we swung further still, towards a certain chardonnay style with those sulphidey, struck-match characters that are so beloved in some of the white wines from Burgundy. But perhaps we went too far. Maybe there was too much artefact.
The evolution of Australian chardonnay continues and we are beginning to find a middle ground. Vine age, clonal selection, understanding of site, good viticulture and winemaking all play a role in this process. The French have been casting nervous glances our way for a while now, and for a good reason. The wines have never been better.
Dave Brookes’ top 10 chardonnays, listed by region
1. Giant Steps Wombat Creek Vineyard Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
2. Oakridge 864 Lusatia Park A Block Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
3. Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
4. Nocturne Chardonnay, Margaret River
5. Flametree SRS Wallcliffe Chardonnay, Margaret River
6. Xanadu Stevens Road Chardonnay, Margaret River
7. Giaconda Chardonnay, Beechworth
8. Brokenwood Indigo Vineyard Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills
9. Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills
10. Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay, Hunter Valley
*This article first appeared in issue 42 of Halliday magazine, and also featured six of Australia’s top chardonnay makers.