The evolution of Australian Chardonnay
Four words I never thought I’d say:
I fucking love Chardonnay.
When I first started drinking wine (like, properly, in licensed establishments and not just siphoning my parent’s goon bags to drink in the park), Chardonnay was the devil. Probably about 10 years ago for me, we’d hit the cellar doors, and they’d ask “red or white?” And we’d say “white please, yes that SSB is delicious, and fuck no, we won’t try the Chardonnay, thank you.”
But more recently, as I’ve embarked on this Goon Bags adventure, I’ve gotten more, well, adventurous. Now, I hit the cellar door, and I say “mate, just start at the top.”
So I cautiously started trying more Chardonnay, and kept being pleasantly surprised. And it’s not just me. Whoever I go wine tasting with, someone always says:
“Wow! That’s actually really nice! I don’t usually like Chardonnay, but this is a good one!”
And then a few months ago I took a little holiday down south, through the Manjimup and Margaret River wine regions. I say holiday, but with a toilet training 2.5 year old and 9 month old who had recently discovered his Olympic level sprint crawling abilities, it was actually more of a week long boot-camp where instead of an Army Commander you have two small people screaming at you the whole time and instead of rain and mud you have, well, you know.
But, the wine! Holy shit, the wine was amazing. After working my way through each cellar door list (while pretending not to notice my toddler squatting in the sandpit) I would choose a couple of bottles to take home. Unfortunately not cases – I’m still waiting to hit wine blogger pay-dirt so I was forced to choose just my very favourites.
Packing up the car towards the end of the trip, I realised something. “I’ve bought a boot-load of fucking Chardonnay!” I whispered to myself. “What’s up with that?”
I got chatting to Mark Aitken (the winemaker at Woodgate Wines in Manjimup) about it.
(Funny story – my sister-in-law took me to visit Woodgate with another friend, who declared her intense distaste for Chardonnay. (She may have said “I fucking hate it” but I could be putting words in her mouth). We convinced her to try it after relaying a recent experience where we surprisingly enjoyed Chardonnay. Yep, you know where this is going, she loved the Woodgate Chardonnay and proceeded to buy some.)
“Australian Chardonnay… used be all power and no finesse. It was very oaky, and the fruit was picked very ripe which meant it was common to have an alcohol percentage of up to 14%. A large component of blends had undergone malolactic fermentation (MLF) [which is what gives you that buttery taste].
The results were big, full bodied wines with butterscotch and peaches and cream flavours, and a soft, round acidity. It was a big mouthful of flavour that blew your head off , the bigger the better. It just got too much for consumers and people started looking for more subtlety.
This is when we started seeing the huge success of the Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, with its crisper, vibrant acidity much more suited to the Aussie summer climate.
So now modern Australian Chardonnays tend to feature less assertive oak, almost no MLF and less ripe fruit, retaining a higher natural acidity. The result is a style that is still powerful in terms of fruit quality but more finely structured. The result is a style that is still powerful in terms of fruit quality but more finely structured. Even though the oak is restrained, the complex layers of flavour are still an important feature, and there a number of techniques winemakers use to keep Chardonnay interesting with heaps of personality.”
- Natural or wild fermentation
In wine making, fermentation is the process whereby the sugar from the grapes turn into alcohol. Traditionally, a specific, cultured yeast is added to get the fermentation process going. Wild fermentation uses the naturally occurring yeasts from the skin of the grapes instead.
- Full solids fermentation
As opposed to the usual process where most of the solids are removed from the grape juice before fermentation begins.
- Stirring of lees in the barrel
Lees are the bits of dead yeast and other particles that sink to the bottom after fermentation. Lees stirring increases their contact with the wine, adding flavour and complexity.
Someone said to me recently: “Chardonnay is the red wine of white wines,” and I totally get it. It’s only with practice that I’ve started to enjoy red wine, and for a while I thought that maybe I just like Chardonnay now because I’m heaps sophisticated and good at wine. But no, turns out it’s not just me – Chardonnay now has the biggest production of all whites in Australia.
And you may have noticed that you rarely see unwooded Chardonnay these days? This is probably because of the success of the modern style.
This is what I’ve been drinking (or hoping to drink) lately:
- Woodgate Wines 2017 Reserve Chardonnay (Manjimup)
- Arimia 2017 Chardonnay (Margaret River)
- Wills Domain Single Vineyard 2017 Chardonnay (Margaret River)
- Deep Woods2017 Reserve Chardonnay (Margaret River)
- Mandoon Estate 2016 Reserve Chardonnay (Swan Valley)
- Pemberley 2016 Chardonnay (Pemberton)
What about you? Are you a Chardonnay lover or hater? What are your favourites?