The Evolution Of Australia Through The Lens Of Chardonnay

  • By Michelle Bouffard
  • 30 Apr 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
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Cullen Wines in Margaret River - Credit : Michelle Bouffard

Most people attribute Australia’s early commercial wine success to lush full-bodied Shiraz. However, it is Chardonnay that first put Australia on the international map. Murray Tyrell was a visionary, and inspired by the high-quality Chardonnay hailing from the region of Burgundy, he produced the first commercial Chardonnay in the early 1970s. This coupled with Rosemount’s Chardonnay winning the rare Double Gold Medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) at the 1980 London show solidified the grape’s potential in the country. Despite this success though, for a long time, Chardonnay hailing from down under were buttery and (too) oaky. So how has the country gone from making palate fatiguing whites to some of the most highly regarded Chardonnays in the world?

So What Changed? 

One of the key factors was the arrival of better vine material in the 1990s, specifically meaning the first Dijon clones coming into the country. This coincided with the producers’ desires to plant those clones in the right places, exploring cooler vineyard sites. Better winemaking techniques were adopted, and oak, if used at all, was treated as an ingredient to enhance the fruit character of the wine rather than to dominate it.

While different styles of wine can be found around the country, you now rarely find an over-oaked wine. as there has been a major shift in style. Additionally, malolactic fermentation (MLF) is not automatically encouraged as it was previously; today it is carefully considered according to the vintage and wine profile of the region. While Burgundy remains an inspiration, winemakers are seeking to produce wines that reflect the typicity of their own regions, giving birth to Chardonnays unique to Australia.

The Margaret River 

It is difficult to generalize one style of Chardonnay for a country as big as Australia. Proximity to the ocean, altitude, and continentality all play a role, and of course the preferred style of a producer adds yet another layer.

Saying this, I do find that the style of those from the western coastal region of Margaret River stand out. Many compare them to Meursault as they are generally rich and round yet elegant and complex and blessed with bright acidity. They have beautiful, concentrated notes of key lime pie and stone fruit with subtle hazelnut notes. That palate profile is attributed to the Gin Gin clone found in the region. The bunches of that specific clone contain berries of different sizes, known as “hen and chicken”. The ratio of juice to skin is less, which concentrates the flavours.

That style lends itself well to malolactic fermentation and maturation in French oak, two techniques often (but not always) adopted by producers of the region. However, today, few use 100% new oak. Producers like Cullen Wines, Vasse Felix, and Leeuwin Estate have perfected the typicity of the region and offer a good introduction to the great Chardonnays of the Margaret River.

The Yarra Valley 

Besides Margaret River, it is more difficult to generalize the styles made in other regions. For example, in the Yarra Valley, different clones, varied altitudes, and winemaking preferences give birth to many different expressions of Chardonnay. Here there are many debates amongst producers whether malolactic fermentation should be encouraged or not. Many block malolactic fermentation to produce a leaner wine with more tension. The same discussion goes for oak. Some adopt a Chablis style, while others add a touch of oak. However, just like in the Margaret River and many other places in Australia, a reductive winemaking technique has been widely adopted.  

Tasmania   

One could say that the steely backbone of Tasmania Chardonnay defines the island’s style. Minerality and tension always seem to appear in those wines, and one needs to be very careful with the amount of new oak used as the wines can be quite delicate. But a regional expression has yet to be defined as there are so many different subregions and microclimates. My impression from spending some time there leaves me thinking that this is an area very much in evolution that will give birth to something even more extraordinary in the years to come.

Great Chardonnay from Australia does not stop with those three regions. Some of my favourites come from Adelaide Hills. I do believe that the grape is truly one of Australia’s best assets and perhaps, rather than Shiraz, Chardonnay should be the flagship grape of the country.

If you wish to learn more about the nuances between the different regions, Australian Wine Discovered is a great learning tool. (https://www.wineaustralia.com/education) Chardonnay has never been so cool, and so good.

Cullen Wines in Margaret River - Credit : Michelle Bouffard