Chardonnay and Shiraz are undoubtedly Australia’s twin varietal icons, but while the latter has retained the world’s affection, the former had become distinctly unfashionable – and Oz has been blamed for altering its image.
Today, however, the country can be credited for its comeback. Historically accused of buttery blandness and short-lived tropical fruit flavours, Australia’s new Chardonnay style is slender, savoury and age-worthy – and so dramatic is the stylistic swing, it’s impossible not to take note.
Motivation for the change is debatable: some suggest it’s been the increasing presence of leaner European wines Down Under since the country’s currency strengthened relative to the euro, while others point to a call for greater purity and acidity from the country’s powerful sommelier community. More commonly cited, however, is the need to respond to growing sales of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – now the biggest white wine category in Australia. As Jarrad Olsen, winemaker at Vasse Felix, comments: “There has been a massive and concerted effort to steer people away from drinking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – which has been killing our industry – using modern Chardonnay.”
But while the causes of change are open to speculation, the outcome is certain, and it’s connected to a number of changes in the vineyard and winery. The first of which is grape sourcing. Key to Australia’s new wave Chardonnay is cooler-climate fruit, in which the country’s so called “Dress Circle” is dominant – a term used by commentator James Halliday to describe the regions around Melbourne, which are, in alphabetical order, Geelong, Gippsland, the Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. Beyond this clutch of Victoria-based areas, Tasmania is also important, along with the Adelaide Hills as well as Margaret River, and some would name-check Orange and Hunter Valley too.
Location alone of course is just one aspect to the change. Clonal selection is also considered important, with the increasing use of high quality Bernard clones, ‘76, ‘96 and ‘95 making their mark, along with the more historic Penfolds ‘58, and in Margaret River, the Mendoza or Gin Gin clone, which is rated by growers for its acid retention. All of these are gradually replacing high-yielding “I” clones.
Often overriding the clonal influence is vine age, and further assisting the drive for quality is the increasing number of old vineyards being isolated and recognised for the quality of their Chardonnay fruit. Over 17 years and producers start observing “minerality” along with greater “intensity”.