Aussie Chardonnay ‘becoming too lean’

Too many modern styles of Australian Chardonnays show a tendency towards leanness which obscures the regional typicity the grape is capable of, a leading winemaker has said.

Larry Cherubino

Larry Cherubino

Speaking at the London Wine Fair, Larry Cherubino, winemaker for Robert Oatley Vineyards, said that some of the country’s Chardonnays showed evidence of “a lot of artifice”, with the style pendulum swinging from one extreme of honeyed richness to another of leanness.

“I think the pendulum is swinging pretty wide at the moment in terms of the range of styles,” he said.

“I think a lot of these big, honeyed styles of 10 or 15 years ago, they’ve gone and maybe in the place of those extremes we’ve got to the other extreme where we’ve got some wines that are quite lean.”

Cherubino said that his Chardonnays were targeted at drinkers who wanted “flavour and complexity” first rather than leanness, which the winemaker associated with such techniques as picking early, the reduction of malolactic fermentation, and a “lot of artifice which the wines cannot necessarily carry”.

“We’re not Chablis. We’re Australia,” he said. “Very, very top Chardonnay’s that are coming out of the country are as good as anything so we shouldn’t be afraid of making wines that have accessibility but also complexity – which is what we [at Robert Oatley] do.”

“There’s a big spread of [Chardonnay] styles out there, and essentially what we’re trying to make is wines that have lots of clarity, show really good typicity in terms of regionality and what the variety does – flavoursome, fresh, with the right balance of acidity.”

The Robert Oatley Wines Chardonnay range starts with the region-focused Signature series, then moves up to the sub-regional Finisterre, finishing with the single site-focused Pennant label.

Cherubino explained that the Signature range of Chardonnay used grapes source from across the Margaret River region, but that the Finisterre and Pennant labels used grapes from further south in the Margaret River region.

“We’ve always had these regions, but I think the reception outside of the domestic market has been Australia as being one amorphous blob. So one of the things we need to do in terms of getting the message across is that Australia has a lot of diversity to it – climatic diversity that would actually surprise some so people – so it’s not hot and it’s not dry everywhere,” he said.

“It needed to happen. We’re not saying we’re the first to do it but we really believe that’s the message that should’ve put out there. Particularly wines that make it overseas. We need to show what Australia can do on a regional basis.”

A Chardonnay enthusiast, Cherubino has established an impressive reputation since joining the Robert Oatley Vineyards project in 2006. He is known for producing wines of elegance and restraint, in which oak influence and alcohol levels are both relatively low.

“It’s not about technique,” the winekaker explained of the Robert Oatley range. “It’s all about where the grapes come from. You could be in a warm area, or you could be trying to overcome what’s around you, and from a style point of view, if I was in a really warm area, my wine wouldn’t necessarily work because the grapes I’d be picking earlier, I’d be trying to create the style. It’s [about] the path of least resistance and if you’ve got to really, really force it, it’s never going to come through in the way it should.

“If you look at Chardonnay from Burgundy, it tastes the way it does because that’s where the vineyards are – if you want to drink something rich you go to that end, if you want something else you go to that end. We’re lucky because we’ve invented for ourselves that whole story of provenance, but also the provenance is dictating the style and that’s what we’re known for.”

Robert Oatley Vineyards was set up by the Oatley family winemaking dynasty, which established the Rosemount brand, to showcase classic grape varieties from leading wine regions of Australia.

Robert Oatley deputy executive director and veteran winemaker Chris Hancock MW said the Robert Oatley range was a continuation of a philosophy that had been developed over four decades of winemaking in Australia.

“It’s a continuation of the philosophy we’ve had for 40 years, but of course what’s happened is the world has changed in all of that time and you need to have a new way of expressing that concept over time,” Hancock explained.

“I’ve really worked with two great winemakers in my life: one in the 80s or 90s, and Larry in the 2000s. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. Larry carries with him not just technical winemaking ability, but he understand what makes wine a good drink.

“We’re pretty open and flexible and accommodating about how our winemaker goes about making the wine provided he has the same philosophical outlook that we do, and this is why I say we have been blessed, because with Larry we have that.”

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