Chardonnay: The Making of an Australian Wine Legend
Chardonnay: The Making of an Australian Wine Legend

It's hard to think of Australian wine without thinking of Australian Chardonnay.  It's a grape that has enjoyed the industry's highs and weathered it's lows with a remarkable level of resilience and which continues to hold a special place in the heart of Australian wine lovers across the globe.  Its story in Australia is ancient one; one that began when James Busby, known as the father of Australian viticulture, brought the first vine cuttings into the country in the 1830s. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Chardonnay gained a foothold in the Australian wine market. With its origins in France’s revered Burgundy region, Chardonnay quickly took root in Australia thanks to its disease resistance, relatively hardy temperament, early ripening and site adaptability. Today, it accounts for more than half of Australia’s white wine production, with 406,000 tonnes crushed in 2016, out of 807,969 tonnes of white wine grapes.

Australian Chardonnay. a colourful history...

Chardonnay thrives in a range of climates across Australia.  From the humidity of the Hunter Valley to the cool crispness of the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania, as well as classic, warmer regions like Margaret River and the Barossa Valley, it is ideally suited to Australia and reflects a taste of place wherever it's grown. Just how Chardonnay became such an integral part of Australian wine culture has a touch of the larrikin about it, in this instance that larrikin was Hunter Valley winemaker, Murray Tyrrell. The tale is often told of how Murray jumped the fence of the Penfolds HVD Pokolbin vineyard under cover of night to steal vine cuttings. These cuttings reputedly went on to become the basis for Tyrrell’s successful Vat 47 Chardonnay which was released to a highly receptive market in 1972.  Whether the tale is true or embellished is largely irrelevant, it's what it symbolises that matters; the Australian attitude to winemaking.  Unconstrained by centuries of tradition and rules, a willingness to take risks, to strike out and try something new, that is Australian winemaking at its innovative best. Many of Australia’s first Chardonnay cuttings in the early 1970s came from Mudgee, NSW.  One of the prized vineyards here was owned by Alfred Kurtz, a worker at Craigmoor who had been making his own Chardonnay since 1970.  His vines had been identified in 1969 by a visiting professor from Montpelier as one of the best disease-free clones of Chardonnay in Australia.  Mudgee winemaker Pieter van Gent released a Craigmoor Chardonnay in 1972.  The same year in the Hunter Valley, Tyrrell’s released a blend of Chardonnay and Semillon labelled as Hunter River Pinot Riesling. Also in 1972, having recognised the potential for cool-climate Chardonnay, Mountadam was established at the highest point in South Australia’s Eden Valley and became one of Australia’s first significant cool Chardonnay vineyards,  This was followed in the late 1970s, under the guidance of visionary Brian Croser, Petaluma in the Piccadilly Valley vineyard with the aim of creating a more refined cool-climate style of Australian Chardonnay. It was innovations such as these that allowed Australian wine to grow.  In 1968–69 only 33,000 hectares were planted to wine grapes in Australia with a harvest of 293,000 tonnes. By comparison, over 1.81 million tonnes of white and red wine grapes were harvested in 2016, with vineyards covering more than 135,000 hectares – 21,000 of those being planted with Chardonnay.  From humbling beginnings as they say...

'90s excess

By the time the 1980s rolled around, everything was big.  Expense accounts, shoulder pads and Chardonnay. Rosemount, bankrolled by entrepreneur Bob Oatley, led the charge with its ripe, oaky fruit-salad styles like Roxburgh and Diamond Label which burst with buttery, toasty richness and were loaded with enough personality to withstand the longest business lunch deals, backyard barbecues or art gallery openings. The darling of Australian white wine hit the scene with a bang. Fruit-forward, 'sunshine-in-a-bottle' became synonymous with Australian wine.  Consumers in the UK, Europe and North America lapped it up and helped cement Australia’s ongoing wine export success.  If the bottle had a quirky Australian name or cute critter on the label (and butter yellow wine inside) it was flying off the shelves. But fashions, and fortunes, change. Chardonnay’s path could be seen as a vinous economic barometer, reflecting Australia’s fiscal peaks and troughs. With a turn to austerity at the end of the 1990s, the desire for leaner, crisper style took hold.

A new, new-world Chardonnay style

It wasn’t only only the economy that affected Australian Chardonnay’s fortunes, though. A challenger arrived from New Zealand in the form of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. With its intense pungency, high acidity and tangy tones, it was the antithesis of ripe, fruit-filled oaky Chardonnay. Australian winemakers soon realised that a new style would be needed to appeal to an audience buoyed by an incoming wave of Sauvignon. If things weren't bad enough, a new movement began at this time; the so-called 'ABC' (Anything But Chardonnay). The media latched onto this and publicised it with glee and the shift in tastes became a part of the market that was too large to ignore. Winemakers decided to create a new, new style of Chardonnay by taking a more hands-off approach, push oak to the background and letting crisper, fresher fruit do the talking. In contrast to the blousy styles of the 1980s and ’90s, Australia’s new, new-wave Chardonnay reflected laser-like acidity, restraint, elegance and minerality. And the market hasn’t looked back.

Australian cool climate stars

Cool climate regions excel at producing the Chardonnays that have kept Australian wine on the world map.  Leading regions include Tasmania, Western Australia (Great Southern, Geographe), Victoria (Yarra Valley, King Valley, Mornington Peninsula), South Australia (Adelaide Hills) and NSW-ACT (Canberra district, Orange, Tumbarumba). Regional diversity is as much a key selling point of Australian wine as winemaker influence - such as fruit ripeness or barrel fermentation.  The ground in which Chardonnay is grown imparts its own character and qualities, so warmer climates like the Barossa Valley, Margaret River and parts of Victoria continue to produce richer, riper styles that provide a contrast to the leaner, cool-climate styles.

Australian Chardonnay: the next generation

A new generation of winemakers are bringing experience, expertise, experimentation and bold ideas that are shaking up the Australian Chardonnay landscape. In Victoria’s Yarra Valley, Luke Lambert has broken from tradition, creating naturally complex, multi-layered wines using wild yeast fermentation, wild malolactic fermentation and large, old oak casks to create wines that reflect the lean qualities of the harsh, rocky soils high in the Yarra Valley. Mac Forbes is another Yarra Valley winemaker following a natural, sustainable path to craft his Chardonnay, winning accolades for his complex, elegant style that reveals a tightly wound core of freshness. Tasmanian winemaker Anna Pooley believes that super-premium wines need to be handcrafted with minimal intervention to let the qualities of the vineyard shine through. Pooley’s pristine single-vineyard Cooinda Vale Chardonnay is made from fruit that was once destined for Penfolds highest tier, Yattarna Chardonnay. Fermented in concrete eggs, Si Vintners is from the southern Margaret River and looks as if its being hatched rather than made. The beautifully named Halcyon Block was planted in 1978 – making it one of Margaret River’s oldest – and employs biodynamic practices to let the purity of the fruit shine. In Geelong’s cool climate, father and son winemaking team Gary and Nick Farr create boutique, single-vineyard Farr Rising Chardonnay that shows impressive drive, structure and length, achieved through hand-harvested, whole-bunch pressed grapes, natural fermentation, lees stirring and malolactic fermentation. Australian Chardonnay today is a wine that takes advantage of its climatic origins and highlights the effects of winemaking influence. It’s not about being punched in the nose with oak or whacked across the palate with a mouthful of fruit salad.  With a more elegant, refined style, Australian Chardonnay creates a perfectly food-friendly wine without overpowering or dominating.

The future of Australian Chardonnay

Where next for Australian Chardonnay?  The 2016 harvest increased by 6% on the previous year while the overall average purchase value of Chardonnay grapes rose 21%, the greatest increase of all varietals. New-wave Australian winemakers willing to push boundaries and challenge the status quo with a more artisanal, experimental approach are bringing new, exciting Chardonnays onto the market.  Competing with, and often equalling to, the quality and style of Premier Cru Burgundies, Australia’s premium wines carry a distinctive signature and an excellence that is all their own. Along with cool climate examples from Australia’s major commercial wineries, it’s worth keeping in eye on independent family-owned wineries; keen young winemakers and small-batch producers who are crafting Chardonnays with an edge.  Some winemakers still include big, buttery ripe styles in their ranges – producers like Cape Mentelle, Evans & Tate (Margaret River), Scarborough, Lakes Folly and Tyrrell’s (Hunter Valley), Grant Burge (Barossa Valley) and Hardys (South Australia) to name a few, and this range of styles just adds to the thrilling scene that is Australian Chardonnay.

Australian Chardonnay: Adaptable. Versatile. Outstanding.

Although Chardonnay’s popularity has waxed and waned over the decades, its enduring popularity could mean that ‘ABC’ now stands for ‘Always Bring Chardonnay’.  Whatever other acronyms are appropriate to Australia Chardonnay, 'A.V.O.' - adaptable, versatile, outstanding - will always be one of them.

 

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