Over the last few decades Chardonnay has consistently been amongst the world’s most grown grape varieties. The variety is planted in more than 30 countries and it produces a wide range of styles from light-bodied, crisp and unoaked to full-bodied, complex and textured. The popularity of Chardonnay, particularly Australian Chardonnay, has waxed and waned: its heyday in the 1980s was followed by a backlash in the late 1990s, with a ‘lean and mean’ austere style replacing the big, bold, oak-driven wines. Roll forward to 2017, a stylistic shift has taken place; the pendulum has shifted back to the middle and a new wave of fresh, balanced and elegant wines have arrived on the scene.
The evolution of Australian Chardonnay
With a focus on premium, regionality and freshness, Australian Chardonnay has undergone a transformation. The move towards premiumisation has brought high quality, refined, complex Chardonnays, with ageing potential and real versatility with food. Cool climate regions by the coast and at elevation are attracting considerable interest, and producers are experimenting with single vineyards and sub-blocks of just a few rows. Techniques in the vineyard and in the winery have also evolved: hand harvesting, earlier picking, more gentle use of oak and the move to old French oak, minimal intervention and wild ferments are some of the practices which are reshaping the face of Chardonnay.
Chardonnay: The Making of an Australian Legend
Growing exports of Australian Chardonnay
In Australia, Chardonnay is the third most planted variety behind Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. According to IRI Market Edge Liquor, Chardonnay sales in Australia grew 2 per cent in the last year, with solid growth in sales above $15 per bottle offsetting a decline in those below $15 a bottle.
Exports of Australian Chardonnay are also up: the latest export report (MAT June 2017) shows that bottled exports of Chardonnay increased by 7 per cent in value to $178 million.
Over the last few years in the UK, export figures also highlight the revival of Australian Chardonnay. Australian Chardonnay exports to the UK increased by 14% to $32 million in 2016-17. This increase clearly reflects the on-going evolution of Aussie Chardonnay. The growth was exceptional at the premium end, with exports of Chardonnay at $10 per litre or more increasing by 31% to $3.2 million.
The growth in premium Chardonnay exports to the UK is also reflected in the strong performance of Australian Chardonnay at three recent wine competitions, where Chardonnay received record numbers of gold medals in 2017. At the Decanter World Wine Awards, Australian Chardonnay won 12 gold and platinum awards, surpassing its best past performance of 7 in 2014. At the International Wine Challenge, Australian Chardonnay won an extraordinary 22 gold medals – more than doubling the previous best of 10 in 2012. Also at the Sommelier Wine Awards, Australian Chardonnay won 5 awards, one more than it received in both 2015 and 2016.
Source: Wine Australia
Changing perceptions in the UK
Australian Chardonnay is winning favour again with the trade. Jancis Robinson MW admitted “at the moment I am finding more life, interest and certainly value in the best of the new generation Australian Chardonnays than I am in the great bulk of white burgundies” (JancisRobinson.com, October 2015) Similarly, Lucy Shaw, Editor of The Drinks Business, said “Australia is emerging as a country to watch for elegant, affordable, terroir-driven Chardonnays.” (The Drinks Business, November 2016).
"The spotlight is back on this Aussie classic, and advances in technique mean that its Chardonnays have taken a vibrant new direction…with greater refinement and diversity by style and origin, Australian Chardonnay is more interesting than ever."
Sarah Ahmed, Decanter magazine
Winning over the sommeliers
One group in particular whose attitudes have been changing are the sommeliers in the UK. Chris Losh, Competition Director at the Sommelier Wine Awards, noted the very positive reactions from top sommeliers towards the Australian Chardonnay entries. Chris told us that many tasters made the point that these wines are genuine alternatives to good Burgundy.
Previously, most of the Sommelier Wine Awards gold medals for Australia tended to be between £10 and £15. But this year, three wines between £10 and £20, one between £20 and £30 and one at almost £40 won gold medals. Chris Losh comments that “these wines, clearly, are doing a very different job from what restaurants expected of this category 20 years ago.”
Marcin Oziebly, sommelier at The Wild Rabbit, was impressed with the competition’s Australian Chardonnay line-up, noting “there was very good consistency in this flight; some big, oaky wines and also lighter styles. It was interesting to see how Chardonnay styles are evolving in Australia. You can still say it’s Australian Chardonnay – but they are elegant, classy.”
As well as shining a light on premium Australia, the competition also highlighted the rise of Tasmania and Margaret River. Several of the sommelier judges noted that these regions were ones to watch for quality Chardonnay.
“There were some good examples of the style that is coming out of Margaret River now: cleaner, fresher, more elegant.”
Andre Luis Martins, Head Sommelier at Cavalry & Guards Club
The future of Australian Chardonnay
Whilst the stylistic shift has been well documented and perceptions seem to be changing amongst the trade, there is still more to do to communicate the quality, diversity and evolution of Australian Chardonnay. Chardonnay is still the third most popular white grape variety amongst UK consumers (WSTA Annual Wine Report 2017), behind Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. As consumers look to lighter and fresher wines, understanding and highlighting the contemporary styles of Australian Chardonnay are paramount. The resurgence of Chardonnay is certainly occurring within the UK trade, but next up is convincing the consumers that Aussie Chardonnay is cool again.
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