Chardonnay blind tasting presented by Steve Webber

Seminar 11: The Landmark Tutorial 2010

By Edward Ragg
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Edward Ragg, Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting

Edward Ragg, Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting [©Redfish Bluefish Creative]

Dr Tony Jordan and Paul Henry

 

If pinot noir has undergone a quality and stylistic revolution in Australia in the last decade, the faces of Australian chardonnay have never been more exciting or diverse. Of course, the category ‘Australian chardonnay’ has much more meaning at entry-level, not least for South-Eastern Australian blends, than for mid-range or premium wines.

However, with overplanting in some of Australia’s cooler spots (e.g. Adelaide Hills), even generic Australian chardonnay from the likes of Jacob’s Creek or Yellow Tail may have a small proportion of higher quality fruit than hitherto.

Steve Webber of De Bortoli has done much, both with chardonnay and pinot noir, not to mention numerous other varieties, in creating elegant, restrained wines; unashamedly Australian in terms of being site-specific, but a far-cry from the staple image of ‘Australian chardonnay’ as burly, laden with tropical fruit, lashings of oak and all-too-heady alcohol.

In truth, this image, largely attributed to a style for entry-level wines that has itself changed since the 1980s, never did justice to the actual diversity of Australian chardonnay that has existed for a while, with wineries like Lake’s Folly and Tyrrell’s being long-established sources of fine examples of the grape.

Flanked by the bubbly Virginia Willcox of Margaret River’s Vasse Felix – another veteran producer – Webber led the Landmark’s scholars through a captivating range of chardonnays drawn from Australia’s major wine-producing states and classic regions. Another blind-tasting, the tasting experience catalyzed some lively debate as to the nominal direction in which premium Australian chardonnay is now leaning: generally speaking, yielding more scaled-back wines with little or no malo, lower alcohols, less use of new oak (and less toasted oak) with less or moderated lees-influence.

A classic example of this style would be the 2007 Yering Station Single Vineyard Coombe Farm Chardonnay, Yarra Valley which is deliberately ‘Chablis-like’; although it should be said that this wine is considerably higher in quality than generic Chablis and Yering Station cannily makes a range of chardonnays designed to express different styles drawn from different sources of fruit from the Upper to Lower Yarra.

There is a real argument, of course, as to whether Australia’s tirelessly over-achieving winemakers may learn one lesson too hard, which is to say that its chardonnays become so scaled-back – the antithesis of primary fruit and marked oak – that they fall foul of rejection in the future, having moved from one fashion abruptly to another. On a side-visit to Mornington Peninsula, one winemaking team was jubilant to have made a lean chardonnay with only 1 g of residual sugar post-fermentation. As this is a sugar-level more than comfortably below the threshold for detection on the palate, this seemed more like a ‘winemaker’s wine’ than one designed to give pleasure; at least this appeared an obsessive objective, even given the leaner mouthfeel derived. But, as Mornington Peninsula as a region shows, there are plenty of styles of chardonnay to be enjoyed, as there are across Australia as a whole.

Some of the wines that showed best here, under blind conditions, albeit still on the young side, were: 2006 Oakridge 864 Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, 2007 Tyrrell's Winemaker's Selection Vat 47 Chardonnay, Hunter Valley, 2008 De Bortoli Estate Grown Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, 2008 Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills and the 2008 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay, Margaret River.

But the striking thing was how consistent the quality was across the board with wines from established sources such as the aforementioned 2007 Yering Station Single Vineyard Coombe Farm Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, 2007 Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, 2007 Voyager Estate Margaret River Chardonnay, 2008 Yabby Lake Block 6 Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula and the 2008 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Beechworth all promising great things. The 2008 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Beechworth itself, like some of Giaconda’s other wines during the week, split opinion, offering its characteristically rich, plush fruit, distinct oak and overall power (for my part, this wine is still too young to enjoy).

I was not, prior to this tasting, familiar with either the 2007 Gembrook Hill Chardonnay, Yarra Valley or the 2008 Domaine Epis Macedon Ranges Chardonnay, both elegant wines, again very much on the young side in terms of development; whilst the 2008 Freycinet Vineyard Chardonnay, Tasmania showed not only what Tasmania can offer in terms of cool-climate chardonnay with bright acidity and the promise of longevity, but also Freycinet as a significant producer (also shown elsewhere in the Tutorial).

For Webber, part of the excitement of the new chardonnays coming on line, has to do not only with expressions of terroir or site, but greater clonal availability and experimentation with different clones in different locations (Webber noted how in addition to the Penfolds 58 clone and Mendoza clone, with its ‘hens’ and ‘chicks’, some Dijon clones were now appearing).

Webber’s own philosophy for chardonnay in the cellar has been to eschew some of the very cool fermentations that have been popular in recent years (often below 18 Celsius – more handling one would expect for riesling or sauvignon blanc). Webber prefers a warmer fermentation range (say, from 18-30 C) to help emphasize rather than restrain some of the naturally ripe fruit Australia can offer, aiming to combine both generosity on the palate but still balanced by lifting acidity and not too high alcohol.

So, is there, in reality, one new style of premium Australian chardonnay? Not exactly. Diversity and regionality are appropriate ‘buzz words’ here. The recent performance of an impressive range of Australian chardonnays in a Decanter panel tasting testifies to the fact that some of these wines are now getting international note. This is thoroughly well-deserved and has been a familiar, if evolving narrative, in Australian wine circles for some time.

Tasting Notes

  

This article was originally published on Enobytes.com

This is the penultimate instalment of a 14-part series in which Edward Ragg provides an in-depth Inreview of last year’s Landmark Tutorial, a showcase of Australia’s finest wines. Co-founder, with Fongyee Walker, of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting based in Beijing, Ragg has also produced detailed tasting notes on all 185 of the wines tasted in the Landmark seminars on Adegga.

 

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