Credit: Ryan Linnegar/12 Micron
“It’s granny wine”, revealed a recent office straw poll on the all-important matter of Chardonnay, the consensus around which is that the much-maligned varietal is still feeling the effects of hangover that began some time around the turn of the century and has continued, largely unabated, ever since.
Chardonnay, it would appear, has become inseparable from its backwater sister ‘Cardonnay’, and as such continues to be thought of in a polarising context. That’s likely because of the ubiquity of the predominant style in the 1980s and 90s: an exaggerated, bolshy cocktail with strong notes of oak erring on rich, buttery, melon redolent flavours.
That style of wine enjoyed legion fans, many of whom remain converts to its unapologetic flavour profile today. But for those of us who weren’t weaned on its tropical fruit stylings, it lacks the complexity, balance and finesse that we associate with a great deal many other white wine varietals. And while Chardonnay is largely associated with the nutty, oaky fruit-driven flavours of Australia, its spiritual home remains in Burgundy, France. Today, however, is International Chardonnay Day, and as such it deserves to be celebrated for its universal appeal.
“Chardonnay has had an evolution like no other variety,” Laura Jewell, a Master of Wine and Head of Market at Wine Australia, told GRAZIA. “It first came to Australia in the 1920’s but didn’t find its feet until the 1970’s when it gained popularity as an easy drinking style, perfect for newcomers to wine. However, in the 1980s everything was big, and the ‘sunshine in a glass’ styles – together with the increase in popularity of the leaner Sauvignon Blancs – led to a backlash against the grape.”
As enthusiasm waned, so too did the riper flavours that were once in favour, and according to Trina Smith, Group White and Sparkling Winemaker at Jacob’s Creek. “The reaction was to produce Chardonnay’s in the complete opposite manner – wines were skinny and lacking any fruit flavour.” From one extreme to another, it’s little wonder the wine comes with an unshakable and unpalatable reputation.
But, as you may have guessed depending on the proficiency of your comprehension skills, all that has changed.
A new generation of cool-climate wines produced in leaner styles are being attributed to a resurgence in the popularity of Chardonnay, says Jennifer Doyle, Jansz Tasmania Vigneron, who believes the case to be particularly true of sparkling wines.
“In reality, Chardonnay is incredibly varied,” says Doyle. “It’s one of the most versatile and resilient varietals meaning it can be produced in many of Australia’s top wine regions, resulting in a wonderful array of wines from a Blanc de Blanc sparkling (which can be made with 100% Chardonnay) to elegant and refined style from South Australia’s Eden Valley or the more popular Yarra Valley in Victoria, where some producers are starting to champion their own distinct style of house Chardonnay. It’s a process of maturation.”
“Today wine drinkers now want a Chardonnay that is more balanced, a wine which has energy and vibrancy, both on the nose and palate,” agrees Smith, who says she is aiming to produce Chardonnay that achieves such a balance “with close attention paid to the oak used and how long the wine is in oak.”
Look also toward Western Australia’s Great Southern and Geographe Bay; Victoria’s King Valley and Mornington Peninsula; South Australia’s Adelaide Hills; and wines from the Canberra district, as well as Orange and Tumbarumba when it comes to choosing cool climate Chardonnays, says Jewell, where winemakers “are bringing experience, expertise, experimentation and bold ideas that are shaking up the Australian Chardonnay landscape.
“People say it’s boring”, she adds. “[But] Chardonnay can produce the most exquisite, long lived and fascinating styles across a broad spectrum.”
Tile and cover image: Courtesy of The Dolphin