Ever since Murray Tyrrell jumped a barbed wire fence in 1967 to nick pruned cuttings from Penfolds experimental HVD Vineyard there has been a fascination with the evolution and quality of Australian Chardonnay. The release of Tyrrell’s Vat 47 began an irrevocable and bumpy journey of ideas, experimentation and evolution of style. The search for identity through wine making philosophy and regional expression was accompanied by more than a soupcon of posturing, tantrums and ego.
The wine show system – with a stranglehold on opinion and momentum – promoted billowing over-oaked Chardonnays famously nicknamed Dolly Partons by Len Evans. A reaction by some winemakers to the order of the day was to make restrained anorexic Chardonnays with the promise of aging potential but little else. If Shiraz is King, Chardonnay is the Emperor with a severe no clothes syndrome. A myriad of blind tastings throughout the 1990s to the present day show that not all supposedly great Australian Chardonnays stump up the goods. A polarisation of quality has ensued where the best are undisputed but the rest represent something of a lottery.
It is with this thought in mind when I recently chaired a tasting based on Jeremy Oliver’s eleven highest scoring Chardonnays from his self-published 2007 and 2008 Australian Annual Wine Guides. The event was organised by Mark and David Fesq of Fesq & Co on behalf of Mike Peterkin of Pierro. By way of introduction, Jeremy Oliver is a leading wine writer who has done much to educate, promote and unearth fine Australian wine. His best-selling Australian Wine Annual is a highly regarded guide (first published in 1993) which provides a snapshot of the current status quo, scores and reviews, and a personal numerical rating of Australia’s best wines. In his explanation of his wine ranking system, Oliver does recognise Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine as “worthwhile”. I must also return the grenade of faint praise and tell him that his ranking system is “worthwhile” too, whatever that means.
Jeremy Oliver’s yearly ratings – while personal rather than market driven – provide a good barometric view of perceived quality and the status quo of the day. In 1993 his top scoring Chardonnays were Bannockburn, Giaconda, Leeuwin Estate Art Series, Pierro and Rosemount Roxburgh. Capel Vale, Coldstream Reserve, Cullen, Dromana Estate, Evans Family, Lake’s Folly, Massoni, Moss Wood, Mountadam, Nicholson River, Petaluma, Piper’s Brook, Rosemount Estate Show Reserve, Seville Estate, Shantell, Stonier’s, Tarrawarra, Tyrrell’s Vat 47 and Water Wheel attracted ratings just underneath his top rating. In 2003 Jeremy Oliver’s top scoring wines were Giaconda, Leeuwin Estate Art Series, Petaluma, Petaluma Tiers and Pierro. Bannockburn, Bannockburn SRH, Cape Mentelle, Cullen, Dalwhinnie, Devil’s Lair, Domaine Epis, Grosset Piccadilly, Hardy’s Eileen Hardy, Lake’s Folly, Moss Wood, Mount Mary, Penfolds Yattarna, Rosemount Roxburgh, Shaw & Smith Reserve, Tyrrell’s Vat 47, Wantirna Isabella and Yeringberg followed suit.
In 2008 Jeremy Oliver’s number one ratings were given to Giaconda, Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Pierro. Bindi Composition, Bindi Quartz, Coldstream Reserve, Cullen, Epis, Grosset Piccadilly, Hardy’s Eileen hardy, Kooyong Faultline, Lake’s Folly, Moss Wood, Mount Mary, Penfolds Yattarna, Petaluma, Petaluma Tiers, Rosemount Orange Vineyard, Shaw & Smith M3 Vineyard, Tarrawarra Reserve, Tyrrells’s Vat 47, Vasse Felix Heytesbury, Voyager Estate, Wantirna Isabella, Yarra Burn Bastard Hill, Yering Station Reserve, Yeringberg are all scatologically rated as number twos. 2006 Woodlands Cloe and 2005 Yalumba FDW7C – not given a rating in the body of the annual – are included in Oliver’s top ten wines of the year. Presumably one hit does not a star batsman make.
This sequence of ratings does show an interesting trend towards the demure and classical styles. The age of trash goddesses have been replaced with the Audrey Hepburnesque – which perhaps explains Jeremy Oliver’s enthusiasm and high ratings of Epis and Bindi, both located up the road from the spa town of Hepburn Springs. Margaret River, Adelaide Hills and Yarra Valley are strong regional claimants for making Australia’s most consistent and beautiful Chardonnays. This trend is clearly supported through Langton’s wine auction market. Orange in New South Wales seems to have remarkable potential. It will be fascinating to see if this region can pull it off. There is no argument about Giaconda, Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Pierro. I would agree these are the holy trinity of Australian Chardonnay and as satisfying and resonating as any Grand Cru White Burgundy.
Jeremy Oliver has a history of flagging interesting wines or flying a personal kite. Not all of his selections have been enduring but he has championed some winners. He was an early proponent of Giaconda and has been a die hard supporter of Mount Mary – a wine that gets mixed reviews from other opinion leaders. This was a wine that John Middleton was once thinking of discontinuing because of disease problems in the vineyard. It has completely transcended fashion and continues to enthral collectors. The Macedon region seems to be gathering momentum on the fine wine scene. Sommeliers have been particularly fired up with the wines of Bindi, Curly Flat (not reviewed in the Australian Wine Annual) and Epis. However what I have seen is very mixed and I think it is too early days to fete these wines as overly exceptional although there have been a few eye popping vintages along the way. Matt Harrop’s 2006 Shadowfax Macedon Ranges Chardonnay is for instance a cracker. There are some lovely enthusiastic characters around Macedon. Perhaps they will fill the shoes of expectations with a little help from God and global warming?
**2005 Pierro Chardonnay, Margaret River – Western Australia
(Langton’s Classification – Outstanding)
Pale colour. Beautiful classical wine with pear/ apple/ peach/ blossom aromas and some savoury notes. The wine is incredibly seductive with lovely fruit richness, leesy complexity, long mineral acidity and underlying new oak. This is a multi layered wine with plenty of creamy texture, a touch of al-dente grip and plenty of flavour length. A wonderful vintage. 99 points
**2005 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Beechworth – Victoria
(Langton’s Classification – Exceptional)
Pale colour. Very striking smoky/ lanolin/ grilled nut/ grapefruit/ lemon curd aromas. It’s complex and delicious with plenty of grilled nut/ lemon curd/ lanolin flavours, beautifully seasoned savoury oak and fine long acidity. A really interesting and evocative wine. 97 points
**2005 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River – Western Australia
(Langton’s Classification – Exceptional)
Pale colour. Grapefruit/lemon aromas with some lanolin/ grilled nut notes. Beautifully concentrated and diamond clear palate with fresh grapefruit/ lanolin flavours, creamy mid-palate richness and perfectly balanced with vibrant acidity and underlying savoury oak. Finishes long, minerally and sweet. 97 points
**2005 Yalumba FDW7C Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills – South Australia
Pale colour. Intense lime/ pear/ vanilla aromas with some leasy complexity. Teh palate is fresh and delicious with pure fruit/ pear skin/ lime flavours, lovely yeasty complexity and underlying oak. Fine bright acidity runs across the palate and carries the fruit down the throat. Fabulous wine. 95 points
**2005 Moss Wood Chardonnay, Margaret River – Western Australia
Medium pale colour. Fragrant lemon curd/ grapefruit/ pear/ herb aromas with hint of bisquity oak. The palate is sweet and powerfully concentrated with plenty of fruit richness, indelibly strong acidity and well balanced new oak. It finishes chalky dry but it has great flavour length. I was very impressed by this wine. 94 points
**2005 Bindi Quartz Chardonnay, Macedon Ranges – Victoria
Pale colour. Fresh flinty/ lemon curd/ pearskin aromas. The palate is concentrated and powerful yet delicate, crisp and restrained with pearskin/ lemon flavours and mineral/ cutting acidity. The wine has plenty of energy and flavour length. A really interesting wine showing the potential of vineyard site. 93 points
**2005 Penfolds Bin 144 Yattarna Chardonnay, South Australia
(100% Adelaide Hills)
Pale colour. This is a very elegant wine with floral/ camomile/ minerally/ slaty aromas. A fresh, clear and minerally palate with pearskin/ melon/ camomile flavours, some mid-plate richness and piercing acidity. It’s a very tight lean wine. 93 points
**2005 Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay, Yarra Valley - Victoria
Pale colour. Ripe fresh pear/ apple/ guava aromas with some vanilla notes. The palate is generous with plenty of ripe pear/ melon/ grilled nut flavours, new vanilla oak and fine mineral acidity. It finishes slightly chalky, but long, minerally and sweet. A really well made wine. 93 points
**2005 Mount Mary Chardonnay, Yarra Valley – Victoria
(Langton’s Classification – Distinguished)
Pale colour. A highly individual and fragrant wine with complex pearskin/ melon/ lanolin aromas. The palate is minerally/ flinty with juicy pear/ apple/ melon flavours and high pitched acidity. It finishes chalky dry and long. The wine has lovely balance, extract and weight. Probably best to keep for a while. 92 points
**2005 Wantirna Estate Isabella Chardonnay, Yarra Valley – Victoria
Pale colour. Lemon/ grapefruit/ wet stone aromas with some yeasty notes. A very fresh and vivacious wine with surprisingly rich grapefruit/ lemon curd flavour and minerally long acidity. It finishes long and sweet with a touch of herb/ grip. 90 points
**2005 Epis Chardonnay, Macedon Ranges – Victoria
Pale colour, Canned pineapple/ creamy aromas with some savoury oak. Unusual wine showing pineapple/ lemon curd flavours and fresh long but strong acidity. It has plenty of fruit sweetness and generosity, but it doesn’t have mid palate weight, finesse or complexity. It’s an interesting wine nonetheless. 84 points
Jeremy Oliver says, “There is no subtle or polite way to make the next point. If you are one of the many wine drinkers who go out of their way to shun chardonnay on the basis that it is fat, flabby, over-oaked or simply unfashionable, then you’ve got it wrong. Modern Australian chardonnay, season of course permitting, is very different to that which your criticisms might have been more correctly applied several years ago. The market has spoken and the makers have reacted. Australian chardonnay has been redrafted. It has never been better, fresher or tighter. Rejoice in that, for someone has actually listened to your comments. Deny this change and you’re in danger of becoming a drinking dinosaur.” I think this statement is generally true but there are still a number of over-priced Chardonnays parading as Grand Cru type wine. Inevitably they will disappoint.
Perhaps we should call this particular genre “Grand Screw Chardonnay”.
Andrew Caillard MW
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