Chardonnay is a relative newcomer to Australia’s vinous landscape, introduced in the Hunter Valley in the late 60s and early 70s via the pioneering efforts of the late wine greats Murray Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines and Dr Max Lake of Lakes Folly.
In the early 80s, the chardonnay grape was on-trend. Most were big and bold, but sadly – and all too often – not so beautiful. Fat, unctuous ugly beasts were the order of the day and they were downright awful; their ponderous shape and structure meant they were the antithesis of wine’s purpose, which is to refresh the palate.
Unsurprisingly, consumers turned on them and embraced lighter, anodyne styles, such as pale, watery Sauvignon blanc – especially from New Zealand. As a result, Australian chardonnay was often scorned and derided, both at home as well as abroad, especially in Europe, where wine consumers had never really thought much of these “sunshine chardonnays.”
And while local wine aficionados recognised decades ago that high-quality examples were plentiful, it’s really only during the last decade that Australia has come to be accepted internationally as capable of producing chardonnay able to go toe-to-toe with the very best of France and America.
The reality is that there is now an abundance of seriously good Australian chardonnay, and a significant number of truly great ones. While many of the latter category are made in minuscule quantities, the following three wines are benchmark examples, which are reasonably available. Do yourself a favour and try at least one of these and you will understand why chardonnay is unquestionably the king of white wine grapes.
2018 Coldstream Hills Reserve chardonnay, Yarra Valley Victoria
Back in the mid-80s, Coldstream Hills was the new kid on the block, with its first vintage in 1985. This wine is made from the fruit of old vine vineyards, planted between 1985 and 1994.
The bouquet is clean and immediately forthcoming with characters of lemon curd and summer stone fruit with persistent cashew oak notes. It has plenty of intense fruit on entry, while the citrus and stone fruits continue throughout the medium to full bodied palate, with the clean, long finish punctuated with a perfectly-used oak full-stop. Winemaker Andrew Fleming has been on a roll for some years now and this “Reserve” wine continues that hot streak.
2018 Penfolds Reserve “Bin A” chardonnay, Adelaide Hills South Australia
Although this has played “second banana” to Penfolds’ Yattarna chardonnay – the 2017 of which is similarly stunning – for a number of years now, “Bin A” has been amongst the finest of Oz chardonnay, and this release adds to its reputation as such.
With its brilliant mid-lemon appearance and tantalising bouquet, with notes of struck matchstick (complex sulphide), white flowers and freshly cut white pear, which are all beautifully seasoned with perfectly-integrated French oak of which 40% was new.
This chardonnay has superb liveliness on entry and the precise, detailed flavours exhibit characters of white fruits, which play with some more exotic orange citrus notes. It has a palate profile with a strength and intensity as if wrought by a master stone mason. You’ll appreciate the marvellous length and the long serious saline tang, with distinct grip on the long finish. The nose is ridiculously good and the tangy lemon curd aftertaste is a great way to wrap up. A stunning, stunning wine.
2017 Leeuwin Estate Art Series chardonnay, Margaret River Western Australia
The long-standing flag bearer for “Margs” chardonnay, this wine from the cooler – and at times challenging – 2017 season, is absolutely one of the best ever released under the Art Series label.
The bouquet really sets the scene for what’s to come with complex tightly-wound notes of white pear against a background of nectarine and lemon, with new French oak at the back fighting for attention. It would be easy to mistake this as serious white burgundy. It has real power and impact on entry, which flows to serious mid-palate intensity with those pear notes continuing across the wines perfect proportions. A wine of great power and vitality, the finale is oh-so lingering with echos of almond, lime and lemon. A grand cru white burgundy quality at a fraction of the price, which could be cellared for 15-20+ years, especially in magnum.