Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

MAJOR TASTING OF 37 TOP AUSTRALIAN CHARDONNAYS

October 2016. How good are Australian Chardonnays? I tasted some good ones 36 years ago (and plenty of other white and red varietals) – when Len Evans invited me down to Château Rahoul in the Graves – in Bordeaux of all places! – to deepen my understanding of Australian wines. Not one to let any opportunity slip, he also roped me in to help pick unripe grapes in the catastrophic 1980 vintage, then in progress. Under unceasing rain we got very wet together.

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Since then I’ve tasted all kinds of Australian wines but never systematically. As to Aussie Chardonnays, over the years I‘d found some good ones, a few very good ones, and some less good. The latter category was often clumsy, with high alcohol and exaggerated flavours reminiscent of tropical and tinned fruits. Freshness and elegance were not much in evidence.

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So when the Institute of Masters of Wine recently arranged a tasting of fully 37 new wave Australian Chardonnays from top estates I made a beeline for the venue: Vintners’ Hall in London.

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The IMW had organized the tasting so as to settle the question: Can we now see “a golden age of fine Chardonnay from Australia, in which balance and longevity combine in a certain generosity that make the best so distinctive and appealing.” Had the recent search for restraint gone too far towards an unwonted austerity? Or had the reaction against the bold, ripe styles of the 1990s led to greater complexity, longer life-span, expression of terroir, and more freshness?

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At the end of the tasting I was convinced that the latter was indeed the case, and that Australia is now making Chardonnays with pronounced varietal character, with good freshness and modest alcohol levels, and at a level of quality to challenge all but the very greatest wines of Burgundy. One extremely good sign is that fully 12 of the 37 wines were at below 13 ABV, with one excellent example, with good concentration and plenty of body, dosing a mere 11.7 ABV. When has one last seen a good white Burgundy at that modest level of alcohol?

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And most wines had excellent acidity, even if a couple showed a slight hint of volatile acidity. Overall, not more than two or three exhibited any of the old, over-emphatic style of the past. There was not the faintest suggestion of premature oxidation (“premox”) in any single sample. But then, most were only 2-3 years old.

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Needless to say, a majority of the wines were from cooler regions such as Western Australia and Tasmania; while those from hotter regions were from the cooler microclimates found in those parts.

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NEW SOUTH WALES

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2007 TYRRELL’S VAT 47 CHARDONNAY (HUNTER VALLEY) ****

From three vineyard plots of sandy alluvial soil.

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A bright Chablis-style green-gold, this has a light, elegant aroma of greengage, lime, and honey. It’s a notably fresh, precise aroma, suggesting a wine younger than nine years. Clean and harmonious on the palate, with good concentration of fruit and no sharp edges. A smooth and refined wine, showing classic restraint, that would be superb with such delicate fish as John Dory or sea bass. It seems sure to show further improvement in the years to come.

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The first wine in any tasting, being a starting point, is sometimes hard to judge. I’d hoped to retaste this excellent example later, but time was called before that could be done.

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2012 EDEN ROAD COURABYRA CHARDONNAY (Tumbarumba)***

From a 2-ha high altitude (740 m) plot.

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The yellow-gold colour is less nuanced, the aroma less appealing, with its faint sprout-like whiff. A couple of swirls of the glass bring forth more enticing scents – yellow plum, apricot, orange, and blond tobacco. Better on the palate, with a Chassagne-like roundness and terroir character. The texture is viscous and full, with the kind of weight, but not the complexity, found in a Bâtard-Montrachet. Clearly in transition, the wine has real substance and should show its true worth at a later stage.

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SOUTH AUSTRALIA

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2015 PETALUMA CHARDONNAY (ADELAIDE HILLS) **

A green-yellow colour with a rich, blossomy Chardonnay aroma, this smells like Granny Smith apple, greengage, and beeswax. I also get a hint of dill, green fig, and chlorophyll. The flavour is fullish and round, with a longish greengage aftertaste. In quality terms, I’d equate it with a good village white Burgundy. It does lack precision, though, and trails off in the mouth, despite an acidity level of 8.2 g/l. However, this one-year-old may change out of recognition in the 2-3 years to come.

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2015 THISTLEDOWN SUILVEN CHARDONNAY ***

Bright in appearance, this possesses a fullish, noticeably mineral aroma of yellow rose, apricot, tangerine, and honey. Something polleny too. Broad and succulent, it reminds me of Meursault. That lushness shows, too, on the palate, which is medium full and distinctly orangey – the aftertaste actually mimics orange peel. Roughly of Burgundy Premier Cru quality, it needs a good three years to round out and should improve for a further 5 or so.

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2014 HILL SMITH ESTATE CHARDONNAY *

The rich yellow gold tinge suggests maturation in toasty newish oak (which intensifies colour), an impression reinforced by the exoticism of an aroma that fuses tropical fruits, especially mango, with fennel and bitter orange. A reversion, it seems to me, to the older Aussie approach to Chardonnay. It has a nice fat texture, if a bit over-emphatic. Sound in its way, sure to improve over the coming two years, it would work well with seafood curries or gratins. Comparable to a medium-grade Macon.

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2014 OCHOTA SLINT CHARDONNAY *

The nose is smooth and nuanced and quite full, smelling like a blend of apricot, wet white clay, and the spray from an orange being peeled. The medium full flavour is initially braced by an orangey acidity but the aftertaste turns out to be a bit simple, trailing off in the mouth. It could well fill out again as it matures and will certainly show better in a couple of years or so.

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2014 SHAW & SMITH M3 CHARDONNAY ***

Rich oaky yellow-gold colour, leading into a big, blossomy aroma that conjures up yellow rose and apricot. Dense enough to merit a second sniff, it quickly reveals a creamy texture, while the increasingly luscious scent shows growing refinement. The flavour impresses, with a fusion of lovely ripe fruit that, while intense, also shows classic restraint. On the palate, fine tangerine acidity, giving precision. The finish, while relatively closed, is persistent, promising future complexity. This actually reminded me of a good Puligny Premier Cru. Their declared policy of achieving low yields has paid off, resulting in good concentration and modest alcohol (12.5 ABV).

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2013 THE LANE BEGINNING CHARDONNAY ***

The colour is an oaky yellow-gold, while the nose merits attention because of its vinous, structured meld of apricot, marzipan, and green fig. On the palate, it’s weighty in the way a Chassagne is weighty, verging on pulpy. It’s a serious wine, assertive without aggressivity, with a power that has me thinking of a good white Rhône. Another echo of Chassagne – one grown on heavy red soil. The longish finish is a both earthy and stony.

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Worthy of respect.

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2013 HEGGIES EDEN VALLEY CHARDONNAY ***

The aroma is full, assertive, and vinous, a meld of russet apple, chalk, and raisin. A hint of white smoke too. It’s a round and homogeneous nose, with an expansiveness that can only come from fully ripe, healthy grapes. Good Chardonnay character. The flavour is quite full, with restrained richness, and holds up well in the glass. The aftertaste is long and nuanced, showing good terroir character. Like another wine I liked – the Shaw & Smith M3 – this has a modest level of alcohol: 12.5 ABV.

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2015 OXFORD LANDING ESTATES CHARDONNAY *

With that special golden glow of oak-infused whites, this has a full, exotic aroma, unmistakeably New World, of tinned apricots, mango, tangerine, and fennel. In the mouth, a lusciousness of almost gewürztraminer magnitude. A very rich wine, bulging with muscles, that’s clean but on the edge of being cloying. Will probably slim down in time and go well with lobster à l’Américaine or some such dish.

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TASMANIA

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To judge from these samples, Tasmania, in vinous terms, is to the Aussie mainland what New Zealand is to Australia, giving wines of delicacy and subtlety. It’s definitely a region to watch.

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2015 MINISTRY OF CLOUDS, MEADOWBANK **

No perceptible influence of new oak on the yellow-gold “robe” (I note later that they use old barrels) and the wine exhales a charming, expressive aroma, Alsatian in style, of ripe pear and honey, with a faint hint of parsnip. Very clean-cut on the palate (I’m again reminded of Alsace) and focused. The Chardonnay character is not very pronounced (I could easily have mistaken it for an old-vine Pinot Blanc) but it’s trim and appetising, not least due to the modest alcohol (12.9 ABV). Good with delicate fish like lemon sole, plaice, sea-bass.

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2014 JOSEPH CHROMY CHARDONNAY, RELBIA***

This has the nuanced green-gold tinge I associate with Puligny, and the nose – a composite of tangerine, acacia honey, and pineapple – shows a delicacy that also prompts thoughts of Wehlen. That delicacy follows through on to the palate, which shows a stylistic fusion of the Mosel and Puligny. A refined, subtle wine, a kind of watercolour study of the Chardonnay. Clearly an estate to watch.

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2014 TOLPUDDLE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY (S’TH TASMANIA) *** (*)

A pale yellow-gold, this has a full, flowery aroma, both natural and expressive, of sweet apricot, honey, and orange blossom. In fact, it’s very blossomy altogether. Once again I’m reminded of the Mosel but there’s also more than a hint of Leflaive finesse, especially in the lovely restrained lushness on the palate. Orange notes mingle with those of pineapple and acacia honey, and the texture shows a delectable succulence. This has a strikingly natural, unforced feel to it, with just the right level of viscosity.

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2013 DALRYMPLE ESTATE CAVE BLOCK CHARDONNAY ***

This has a clear, low-oak green-yellow look, exhaling subtle scents of greengage, chlorophyll, and chalk. I like this pure, gently expressive aroma, which (like the previous wine) turns my thoughts to the Mosel – an impression that grows as it gets more appley. Crisp acidity gives precision and length to the aftertaste. While not unmistakeably Chardonnay in style it’s an elegant, beautifully made wine that should improve for several years.

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VICTORIA

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2014 BROKENWOOD INDIGO VINEYARD CHARDONNAY *

The colour has the saturated yellow-gold tinge of oaked Chardonnay, while the rich, fruit-juicy aroma conjures up apricot and fennel. It’s full on the palate, and quite weighty – especially after those almost ethereal Tasmanians – with a reprise of apricot and fennel, veering now towards orange peel. The medium-long flavour is relatively simple but satisfyingly full. Needs a couple of years to open up and should improve further over the next 3-4 years.

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2009 LETHBRIDGE ALLEGRA CHARDONNAY **

This, too, is a rich yellow gold, and the nose is very Australian, being weighty and assertive, exhaling masses of apricot and mango fruit. The flavour is round and succulent, with plenty of energy, with a faint woody dryness (clean light toast oak) on the finish. A good example of a traditional Aussie Chardonnay, that should improve for a good 4-5 years. Has the build of a white Châteauneuf.

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2010 BROWN BROTHERS PATRICIA CHARDONNAY (KING VALLEY) **

This has a more nuanced (less oaky) yellow-gold colour and a full, expansive nose of orange blossom and apricot, with a fugitive hint of golden syrup. The flavour is rich and persistent, showing that special sweetness of totally ripe grapes. A luscious wine with crisp orangey acidity giving cut – but with a hint of sharpness on the finish. A serious effort though possibly just a bit too acidic for its own good. Time will tell.

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2013 CURLY FLAT THE CURLY CHARDONNAY **(*)

A rich, saturated yellow-gold, this has a full, sweetish aroma of tinned apricot, pollen, and orange peel. The flavour has considerable weight, like a ponderous Bâtard in structure (or rather an Enseigneurs, the Village plot that’s close to Bâtard). The flavour is viscous to the point of thickness, and rolls over your palate in an assertive way. It certainly has thrust and persistence, and a few minutes’ exposure to the air brings out a kind of refined earthiness that augurs well for the future. It’s the sort of wine that ought really to be decanted, proving to be more complex than you at first think.

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2015 CRITTENDEN CHARDONNAY ZUMMA VINEYARD ***(*)

This has the nuanced look of a wine of complexity. The aroma is subtle, gently flowery, and shows restraint. It’s a harmonious nose in the classic Chardonnay manner, smelling mostly of ripe white peach and acacia honey. Lean and taut, it’s totally free of anything extraneous. There’s a reprise of white peach and honey on the palate, and the long, gently luscious aftertaste is beautifully balanced. There’s scarcely a hint of oak.

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A wine of real distinction.

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2015 KOOYONG CLONALE CHARDONNAY ***

A bright green gold, this has a refined, expressive scent of white peach and honey, reminiscent of a medium-bodied Puligny – a nose with the honed-down, classic style found in a Pucelles (though not with that special finesse). In short, a focused, linear scent, that soon also encompasses white rose. The delicious, luscious flavour evolves into white peach with stone, with the barest hint of low-toast oak on the finish (wisely, they used only 10% new oak). A good wine that is, however, a shade shorter and less complex than the Zumma.

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2015 TEN MINUTES BY TRACTOR 10X CHARDONNAY *

The colour is rich yellow-gold and the aroma, on the heavy side, is slightly exotic, conjuring up mango, dried apricot, and brazil nut. The flavour is rich and viscous, verging on vendange tardive style, with a reprise of brazil and apricot. The finish is slightly bitter. A decent wine but a bit clumsy.

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2013 OCEAN EIGHT RESERVE CHARDONNAY ***

The nose is full and assertive, suggesting a meld of baked russet apple, kiwi, and chlorophyll. The rich, grapy flavour has a haunting quality, with its incremental scents of walnut, grapefruit, and greengage with stone. The aftertaste is rich and grapy, with just the right degree of dryness and optimal weight – substance without heaviness. This very true wine finishes on a sustained note of greengage jam.

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2013 PARINGA ESTATE CHARDONNAY ***

This wine, with its nucleus of perfectly ripe Chardonnay fruit, smells like a fusion of orange blossom, yellow rose, honey, and blond tobacco. It exudes depth and harmony. On the palate, concentrated Chardonnay fruit, hinting at apricot, orange, and tobacco, with ample minerality. A solid, well-crafted wine carrying real conviction, with Chassagne-style weight and build and a smooth, harmonious aftertaste. Excellent.

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2013 DALWHINNIE MOONAMBEL CHARDONNAY (?)

With the yellow-gold hue of oak-infused wine, this has a rich, very new World aroma of mango, marzipan, and orange peel. It’s not entirely harmonious. As full as white port on the palate, it has a rustic quality that is not very enticing. Maybe out of sorts…

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This and one other wine (Moss Wood Chardonnay, see below) had the highest alcohol of the entire tasting; 14.1 ABV.

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2015 LUKE LAMBERT LL CHARDONNAY (**)

With its nuanced green-gold colour, this Yarra Valley wine smells enticingly of apricot, greengage, and grapefruit peel, with a fugitive hint of waxy apple. Round and balanced in the mouth, it’s a well-crafted though relatively simple in constitution: while not without depth, it expresses little beyond generic Chardonnay character. Should drink well over the coming years.

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2014 GIANT STEPS TARRAFORD CHARDONNAY ***

This LOOKS like a Puligny, because of its delicately nuanced green-shaded pigmentation. The nose, too, reminds me of that commune, with its delicate scent of Poire William, pineapple, and tangerine. An intense aroma with real poise. The flavour is also intense, with very good acidity, with a reprise of pineapple, amplified with white peach and honey. The tangerine makes a comeback on the long, harmonious finish. The malo was blocked, which surely helped achieve this excellent counterpoise of fruit and acidity.

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A giant step for Australian Chardonnay.

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2011 OAKRIDGE 864 SINGLE BLOCK RELEASE **

This extravert wine, very Aussie, has a brilliant, nuanced appearance and an intense, exotic aroma suggestive of apricot, orange juice, and nail varnish (the latter surely transient). The assertive nose does not obscure the wine’s true Chardonnay character. Weighty, with high viscosity, it may lack subtlety at present but possesses genuine varietal character. A wine of worth.

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WESTERN AUSTRALIA

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2012 CHARDONNAY ISOLATION RIDGE VINEYARD **(*)

With its bright, nuanced appearance, this has a broad, luscious aroma (almost quivery) of greengage jam with chalky undertones. The lushly fruity flavour brings a reprise of greengage, with a point of sweetness. There’s plenty of still inchoate substance and I feel sure this will develop into really good, harmonious Chardonnay with Meursault build. Still young at four years.

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2014 CAPE MENTELL MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAY ***

The colour is a nuanced green-gold while the marrowy nose sends out gusts of greengage, pear, and russet apple. The greengage soon dominates. It’s a clean-cut, focused aroma with suggestions of chalk. It has a lovely texture: smooth and luscious, with fine limey acidity giving length and precision. A wine of real sweep, it should evolve well for several years. Very good.

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2014 LARRY CHERUBINO MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAY **

An oaky green-gold colour, this has a full, dense aroma, very New World, of tinned fruit with mango in the ascendant. As expected, the flavour is viscous and feels slightly sweet, but that’s more to do with richness of fruit than residual sugar (only 0.7 g). The Chardonnay character is pronounced, and behind the ample fruit one can detect good structure and pronounced minerality.

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Needs 2-3 years to show its true character.

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2014 MOSS WOOD CHARDONNAY ***

The nose is full and generous with authentic Chardonnay character, conjuring up apricot, mirabelle, and yellow plum with stone. The flavour, likewise, is voluminous, with a reprise of plum and mirabelle. A hint of that unique berry, cloudberry, shows on mid-palate. The aftertaste is long and vigorous, with some real complexity beginning to emerge. This is a very true Chardonnay, in a forceful yet nuanced style reminiscent of Etienne Sauzet. Should develop superbly over the coming 5-6 years.

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2014 VASSE FELIX HEYTESBURY CHARDONNAY

(Inadvertantly missed out)

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2013 VOYAGER ESTATE CHARDONNAY ***(*)

This has the special look of a fine Chardonnay that’s neither over-oaked nor over-extracted: a shiny green-gold, facetted like cut glass and with an inner glow. It has a fine harmonious nose of pronounced Chardonnay character, greengage in the ascendant, with the sort of depth found in a Côte de Beaune First Growth. On the palate, weight without ponderousness and plenty of minerality. A buoyant wine that rolls across the palate as only truly balanced wines can do. Excellent.

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2012 LEEUWIN ESTATE ART SERIES CHARDONNAY

Despite the use of 100% new oak barrels, this has a subtle, nuanced green yellow colour. I loved its flowery nose of fennel, greengage, and lime, but the flavour, slightly earthy, had a somewhat weedy quality. (I’d hoped to retaste this after the next wine – the last in the whole tasting – but the final bell rang out and, last-minute samples still in our glasses, we all had to go our separate ways).

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2011 HAMELIN BAY FIVE ASHES RESERVE CHARDONNAY ***

The brilliant green-gold sheen on this wine promised real quality – quality delivered on a superb mingled perfume of Poire William, greengage, and lime peel. It contrived to be at once ethereal and solidly constructed. On the palate it shifts easily into white peach and honey, with ripples of delectable sub-flavours. Clean-cut and subtle, full of refinement, it made me think of a Pucelles from Domaine Leflaive – high praise indeed!

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Bravo Australia!

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© Frank Ward 2016

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One Response to “MAJOR TASTING OF 37 TOP AUSTRALIAN CHARDONNAYS”

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