A Chardonnay workshop

It was Remington Norman’s book “The Great Domaines of Burgundy” (Kyle Cathie, 1992 and 1996) that first showed me how great wine can be made by people using diametrically opposed methods in the same village. Norman’s detailed explanation of winemaking techniques revealed that while one producer would tell you the only way to make Gevrey Chambertin is like this, you could walk around the corner to another domaine and be told a completely different story. Both would insist theirs was the only way, and both could be making great wine.

This came back to me during a recent seminar run by the distributors Mezzanine and Red + White, where five of their producers poured their wines, first chardonnays, then pinots noir, and the way each was made was discussed in detail.

Chardonnay is especially fun to ‘post-mortem’ in this way. As winemaker Tom Carson of Yabby Lake said: “There’s no white wine that relies more on process than chardonnay.” What he meant is that the winemaker’s choice of techniques and treatments has a marked effect on the kind of wine ultimately produced. And the range of possible winemaking techniques is large.

Take malolactic fermentation. Carson deliberately inhibits the malolactic, in order to retain as much natural grape acid as possible and preserve freshness. Michael Hill Smith, of Shaw & Smith, admits the vogue in Australia is for zero malolactic, not only to protect natural acidity but to keep the wine tight and fine and able to age.

But at Moorooduc Estate, the McIntyre family embrace the malolactic. “Our wines want to have a malolactic, and it doesn’t unbalance the wine,” says Kate McIntyre, marketing manager and daughter of winemaker Rick McIntyre. The McIntyres take the attitude that in Burgundy, chardonnay’s home, all great chardonnay has been through a malolactic, therefore malo character is part of the character of chardonnay.

At Shaw & Smith, they have a foot in both camps. They put some of their wine through malolactic, depending on the season. In a hot, low-acid vintage they will do less malo; in a cold season, more.

Carson, who worked his early vintages at Coldstream Hills and was influenced by the late John Middleton of Mount Mary (both of those wineries inhibit malolactic), reckons most Australian wine regions are at the hot end of the scale for fine chardonnay. If anything, the grapes are deficient in acid, so why would you permit a controllable microbiological change that further reduces acidity? Middleton was vocal in his belief that putting chardonnay through a malo, then adding acid to correct the imbalance, was nonsensical.

And yet Moorooduc Estate and others produce lovely chardonnay while encouraging the malolactic. As you might expect, though, their wines taste quite different to Yabby Lake’s, even though they are in the same region – the Mornington Peninsula – indeed, the same locality, the Moorooduc Plains.

The 2008 Yabby Lake Chardonnay ($43) (tastings) is light-yellow in colour and has a fresh, youthful, fruit-driven aroma and is tight and lively, leanish and delicate in the mouth, with room to grow and the potential to improve and build complexity over two or three years. It should live for at least eight if well cellared. “We want to make a complex but fine, long chardonnay,” says Carson. “We pick early, at 12 to 12.5 degrees Baume, and use larger oak puncheons – trying everything we can to lock it up and keep it as tight as possible.” No acid was added.

Next to it, we tasted the 2006 Moorooduc Estate ‘The Moorooduc’ Chardonnay ($58) (tastings). Not a fair comparison, strictly speaking, as it’s two years older. But it doesn’t really matter: the difference would still be stark if it were younger. The colour was medium-full yellow; the bouquet very rich and multi-faceted, hard to describe it was so complex, but honey, roasted hazelnuts, malty lees and vanilla were in there along with many other things. A big wine, tremendously rich and lingering, with a marvellously satisfying, almost chewy texture.

Hill Smith observed that chardonnay was really the “winemaker’s wine” because of the potential to directly intervene in the winemaking process with visible results. The choices include clone(s), oak and barrel type, wild yeast or not, malolactic or not, lees contact with or without stirring… “It’s why winemakers like chardonnay so much. It gives us room to play. And when it’s right it can taste very special.”

His Shaw & Smith 2006 M3 Chardonnay ($42) (tastings), from a cool year and with no acid addition, had 50% malolactic and tasted appropriately tight and fine. It was much more fruit-driven than a Burgundy tasted beside it – 2006 Louis Jadot Meursault Charmes ($157). It was cleaner, fresher and more youthful, yet didn’t lack complexity: an outstanding wine.

One of the most talked-about winemaking variables with chardonnay is the choice of wild yeast versus inoculation with cultured yeast. More and more Australians are opting for the former in search of greater complexity and texture. Said Carson: “Wild ferments are particularly good for chardonnay. With packet yeast there is a massive addition (if you follow the instructions), fermentation starts almost immediately, and it races through very quickly. With a wild ferment, however, it’s several days before anything happens, and I think there are changes happening even before it starts to crackle. A natural ferment is slow to start, long and slow and results in a very different mouth-feel.”

At Moorooduc Estate, where Rick McIntyre is a legendary bread baker and yeast nut, “wild yeast” is a winery slogan as well as a way of life. Indeed, the entire process is very hands-off. “We want lots of solids in the juice, so the yeast has something to eat,” said Kate McIntyre. “We certainly don’t filter or fine the juice. Wild yeast fermentation (in barrels) of high-solids juice gives us nice savoury characters.”

Cheers to that. If you want a voluptuous, Burgundy-style chardonnay of great character and generosity, where nature has been given free rein to express herself, the Moorooduc takes my vote. But, as ever, vive la difference.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – April 20, 2010.

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