Whatever Happened to Big, Rich Chardonnay?

I regularly run into drinkers who lament the passing of rich, full-bodied chardonnays. They rightly observe that there’s been a sea-change in Australian chardonnay, from the big, buttery, often rather oaky styles of the 1980s and ‘90s to the lower-alcohol, finer, less-oaky and more ageworthy wines of today. Who could forget the ‘Dolly Parton’ wines such as the Tucker Seabrook Trophy-winning Renmano Chairman’s Selection Chardonnay in the early 1990s, an almost undrinkable wine in my view. The pendulum has swung way back to more delicate, and generally much better wines. They’re often made by winemakers avoiding the enriching malolactic fermentation, but the biggest change has been fruit sourcing. Today’s best chardonnays come from much cooler vineyards. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.

Where can you find full-bodied, generous chardonnay? I’m often asked. Not oaky chardonnay, or ugly alcoholic chardonnay – just generously flavoured chardonnay?

Certainly, Tapanappa (tastings) winemaker Brian Croser thinks the pendulum has swung back too far. “Chardonnay is revered as a great grape because it has a lot of flavour,” says Croser. Some of the newly fashionable low-alcohol chardonnays, he says, are made from grapes that aren’t properly ripe.

“They lack middle-palate richness; they are hollow – because the grapes are being harvested before they’ve developed the correct flavour profile.” And he says they have too much green-apple malic acid, because the early-picked grapes are not put through a malolactic fermentation, a decision aimed at retaining the maximum natural acidity.

One chardonnay specialist whose wines always have a “malo” is Richard McIntyre, of Moorooduc Estate (tastings) on the Mornington Peninsula. He is also the winemaker for Ten Minutes By Tractor (tastings), in the same region. Both brands stand for chardonnays of full, rich flavour, but they’re also wines that don’t lack finesse and which are seldom high-alcohol. They are complex, sometimes with a subtle buttery note, a sign of malo, but also they have the full range of chardonnay complexities as well as the silky, rich texture of properly ripe grapes. It is possible to have delicacy with richness – which is one of the wonderful things about great chardonnay. See my review of Ten Minutes by Tractor’s 2009 McCutcheon Chardonnay for an example.

“I think some (of the low-alcohol wines) are an over-reaction,” he says. “These are wines that I think have been picked unripe. Critics love them and rave about their fantastic linear acidity. No doubt those producers see it as a Chablis style, but the trend is towards underripe wines that lack flavour.” But while McIntyre admits he is picking his grapes earlier and at lower sugars than in the 1990s, his wines have better flavour as well as correct ripeness, “and they are better wines for it, I think.”

He points out that in the cooler parts of the peninsula such as Red Hill, chardonnay has very high acid and cries out for a malo, whereas in lower, warmer sites such as Moorooduc it’s not as necessary, and some people like Sandro Mosele at Kooyong avoid malo in all their chardonnays. These are still excellent wines and ‘a legitimate style’.

But he prefers to have the malo. “In recent years we haven’t had to add any acid, although in some regions you will lose too much acid if you have a malo after picking very ripe fruit.”

Perhaps the biggest chardonnay of the ‘90s was Rosemount Roxburgh, a very oaky as well as massive wine. Australian chardonnay has moved on a long way since then, and I don’t know anyone who wants to re-visit that style.

Another rich style that I like is Toolangi (tastings), of the Yarra Valley. Owner Garry Hounsell has a unique approach: he produces three wines off his single 12-hectare vineyard and employs three winemakers with vastly contrasting approaches to make them. The result is three nicely differentiated styles – all excellent.

The entry-level $25 wine is made in large licks by Yering Station (where Willy Lunn has succeeded Tom Carson as winemaker) – around 3500 dozen (tastings). Even this very affordable wine is a lovely, rich and quite complex style, and the latest release ’09 (13.2 per cent alcohol) should satisfy the most exacting chardomaniac.

The Estate bottling is made by David Bicknell at Oakridge (tastings), who is one of the leaders in lower-alcohol chardonnay. The 2007 is current at $50 and is a typical Bicknell tight, refined style with just 12.5 per cent alcohol. Hounsell rates it very highly. The Reserve, also 2007 vintage ($90) is made by Giaconda’s (tastings) Rick Kinzbrunner in his typically riper style with 14.2 per cent alcohol. It’s one of the biggest, but also the most complex and deliriously hedonistic, chardonnays I’ve drink in years. Masses of roasted hazelnut and crème brulee toffee/caramel notes, and demands rich food like buttery lobster or creamy roast chicken. I love it.

However, “The Estate is the one I like the best,’” says Hounsell. “It fits my palate best. I like Giaconda and our Reserve but my favourite is Bonneau du Martray’s Corton-Charlemagne (tastings).” So, restrained wines but ripe fruit.

Croser is also a big fan of Bonneau.

He believes site selection is the way to grow the best chardonnay. “Select the correct location to plant chardonnay vines, where they achieve the correct, fully-ripe flavours – without excessive alcohol or the need to add acid.”

He’s not decrying the ‘green’ wines and will not name producers, but he does not believe such wines are correct. Like McIntyre, he describes them as an over-reaction to the excessively big, high-alcohol wines of yesteryear.

So, what are the desirable flavours in properly-ripe chardonnay? “Nectarine… and honeydew melon skin – but not too much peach,” says Croser. And certainly not pineapple or other tropical notes. Mineral aromas are quite compatible.

He’s just shade too modest to add: ‘Like Tapanappa Tiers!’ (tastings)

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 13 December, 2011.

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