Cool, Calm and Respected
Years ago, the late Len Evans used to get on his soapbox at every opportunity and exhort Australia’s winemakers to produce more great wines. We have plenty of workman-like, mid-market, value-for-money wines, he would say, but we badly need more great wines.
Well, he’d have been pleased to sit in on my recent chardonnay tastings, where the welter of great wines from regions such as Margaret River, the Yarra Valley, Mornington and Tasmania was a delight to behold.
It’s been said that for the past decade, Australia is second only to Burgundy in chardonnay. We have pared back the fat, oaky, buttercup-yellow, oily, alcoholic chardonnays of yesteryear and we’re making finer, more balanced, more drinkable and ageworthy wines than ever before. The oak is barely noticeable – as it should be. The alcohol is moderate: 12.5 to 13.5 compared with the former 14 to 14.5 per cent. Hand-in-hand with that, the natural acidity is higher and wines are less likely to be routinely acidified. As well, site selection is having the desired effect: instead of broad wines from warm to hot regions, the finest chardonnays now come from cooler regions. Tasmania, Macedon Ranges, Yarra Valley, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills, Tumbarumba and Orange are strongly represented. As well, cooler, higher-altitude sites in places like the Yarra and Adelaide Hills are preferred over lower, hotter sites. The almost universal use of the screwcap (even the newly-released 2010 Tapanappa Tiers (tasting) is under screwcap) means the freshness and subtlety of these new-wave wines is captured and preserved.
None of this is such hot news: it’s been evolving for several years. What is relatively new is flagship wines, often quite expensive, coming from an increasing number of wineries. The newest to cross my path is the Devil’s Lair 9th Chamber Chardonnay 2009, priced at a cool $100 (tasting). It’s a terrific wine from an established Margaret River producer. And, sitting alongside in in the same tasting were 2009 Leeuwin Estate Art Series ($96 tastings), 2010 Cullen Kevin John ($105 tasting), 2010 Xanadu Reserve ($85 tasting) and Xanadu Stevens Road ($65 tastings), and 2010 Vasse Felix Heytesbury ($60 tasting). All absolutely cracking chardonnays. And from other regions, Yering Station Reserve 2010 (tasting Yarra Valley, $90), By Farr 2010 (tasting Geelong, $65), Savaterre 2009 (tasting Beechworth, $65), Giaconda Estate Vineyard 2010 (Beechworth, $127??), 2010 Shadowfax Black Label (Macedon Ranges, $45 tasting), 2010 Curly Flat (Macedon Ranges, $48 tasting), 2010 Dalwhinnie (Pyrenees, $40 tasting) and a bevy of single-vineyard wines from Oakridge (tastings Yarra Valley). No-one is doing more with chardonnay than Oakridge, and its wines were marginally disadvantaged in my tasting by being 2011 vintage, but they’re excellent all the same, the 864 reserve-style wines especially. My pick was the 864 Funder & Diamond Drive Block ($72 tastings); the 864 Aloisio Charlie’s Block (also $72 tasting) a whisker behind it.
Also on the table and of similar quality were 2010 Frogmore Creek (Tasmania; $30 tastings), 2010 De Salis Wild (Orange, $28 tasting), 2009 Paringa Estate The Paringa (Mornington, $50 tasting), 2009 Oakdene Elizabeth (Geelong, $30 tasting) and 2010 Wantirna Estate Isabella (Yarra Valley, $62 tasting).
I’ve tasted many other great chardonnays lately that could also be mentioned (2010 Dawson & James (tasting), Tasmania, is an absolute stunner), and I have yet to open the Tapanappa Tiers or Pierro 2010s, for which I have high expectations.
Just a fortnight earlier Steve James, chief winemaker and vineyard manager at Voyager Estate (tastings), showed me his upcoming single-block Margaret River chardonnays, and they too are outstanding. A late entrant into the reserve-style wine stakes, Voyager will eventually market two single-block chardonnays and one cabernet merlot, starting with the 2009 Project 95 Chardonnay ($55 tasting) to be released in July alongside the new Voyager Estate chardonnay, also an ’09 ($45 tasting).
Both are under 13 per cent alcohol. The Voyager style has always been a finer, earlier-harvested, lower-alcohol style than most in the region, and these wines stick to that game-plan. Both are top-level quality in my book. Key to the Voyager elegance has been different clones of chardonnay to the region’s stalwart, which is the Gingin clone (aka Mendoza). This is a powerful, grapefruit and tropical-fruit clone which must be picked fully ripe and therefore tends to have plenty of alcohol. Leeuwin Estate is the benchmark, and the 2009 is still 14.5 per cent, despite Leeuwin’s joining the general trend towards a more refined style. It’s a great wine, although it demands time in the glass to open up.
Vasse Felix Heytesbury has had plenty of press: it’s one of the few iconic Margaret River wineries to enter shows, and as this column reported in February, the 2010 cleaned up at the Sydney Royal earlier this year.
Cullen is well established as a leader in chardonnay, while Xanadu is the dark horse. Its Reserve has been sensational for the last three vintages, the Stevens Road for two. They are very much in the powerful regional mould, especially the Reserve.
Devil’s Lair is deliberately offering an alternative style. Winemaker Oliver Crawford previously worked at Penfolds on its Yattarna chardonnay, and that’s his preferred style of chardonnay: clean (read: not funky), precise, refined and subtle, with understated oak and alcohol.
By his own admission, when he arrived at Devil’s Lair in mid-2008 he knew nothing about the Gingin clone, and went his own way, identifying a superior parcel of the I10V1 clone. He put it all into well-seasoned, one-year-old French barrels and the resulting wine is a masterpiece in restrained power and understated complexity. It’s 13 per cent alcohol and the oak is invisible. I’d expect to age superbly for at least a decade.
Crawford has a follow-up from the 2011 vintage, made from the same block of vines. “I aimed to make a Chablis-esque style but it turned out more like a Chassagne-Montrachet. Chablis for Margaret River is a tall order. But we have an opportunity here to make a lean style, but with richness.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but tasting the wine, it’s exactly what he’s achieved. Bravo!
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 12 June 2012.