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Oakridge chardonnay gems

Dave Bicknell looking more Christ-like than ever!

Dave Bicknell looking more Christ-like than ever! (Photo: Huon Hooke)

Oakridge (tastings) chief winemaker Dave Bicknell is often cited as the leader of the skinny chardonnay movement. He was certainly high-profile at the time when Australian chardonnays slimmed down and became more refined. He had been vocal about the recent history of the wine industry he’d entered when over-oaked, over-ripe, over-alcoholic chardonnays – largely grown in regions that were too hot – were all around. As a senior wine show judge and chairman, he encouraged a more pared-back style of chardonnay, and hence the trend to pick grapes earlier, use less oak and seek to make finer, more age-worthy and more drinkable chardonnays.

He copped a lot of flak from people who believed his ways had led to Australian chardonnays becoming meagre, of lacking richness and classic chardonnay generosity. His own Oakridge chardonnays, especially those under the top label, 864, were accused of being thin wines that would not age well.

I recently attended a tasting Bicknell hosted at which he poured all of the 864 chardonnays, from the first vintage, 2004, to the latest release, 2014.

There was not a single wine that I thought was thin or ungenerous, or which had failed to mature satisfactorily.

The 2008 is a possible exception. This was always a much finer, more reserved wine than the three that preceded it (there was no ’07). This was because the source switched from the Tibooburra vineyard to a substantially cooler vineyard, the Van der Meulen Vineyard at Seville (aka Seville Estate – tastings). Now, at eight years of age, it is a beautiful wine, although perhaps lacking some of the richness of the best years. It was also always one of the funkier vintages – with plenty of matchstick aroma.

Like the Local Vineyard Series wines, the vineyard sourcing has chopped and changed over the years, and this can be thoroughly confusing for those wishing to buy or even identify the wines.

That said, the last four 864 wines (2011-14) have all come from the Funder & Diamond vineyard, so there has been more consistency of late. The difficult thing for Bicknell is that great vineyards are not always available. The classic case is the Lusatia Park vineyard, which was recently sold by the Shelmerdines to the De Bortolis – with the result that Oakridge no longer has access to its grapes. Before that, it was the Applejack vineyard: Oakridge lost access to this fruit after it was sold to Giant Steps (tastings).

Bicknell makes no secret of his frustration. He cannot afford to buy vineyards at this stage, so he’s at the mercy of the market.

“We are 70% self-sufficient and we want to be more. We have two new vineyards coming on-stream: we’ve bought one and leased one. But we’re still looking for another site. We’ve had a lot of vineyards taken away from us, which is very frustrating, and when you think that you’ve probably only got another 15 vintages in you, it becomes quite a pressure.”

A couple of final points. I found the 864 chardonnays superb, especially since 2008. None were mean or ungenerous. Even if some critics find them so, it can’t be disputed that the trend of which Bicknell was a prime-mover has resulted in the vast majority of Australian top-end chardonnays being better than before. They are finer, more age-worthy, more naturally made, less oaky, less reliant on added acid, and on oak for their flavour. These are entirely positive changes.

Lastly, while the 864 wines are not cheap at $80 a throw, the Local Vineyard Series wines at $38 are great value for money, as they are often just a hair’s breadth behind 864 in quality.

*All reviews from the latest tasting of Oakridge 864 Chardonnays are now on the HuonHooke.com app.

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