The road to fine chardonnay

Eden Road winemaker Nick Spencer (Photo: Eden Road Wines)

Canberra District winery Eden Road is known for its very fine Tumbarumba chardonnays, in particular, the single-vineyard Courabyra and Maragle vineyard wines. I recently tasted back both wines over the last five vintages and was amazed at how slowly and gracefully they are ageing.

Both wines are restrained, fruit-driven and crisp in typical high-altitude, cool-climate Tumbarumba style, but with subtle differences. Courabyra is very high, at 800 metres, and the vineyard has produced some superb sparkling wines over the years under owner Cathy Gairn’s own Courabyra 805 label. This wine sees no oak, but is fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks and undergoes a full malolactic fermentation. This is necessary most years because of the high acidity, 4 grams per litre of which is malic acid. Even after this has all been converted to softer lactic acid, the wine is still tight and crisp.

The Maragle vineyard is substantially lower at 450 metres, and its grapes ripen almost a month earlier than Courabyra’s, because of the warmer site. For the same reason, only about 20% undergoes malolactic. It’s barrel-fermented like most premium Australian chardonnays.

“They are clearly two different wines.”

Says Eden Road chief winemaker Nick Spencer.

“Some might think they should be treated exactly the same way, so that the only difference you taste is the vineyard. But our rationale is that they should be balanced and complete as well as being distinctly different as wines.”

The Courabyra would be too austere if it wasn’t given a malo; conversely, the Maragle might be too low in acid if it was. As for the Chablis-like, no-oak approach to the Courabyra, Spencer says the earliest vintages were barrel fermented but no matter what barrels were used, the oak never married well.

“There’s just something about the fruit.”

The wines are both restrained styles, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and the Maragle’s oak is so subtle that the presence or absence of oak is not the main differentiating factor.

I found the 2012s and 2014s were more satisfying wines, with more innate chardonnay richness and roundness, and I wrongly assumed these were the warmer years. In fact, says Spencer, the 2013 and 2015 vintages were hotter, but he agreed that the ‘13s and ‘15s can show a hint of greenness (I described this character as raw potato, like a lesser-year Chablis). Still good, but a fraction lean and bony. His belief is that the grapes harvested earlier in hot years have less hang-time and perhaps less physiological ripeness as a result.

He points out that the 2008 Eden Road Tumbarumba Chardonnay, which I also tasted and enjoyed, came from a hot year.

The Eden Road wines are among the 127 mostly new-release chardonnay reviews I’ve recently uploaded to the app.

Another confounding discovery in this tasting was Eden Road’s cheaper Tumbarumba chardonnay, the 2015 The Long Road Chardonnay (AUD $28). This is a blend of the above two vineyards, all fermented and aged in barrels (mostly old), the big difference being the grapes were machine-picked, crushed and drained instead of being hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed like the single-vineyard wines. Nick Spencer said,

“It gets more skin-contact and that gives it more richness.”

It’s a wine that most chardonnay drinkers would probably prefer because it is more generous, with perceptible oak and up-front drinking appeal.

In all, a superb and fascinating line-up of chardonnays.

*The 2015 Eden Road Courabyra and Maragle Chardonnays are $40 each.

*Footnote: Nick Spencer has just announced his resignation from Eden Road. He will be applying his energies to his own label, Nick Spencer Wines, for which he’s made several wines this vintage. His deputy Mike Lloyd is taking over his old job.

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