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Chardonnay Revival - The Return of the Great White

Fashion in wine is part and parcel of the fabric of the wine trade. From occasionally obscure beginnings, a trend will sweep through, fed enthusiastically by wholesalers, warmly embraced by sommeliers and retailers and fervently fanned by the broader wine press.

Sometimes however it is difficult to pinpoint just where a trend starts. Does it come from a favourable review from a well-respected wine critic, or does a particular wine style suddenly become more readily available in a specific market and begin to catch on?  Do winemakers, who are constantly travelling and swapping information amongst themselves, tap into a group consciousness and begin to emulate a certain style of wine with their own production? Regardless of the origin of the trend, once something ignites, it is sure to sweep through every facet of the trade from restaurants to retailers, reviewers to wholesalers, until it becomes the latest thing, seen on all the best tables and enjoyed from one end of the country to the other.

At the moment, it seems Australians can’t get enough of fine elegant Chardonnay.  How did we get here?  Is this just part of the ebb & flow of fashion in wine or are more structural changes afoot?

The beginning and the end of the ABC club

For a while in the early 2000’s it appeared that oaked Chardonnay would never make a come-back. Drip-fed a steady diet of rich full-bodied ‘peaches and cream’ style Chardonnay since the 1980’s, by 2003, Australian wine drinkers were in revolt. A newcomer had arrived on the scene and was quickly overtaking every wine in its path. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc turned even some of the most ardent admirers of Chardonnay into Sauvignon Blanc converts.  Fresh, lively and highly aromatic, the exuberant tropical fruit and grassy notes of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc were like a breath of fresh air. Light, unoaked and ready to drink upon release, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was the perfect wine to drink as an aperitif or just on its own. This as it turns out, is precisely how many Australians actually prefer to drink their wine.

Emerging from this wave of fashion (now sometimes referred to as the ‘Savalanche’) a growing group of wine-drinkers began to identify themselves as part of the ABC club. That is, the ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ club.  Chardonnay was really out. Drinking oaked Chardonnay was a bit like insisting on wearing bell-bottoms in the preppy years of the 1980’s. Definitely Not ‘In’.

The problem was there was still plenty of Chardonnay in Australia being grown and produced. Even with the latest technology, vineyards are extremely difficult and painstaking to graft over. Often they may not even be suited to growing a different variety. In any case what were Australian producers going to do with all that fruit?

Some of this Chardonnay fruit went into making new trendy unoaked styles. Fresh, crisp and thoroughly pristine, some of these wines such as Chapel Hill’s unwooded Chardonnay sold very well. Yet, the unoaked Chardonnay styles lacked the alluring aromatic pungency of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Nor did they have the mouth-watering natural acidity and wet-stone mineral complexity of Chablis. Sales of Chardonnay sank further and further.

At the same time Burgundy began to have a run of very good vintages. With the falling Australian dollar, more and more top white Burgundy and Chablis began to come into the country. Elegant and savoury, with mealy nutty complexity and superbly integrated oak, these Burgundian wines were textural, complex and age-worthy. It is difficult to prove definitively but a number of wine producers must have been surveying their excess Chardonnay fruit and thinking, could Australia make wines like this?  We were about to find out.

In the past few years a large number of superbly made elegant Chardonnays have hit the market and begun to make waves. Producers such as By Farr, Bannockburn, Bindi, Curly Flat, are making complex textural styles with mouth-watering acidity from cool climate fruit. Others, like established icons Leeuwin Estate & Pierro in Margaret River have tweaked their oak regimes and put a renewed focus on lees-ageing and textural complexity. The result of all of this is a new wave of elegantly structured, texturally complex Chardonnay that is being met with great enthusiasm from reviewers, retailers and most importantly of all wine drinkers. It appears at least in the premium segment of the wine market, that the end of the ABC club may be nigh.

Andrea Pritzker, Langton's

ABN: 13 133 179 656
© Langton's Fine Wine
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