Australia’s Top 20 Chardonnays
I admit I was ready for a fight. I had skipped, shadow-boxed and pumped the iron. And, like the other five Wine contributors who recently gathered to select the top twenty chardonnays in Australia, I thought I was in for a hard-fought fifteen rounds. Yet, a small matter of three hours and about fifty wines later, we had formed as tight-knit and harmonious a collective sharing a single and united doctrine as six highly opinionated and self-confident wine people could ever hope to achieve.
It says something for the standard at the top level of Australia’s wine industry that given our expected personal points of difference, that I, Peter Bourne, Andrew Caillard, Peter Forrestal, Huon Hooke and Lindey Milan so efficiently and with a bare minimum of negotiation settled on our choice. If any cause for concerned emerged from the exercise, it was the strikingly small number of contenders able to seriously challenge the twenty we selected.
Andrew Caillard’s description of top-class chardonnay set the panel off to a unanimous start. ‘I think chardonnay is about purity of fruit; ripe fruit with melon/peach aromas, without being over or under-ripe’, he began. ‘High quality chardonnay should show complexity but it shouldn’t be over-oaked. I look for balance, some complexity through barrel fermentation and malo-lactic fermentation. On the palate I look for creaminess and sweetness of fruit and flavour. I do like acidity cutting through, for without this chardonnay can land up being broad and over-wrought. My personal preference is for restraint in young chardonnays. If all I can see is volumes of fruit, chances are it’s not a good wine to cellar.’
The logic and method behind this tasting were simple and to the point. Each participant was required to nominate the country’s twenty best chardonnays. The ten or so which appeared on every list were included in the tasting, along with the most consistent of the next twenty nominations. We tasted current vintage wines served masked and were later able to refer to a range of back vintages if we needed to separate our choices on the bases of consistency and longevity. Our final order is then a product of our collective experience of the wines plus our renewed impressions of current and previous releases based on this tasting.
With four wines in the top ten and six in the top twenty, the Margaret River clearly underlines its status as Australia’s top chardonnay region in the late ‘nineties. Next best is the Hunter Valley with four in the top twenty, followed by the Adelaide Hills with three and the Yard Valley with two. Seven of the top twenty come from WA, five from Victoria and four from each of South Australia and NSW.
The Ten Best Australian Chardonnays
Bannockburn Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria
Cape Mentelle Margaret River, Western Australia
Coldstream Hills Reserve Yarra Valley, Victoria
Cullen Margaret River, Western Australia
Giaconda Beechworth, Victoria
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River, Western Australia
Petaluma Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Pierro Margaret River, Western Australia
Rosemount Estate Reserve Upper Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Tyrrell Vat 47 Lower Hunter Valley, New South Wales
A richly textured, sumptuous chardonnay at which maker Gary Farr has thrown the entire Burgundian textbook. A proven cellar style with frequently astonishing depth and complexity, this wine has finally become more sought after than its stablemate pinot noir, another of Australia’s benchmark wines. The 1995 vintage is plump and fleshy, with smoky oak and a savoury finish, but several tasters, Caillard included, observed a fatness and lack of definition. Not a patch on the stellar 1994 edition.
Cape Mentelle Chardonnay
Since John Durham introduced a degree of fermentation in barrel with natural yeasts, Cape Mentelle’s chardonnay has muscled in on the Margaret River elite. Typically reflective of the ripe, concentrated and tropical ruby grapefruit flavours of the widely planted Gingin clone, a significant contributor to the quality of WA’s chardonnay, the 1996 vintage is typically creamy and leesy, but taught and balanced, scoring votes from all quarters.
Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay
Its chief winemaker concedes his chardonnay needs time in the bottle, so it was no surprise to find opinions somewhat divided over the Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay 1996. Tightly-knit, nutty and strongly influenced in its youth by its barrel fermentation, its length and sophisticated savoury and chalky finish captured my attention. Peter Bourne found it seamless, but Andrew Caillard thought it ill-defined, lacking sweetness and creaminess. Huon Hooke liked its pure chardonnay fruit, but found its leanness unexciting. Clearly, our thoughts were not as one. But it took a mere splash of the rather more developed, nutty and creamy 1992 vintage to reunite us with positive feelings towards Coldstream Hills, its Reserve Chardonnay and the world at large. Nobody disputed this wine’s place amongst the Top Ten. Its track record is very real and very well deserved.
Even an unabashed fan like me of Cullens’ wines was a little surprised to find its very focused Chardonnay 1996 voted quite clearly the most popular wine of this tasting. To Forrestal it was racy, tight and citrusy. To Hooke it was seamless and evocative of climates cool. Taught, good in length and concentration, uttered an admiring Caillard. Although she can push the edge of the envelope with the amount of oak she deploys, when Vanya Cullen gets a white wine right it’s a must-have experience.
Within milliseconds of pouring, the sumptuous, powerful and perfectly balanced bottle of 1993 Giaconda Chardonnay more than atoned for a slight flatness in the bottle opened of the 1995 vintage; a victim, I am certain, of cork-influenced variation. Rick Kinzbrunner’s chardonnay has for ten vintages been one of the most refined and sophisticated in Australia, a hand-crafted wine with the front palate evocative of Burgundy and the minerally finish of Chablis. It’s the Ferrari of Australian chardonnay.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay
Unrivalled in Australia for its sheer consistency and longevity, Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series Chardonnay sits atop the Margaret River pile. Although everyone else marked it higher than I did, some of us were unprepared for the lack of palate length evident in the 1994 vintage, which Caillard and Hooke adjudicated as underfruited and short respectively. Typically concentrated, richly textured and driven by remarkable ripeness of fruit, Leeuwin’s chardonnays retain their freshness and vitality longer than almost any other made in Australia. We all new it would look complex, voluptuous and utterly seductive, so to open and taste the stellar, indescribable 1987 vintage was indeed one of those minor indulgences of which we wine writers are so often accused and from time to time actually commit.
No winemaker puts his wine under more pressure to perform than the outspoken Brian Croser, whose last decade of wines has proven for all time that his bite is even bigger than his bark. Meticulous sourcing from his selection of Piccadilly Valley vineyards and fastidious handling in the winery shows how, vintage after vintage, Croser stores and uses again and again every ounce of his vast winemaking experience. Today his chardonnay is everything his critics used to say it lacked: full of vitality, pristine in flavour, yet as supremely elegant and subtle as ever before. Seamless, long and complete according to Peter Forrestal; savoury in its oak and high-pitched in its acid to Andrew Caillard, the 1996 vintage is a magnificent wine and possibly Petaluma’s finest ever.
Mike Peterkin was one of the early group of chardonnay makers self-confident enough to aim for the stars with a full adoption of Burgundian techniques. Today a benchmark wine of Wagnerian proportions, Pierro Chardonnay combines sophistication and fineness to its four-octave range of ripe flavour, smoky oak and muscular texture. Described by Caillard as big and brassy, the 1995 vintage didn’t appear as finely balanced as several of its predecessors. Nevertheless it rated highly, but not quite as well as the unforgettably sumptuous, concentrated wines of 1994 and 1992.
Rosemount Estate Reserve Chardonnay
Understudy to its more celebrated stablemate in the Roxburgh Chardonnay, Rosemount’s Reserve Chardonnay, until recently known as Show Reserve, has long been the preferred choice of many tasters to whom the Roxburgh often simply appears too exaggerated and evolved at too early an age. Lindy Milan, Huon Hooke and Peter Bourne each expressed this view, while the sweet citrus fruit and complex, pungent, leesy character of the 1996 Reserve Chardonnay won easy victories over most of us. Long and creamy, with the expected slight oaky rawness of a young Rosemount, it’s a first-rate chardonnay which drew praise from Andrew Caillard for its complexity.
Tyrrell Vat 47 Chardonnay
The Greg Norman of Australian chardonnay, Vat 47 defies our national tall poppy syndrome time and again. Our very first chardonnay constantly defies the imperfections of the Hunter climate as Tyrrell’s great experience and deft winemaking in the hands of Andrew Spinnaze builds on its illustrious lineage of complex, tightly-crafted cellaring wines. Rated with exceptional scores by Caillard, Milan, Bourne and Forrestal, the pure, restrained 1996 vintage revealed tightly-knit barrel ferment influence, an excellent concentration of melon and white peach fruit and grilled nut complexity. Hooke and I found it a little muffled, but rate it a first pick in the Top Ten.
The Next Ten Best Australian Chardonnays
Devil’s Lair Margaret River, Western Australia
Grosset Piccadilly Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Howard Park Great Southern, Western Australia
Lake’s Folly Lower Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Moss Wood Margaret River, Western Australia
Mountadam Eden Valley, South Australia
Rosemount Estate Roxburgh Upper Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Shaw and Smith Reserve Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Stonier’s Reserve Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
Tarrawarra Yarra Valley, Victoria
Rated very highly by all tasters except Caillard, who saw it as a classic example of the ‘sunshine in a glass’ cliche, the Devil’s Lair Chardonnay 1996 appealed to the rest of the panel for its minerally finish and concentration of melon, pear and apple fruit. One of the youngest marques to reach the Top Twenty, Devil’s Lair’s inclusion mirrors the energy and talent driving the WA wine industry today.
John Wade’s showpiece Howard Park Chardonnay 1996 met similar resistance from Caillard, to whom it revealed simple, squashy fruit, little length and flavour and no potential to develop. On the other hand, Forrestal, Hooke and I enjoyed its finesse and concentration of tropical fruit. Either way, Howard Park has made a short string of refined, complex chardonnay at a very high level since its first release from 1993.
Of WA’s remaining Top Twenty contingent, Moss Wood was another automatic inclusion. Typically concentrated with melon and marmalade fruit and assertive, smoky oak, the 1996 vintage won over the entire panel with the exception of Caillard, who suggested that its pristine fruit might have received better treatment in the cooperage department.
Its 1996 Chardonnay might have split the panel like a razor, but Lake’s Folly Chardonnay is a true cellaring style capable of extraordinary complexity and richness after time in a well conditioned cellar. A typical Hunter wine with ripe melon and tobacco flavours, creamy texture and a savoury, nutty finish, it was described by Forrestal and Hooke as herbaceous and short respectively, although Caillard and I rated it highly.
One of the most difficult of wines to evaluate in a tasting of this nature, Rosemount Estate’s Roxburgh Chardonnay performed its usual trick by neatly dividing critical opinion. Its knockers point towards its brassy, often advanced and clumsy nature in its early years, questioning its balance and integrity. Its supporters who, to be perfectly frank, include many of the most important wine opinion-leaders in the UK and USA, point to its uncompromising richness, honesty and deliver-at-all-costs depth of flavour. A typical Roxburgh, the 1995 performed to expectations, attracting Hooke, Milan and Bourne, while disappointing Caillard and myself. If ever there was a chardonnay destined only for the dining table and not for the tasting bench, Roxburgh it is.
Of the three South Australian wines in this group, the most convincing performance was put up on the day by the Grosset Piccadilly Chardonnay 1996, a finely proportioned wine revealing great purity and freshness of citrus fruit, precisely punctuated with indelible acidity. High-toned acids were also evident in back vintages tasted, confirming expectations that the finely crafted Chablis-like structure sought after by Jeffrey Grosset will age reliably.
Although the bottles of 1995 Shaw and Smith Reserve Chardonnay tasted on this occasion performed well below others of the same vintage experienced by several panel members, this wine was unanimously voted to the Top Twenty. In a very short space of time, this elegant, very polished and sophisticated Adelaide Hills chardonnay has developed an extraordinary track record, the pick of which are two outstanding wines from 1994 and 1992.
Another ‘name’ wine to have performed below par with its current vintage on this day, Mountadam is another automatic inclusion in any list of Australia’s leading chardonnay. It’s almost inconceivable today that for several years in the early 1980s this Eden Valley vineyard actually boasted the country’s largest single planting of this variety, today our most widely planted premium. Adam Wynn has steadfastly adhered to his tried and tested formula for powerful, fully-ripened, alcoholic chardonnay, which, as the 1987 vintage again confirmed, develops into a marvelously nutty, toffee style with great softness and intensity.
The only wine from the Mornington Peninsula to make the list, Stonier’s Reserve Chardonnay may have slipped a cog with the difficult 1995 vintage, but performed to its citrusy, sophisticated best in 1995 and 1993.
The series of vintages tasted somewhat let down Tarrawarra’s excellent reputation for chardonnay, but this Yarra Valley maker isn’t considered to be one of the country’s best makers of long-living, tightly-crafted chardonnays for nothing. Huon Hooke was the only taster not to rate the 1996 vintage very highly, while the 1993 showed considerably more structure and potential than the wines from 1994 and 1995. Tarrawarra works its fruit hard to bottle a wine lacking, if anything, in primary flavours, clearly intended for long-term development with bottle-age.
Some notable names appear to have fallen by as casualties from this selection. Mount Mary Chardonnay, for instance, is a favourite of mine that has consistently performed at a high level in the 1990s. Its minerally structure and absence of malolactic fermentation stand it apart from most other Australian premiums, but without recent wines at the tasting, I lacked sufficient ammunition with which to convince my colleagues. The only Mount Mary tasted, a poorly preserved 1986 vintage, looked tired and stale.
Nicholson River Estate is a high-profile name whose chardonnay has a strong cult following. Maker Ken Eckersley now refers to his exaggerated oxidised/botrytised style as ‘golden wines’, an accurate description. While some older vintages rose to stellar heights during their relatively short cellar life, recent vintages are simply too heavily influenced by wet seasons and a flagrant lack of protection in the cellar. Described by panel members as ‘bizarre’ and ‘faulty’, they still have their ardent admirers. Each to his own.
Apparently determined to pursue a similar course, Andrew Pirie’s two very advanced Pipers Brook chardonnays from 1994, being the ‘standard’ and The Summit, raised similar concerns over the effects of heavily botrytised fruit and subsequent oxidation. On his back labels Pirie very publicly suggests these wines are both destined to improve for many years in the bottle. Only time will tell, but it’s our duty to record our concern over these wines.
Penfolds’ efforts to fashion a white wine of similar stature and quality to Grange have undoubtedly given new focus and interest towards wine like the unusually named Trial Bin Chardonnay. The 1995 appears a little raw and brassy against the 1994 vintage, but Penfolds are beginning to mount a persuasive case that their best white wines may ultimately be rated alongside their reds.
The Yarra Valley chardonnays of St Huberts and De Bortoli have evolved into fresh, lively wines worthy of mention, while the richness of fruit evident in several vintages of Voyager Estate’s chardonnay suggests that a more restrained approach towards oak usage might admit it to the Margaret River’s chardonnay elite.
Please login to post comment