WineThe Collection

The evolution of Australian Chardonnay

It started with the ‘liberation’ of some vines from a Penfolds vineyard. Five decades on, Huon Hooke glories in just how far Chardonnay has come down under, with a look at the top current examples

Words by Huon Hooke

Australian Chardonnay bottles
The Collection

Chardonnay’s evolution in Australia has followed a classic learning curve. The great white grape of Burgundy and Champagne was virtually unknown here until the 1970s. Now it is the nation’s most-planted white variety, accounting for half of all white wine produced.

Depending on who you believe, its story dates back to 1970, when a visiting French ampelographer identified Chardonnay in a Mudgee vineyard, where it had been growing since the 1930s. In more celebrated fashion, Murray Tyrrell had also discovered it growing in a Penfolds vineyard in Hunter Valley named HVD and apparently helped himself to some cuttings in the dead of night before planting them out at Tyrrell’s in 1968. His first vintage of what he named ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ was the 1971 and in time, this became Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay, the oldest continuing line of the variety produced in Australia.

Initially, Australian winemakers fermented the clarified juice in steel tanks and bottled it unoaked; then they started maturing the steel-fermented wine in barrels, before finally cottoning on to the Burgundian practice of fermenting in barrels. Sometimes the wines underwent spontaneous malolactic fermentation, with the result that the acidity was low and needed correcting. Some opted to block the malo, as many still do.

australian chardonnay bottles
Today, most of Australia’s leading Chardonnays are grown in what could be termed cool climates – a loose and relative term

Today, earlier harvesting is widely practised, with a trio of desirable outcomes: final alcohols are lower, the wines age better, and there is less need for acidification. Cooler-climate winemakers often still use whole or partial malo, since this is seen to be part of the character of classic Chardonnay wines.

The first Aussie Chardonnays were mostly from warmer climates less suited to the grape: Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Riverland, Riverina. These were often full-bodied, sometimes unsubtle, occasionally clumsy wines – and oft overoaked as winemakers learned how to use barrels with white wine, a novel idea to Australians back then. At the same time, far-sighted winemakers such as John Middleton at Mount Mary and Bailey Carrodus at Yarra Yering, both in the Yarra Valley, were early planters of cool-climate Chardonnay.

Today, most of Australia’s leading examples are being grown in what could be termed cool climates, which is a loose and relative term. They’re cool by Australian standards. My list of top examples overleaf includes mostly southern regions: Tasmania; southern and high-altitude Victoria; alpine New South Wales; high-altitude Adelaide Hills; and Margaret River. On paper, Margaret River is the warmest, at the warmer extreme of Winkler Region III. That’s cooler than St Helena or Avignon, but warmer than Healdsburg or Logroño. But while Margaret River may seem like a warm region, there are many cool sites in warm regions, and Margaret River is the source of 11 of the 25 wines here.

The payoff comes in the form of a multitude of delicious, flavoursome yet refined wines from many regions

Why is Margaret River so successful with Chardonnay? It seems to break the rules: it’s maritime (Burgundy is continental), low altitude, and quite northerly in latitude – on a par with Sydney. The secret is its westerly (oceanic) weather and cooling ocean currents. The present Australian trend is towards refined, restrained, pared-back styles; Margaret River excels because it naturally combines refinement of structure with Chardonnay’s innate generosity of flavour.

Australian winemakers now have several decades of experience with Chardonnay, and the payoff comes in the form of a multitude of delicious, flavoursome yet refined wines from many regions.