50 Years of Australian Chardonnay

This online tasting was arranged to mark 50 years of Australian Chardonnay. Varietal labelled Chardonnay was first produced in Australia in 1972, though the first vine cuttings arrived there in the 1830s. From the massive popularity of buttery ‘golden’ Chardonnays in the 1990s, through the ABC club’s disdain for the style, to today’s regionally distinct, much more elegant and refined wines, Australian Chardonnay has travelled far in just a few decades.

This tasting focused on the regions that are currently the coolest hotspots for Chardonnay. These include Margaret River and Mount Barker in Western Australia, the in-vogue, elevated Adelaide Hills in South Australia, and the classic Pinot and Chardonnay country of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Also featured was the warmer Hunter Valley north of Sydney, and the island of Tasmania, undoubtedly an area of cool-climate focus for Chardonnay producers everywhere in Australia.

Regional and Winemaking Differences

This chart shows some of the climatic and topographic differences between these regions, but another big influence is clearly in winemaking choices. Wines here included examples where malolactic was blocked, lees were not stirred and grapes picked early to realise only 12.5% alcohol. Others saw 100% malolactic and regular lees-stirring, and weighed in at 13.5% or so.  But it seems the days of the heavily-oaked, 14.5% alcohol, ‘golden’ Chardonnays of Australia’s past are numbered, if not already history.

The Wines

(2022) From vines planted in 1968 on sandy loam soils, this was fermented in a combination of steel and French oak barriques. It was aged nine months in barriques, 20% new, with minimal lees stirring. A glint of green to the colour here, and a fine, subtley nutty nose, something gastronomic, almost like a fruity olive oil, and ripe pear and melon fruit. The palate has a terrifically sparky line of acidity that is juicy, citrus-fresh and yet sweetly rounded too. The fruit has plenty of mandarin orange brightness, lovely succulence and texture, but a beautifully focused, smile-inducing and approachable style.
(2022) A wine I scored 95/100 when tasted 18 months ago, this was fermented in new French oak barriques with regular lees stirring, followed by 11 months in barrel. It comes from the original 1970s plantings, on gravel over clay soils. It's a riper, bigger style that nods towards the golden Chardonnay era but pulls up way, way short: there's a hint of minty character, but a balancing whisper of flint, and a more tropical fruit quality. Super ripe and sweet fruit on the palate, nectarine and a fat, juicy lemon, an underpinning of nutty oak, but again the acidity streaks through in a classic Old World/New World fusion style.
(2022) This is the GinGin clone with its famous 'hen and chick' grape size variance, very popular in Western Australia in particular, grown on gravel over clay in a vineyard planted in 1985. It was wild fermented in French oak of various formats and spent over nine months in barrel. Very little malolactic or lees stirring. A little more flint here, but also that wild ferment adds a little sauvage quality, a light earthiness and yeasty and much more flinty aspect. Again on the palate this sparks into life, a vivid citrus punch to both fruit and acidity, sherbet-bright over the peachier tones and subtle Brazil nut butteriness. Big salty lick of minerality in the finish. Note: Yapp Bros is currently retailing the Forest Hill wines but is not showing the Block 8 cuvée at time of review.
(2022) A multi-regional blend from vineyards in the Adelaide Hills (South Australia), Tasmania and Tumbarumba (New South Wales), this was fermented in French oak barriques and aged eight months, 35% of the barriques new. It saw 100% malolactic fermentation and lees stirring. This one combines toast and nuttiness with that flinty aspect in interesting combination - possibly thanks to combining fruit from such different areas. Lovely, rounded, fruit-filled palate with a definite creaminess, the acidity here pithy and lemony, coming in slightly more abrubtly than in the Forrest Hill for example.
(2022) Soils for this wine are sandy loam over clay, the vines planted in 1994 and the wine wild-fermented and aged in barriques and larger barrels, 20% new. Eight months on the lees with full malolactic. There's a cool and slightly minty character here again, the overall impression cool and restrained. The fruit has a big, sour lemon and grapefruit attack, both fruit and acid. That drives this wine, subduing any idea of tropicality or sweetness, again salty and pithy in the finish in a lean and aesthetic wine.
(2022) A lowly 12.5% alcohol for this, from vineyards planted between 1988 and 2001 on clay loams, the wine wild-fermented and aged eight months in larger French oak, 15% new. Only 10% went through malolactic and there was no lees stirring. A very fine line of lemon and crisp, cool apple, quite a delicate lemon jelly style with the oak way in the background. Delightfully crisp and juicy on the palate, again focused on lemons and ripe yellow apple, even a touch of something floral, but absolutely beautiful balance here, long and shimmering into the finish in a slightly sweeter Chablis style.
(2022) From vineyards planted between 1999 and 2001 on loam over clay, with patches of shale, this was wild fermented in French oak barriques and 500-litre puncheons, one-third new, and aged nine months in a combination of barriques and puncheons. Lees were stirred monthly and the wine went through malolactic. On the much flintier, complex sulphides spectrum here, punchy and vibrant with both lemony and more peachy fruit beneath. oak just adding a Brazil nut undertone. Lots of sweetness to the fruit on the palate, but pin-sharp acidity and plenty of that lemon jelly pleasurability allied to a firm, lightly saline finish with very good length.
(2022) From vineyards planted in silica over sandstone in 1988 in the southerly Coal River Valley. Wild-fermentation and 12 months ageing in French oak barriques, one-third new. Lees was stirred monthly and the wine went through malolactic. Again, gunflinty smokiness all over the aromatics here, the most prominent example here of the style, some buttery toast and stone fruits beneath. The Palate bursts with sweet and ripe fruit, nodding towards the tropical, but focused around fat, sweet but sharp lime and lemon. Great length here, the balance very good as that flinty and salty aspect is present, but not overplayed. Delicious.


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