Action in Australia Chardonnay

New styles modeled on Burgundy make it the buzz of the country now

From what I have reviewed in my own tasting room here in the U.S. and at various wineries, homes, restaurants and trade tastings in Australia, they might be right. I see a definite trend toward Chardonnays with less alcohol, less obvious oak, more savory flavors and smoother textures from wild ferments and aging on lees. Although I like the better examples of this trend, sometimes I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far.

Australia is not alone in this. In California, reaction against broad-beamed, high-octane Chardonnay has spawned examples of lean, racy bottlings. Some are marvels, while others rattle the teeth with high acid levels and leave a Chardonnay lover like me searching in vain for the fruit flavors the variety can produce so well.

Australia has its Chardonnay icons, of course, wines that aim for something classic, well beyond pleasant everyday wines such as Lindemans Bin 65 or Yellow Tail. Leeuwin Estate (with its Art Series), Pierro, Giaconda, Mount Mary, Yeringberg and Tyrrell’s (with its Vat 47) all have histories of 25 years or more, and plenty of devoted fans. These are consistently outstanding wines, and best of all, distinctive. You would not easily confuse one with any of the others.

One common thread in my conversations was that no single style has emerged as identifiably Australian. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. Australia is a huge country with widespread wine regions that range all over the board in climate, elevation and yes, style. Does anyone expect a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay to taste like one from Sta. Rita Hills, let alone Oregon, Washington or New York? Why try to force all of Australia’s into one basket?

But that, I fear, is what some gatekeepers, wine writers and, significantly, winemakers want to happen. While some can recognize an outstanding wine in any style, the idea of sleek, racy Chardonnays so enamors others that they seem willing to toss out the classics.

Could this focus on a new style marginalize wines that are truly and distinctly Australian, and can stand with the world’s best? The Chardonnays of Margaret River, for example, include the great Leeuwin Estate, Pierro, Voyager, Vasse Felix, Moss Wood and Cullen. Margaret River’s widely planted clone, which they call Gin-Gin and is probably what’s known as the Mendoza clone elsewhere, contributes a spicy, floral character and a hint of tartness. In this fairly warm region the wines tend to be richly endowed with flavor, which runs counter to the view that Chardonnay ought to be sleek.

I encountered a great example of this divide as I tasted through some of the winning wines after a major wine competition in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. I was there mainly to get a handle on the local cool-climate wines, but the show is open to entries from all over Australia , so I took the opportunity to make comparisons. Mostly, I focused on Pinot Noir and sparkling wine (Tasmania excels at those), but in tasting through the winning 2010 Chardonnays I found a sameness among the gold-medal winners. They were good, but they all more or less hewed to this new paradigm of lean and racy.

And then I spotted an old favorite, Devil’s Lair, from Margaret River, which its parent company, Treasury Wine Estates, has not exported to the U.S. for several years. I took a taste. Wow! This one had depth and power, combined with elegance. The rich fruit—pineapple, pear, tropical fruits—layered nimbly in a plush-textured package, finishing with length and finesse. Yet it only won a bronze medal.

I offered a taste to my host at this trade tasting, Jeremy Dineen, the personable winemaker at Chromy Wines. Though he makes a very different style, he loved the wine. As it happens, his panel had judged it. They split. He had voted it a gold medal, the second judge a silver, the other judge, a young winemaker, no medal. “He complained it was too ripe,” said Dineen. “I couldn’t talk him up, so it wound up getting a bronze.”

Margaret River’s is not the only Chardonnay style Australia can produce, but it has given us some classics. It would be a shame if a backlash were to marginalize undeniably great wines like these.