Australian Chardonnay

              Chardonnay cluster (3)

Wine Australia recently conducted a tutorial about the Chardonnay wine Down Under.  They want fans to know about the Chardonnay wine areas and styles there.  I’m recapping the information from the event put on by Mark Davidson, Head of Education Development, Americas, Wine Australia, also the former Sommelier of the Year of the Vancouver Wine Festival, with Steve Flamsteed, Chief Winemaker at Giant Steps.

                       The Yarra Valley (2)

First, I want to thank Mark and Steve for adding significantly to my knowledge of Australian Chardonnay.  I really learned a lot from them, and I hope you do too.  We’ll get into wine areas, wine styles, trends, evolution, winemaking, and more.

I’ll start with a bit of history about Chardonnay in Australia as related by Mark.  He elucidated, “It was actually a Chardonnay that put us on the map internationally.”  A major award in London in the 1980s to an Australian Chardonnay from Hunter Valley caused the international community to start paying attention to Australia.  Most offerings in those days were of the fun and affordable sort, Mark explained.

Mark continued with the evolution of Australian Chardonnay.  “I’ll try to break it down with what happened in the vineyard, and then also what happened in the winery.” We got better vine material.  What are called the Dijon clones from Burgundy started to come in during the mid-1990s and we started to plant these new classic clones in more suitable regions, and better sites in those regions.  And in the winery there was a revaluation of techniques.  Chardonnay is a variety that builds character and flavor through various winemaking techniques,” Mark said as he explained how wineries began to assess how they used oak, especially the length of oak contact, as well as lees contact, and malolactic fermentation.  A key evolution, Mark elucidated, was how much winemaking should recede in order to let the individual terroir express itself.  The net-net was that the 1990s got even better.

                        Hunter Valley (1)

Let’s look at a few wine areas starting with the Australian Capital Territory.  Hunter Valley continues to produce excellent Chardonnay today.  Other areas to look at also on Australia’s southeast, roughly in the vicinity of Sydney and near the Southern highlands are Mudgee, Cowra, the Canberra District, and Orange, skyward at 900 to 1,000 meters in elevation.  Tumbarumba also offers high altitude Chardonnay, and Riverina has the fun, affordable wines.

                        Margaret River (1)

In Western Australia Great Southern is turning out some dazzling Chardonnay.  Margaret River has the history and reputation of the most awarded Chardonnay of the past dozen or more years and remains a center of high quality.  Geograph is worth a look too.

                         Adelaide Hills (1)

In South Australia McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, and Clare Valley are all producing Chardonnay worth trying, while Riverland is producing some nice pocketbook friendly wine.  In Adelaide Hills’ elevated vineyards some very skilled winemakers are at work.

                 Tasmania (1)

The island state of Tasmania is the furthest south of any portion of Australia, and the Chardonnay vines like the cooling breeze off the Southern Ocean.  “This is a place to watch”, advised Mark.

On the southeast tip of Australia lies Victoria, the home of Melbourne.  Good Chardonnay can be found at Morningstar Pennsula, Geelong Valley, Beechworth, Mosay, and Darling.  Swan Hill produces the fun, easy-on-the-pocketbook wines.

                           Yarra Valley (1)

At this point Steve Flamsteed, an 18-year veteran now Chief Winemaker at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley joined in.  Prior to his passion for wine, Steve had culinary interests, which took him to study in France.  But it was only after working at Chateau du Bluizard in Beaujolais that he decided to become a winemaker.

                Vineyards in Yarra Valley (2)

In addition to completing several vintages overseas in Alsace and Brouilly, he has worked for Leeuwin Estate in the Margaret River from 1999 to 2002, at Yarra Burn Winery from 2002 to 2003 before joining Giant Steps as Winemaker in August, 2003.  In 2016 Steve was awarded the Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine Winemaker of the Year award and in 2019 was announced as Wine Communicators Victorian Legend of the Vine.  Initially, Steve earned a BS Degree from Roseworthy Agricultural College and is a Len Evans Scholar.

Mark speaks to Steve’s career at Giant Steps, “You have been there for quite some years now, and your style has evolved.”

Steve replied, “There’s been a bit of an evolution through that 18-years, particularly in Chardonnay.”  “When I began here, we were probably looking for wines that were not full of flavor necessarily, but wines that had a bit more thickness and palate weight to them.”  “I think in the past five to ten years particularly we have been working very hard at refining that style to what you and I talk about as being minerally and elegant.”  The acidity in contemporary Australian Chardonnay makes it exciting,” he emphasized.

Mark continued, “Chardonnay is an adaptable variety.   Do you find it easy to work with?  Do you enjoy working with it?”

Steve, “It’s my favorite grape.  That and Pinot Noir would be the two.  If you think of the past 18 years, it’s been quite a roller coaster.  We came out of ten years draught into 2011, which was the coolest, wettest year on record.”  “Every single year there has been a beautiful Chardonnay that has come out of the Yarra Valley and arguably out of Giant Steps.”

Mark inquired how Steve has changed techniques over the years.  Steve explained that after hand picking the Chardonnay grapes, he presses whole clusters into oak or clay vessels.  Steve likes to use indigenous yeast to achieve the alcoholic fermentation.  Although risk is involved, Steve believes native yeasts have rewards. He explained that during an alcoholic fermentation several yeast species often are present, working sequentially.  When one species completes its work, another follows, doing its task by adding its specific attributes to the fermenting wine.  Steve generally avoids the malolactic fermentation. 

One of Steve’s most notable changes is no longer performing bâtonnage, stirring on the lees, which he employed in the early 2000s.  Stirred and unstirred lees give two very different characters.  Steve does not favor the overt character of the lees, so confines his stirring to possibly once at the end of fermentation.

Mark, “We are seeing some regional characteristics because winemaking techniques are a little more in the background.” Mark queried, “What other regions do you like?”

Steve responded mentioning Margaret River’s new wave, especially Leeuwin Estate Winery, and Tasmania as being exciting, in particular Peter Dredge’s wines.  Mac Forbes, another winemaker from the Yarra Valley, had taken notice of Tasmania and bought property there.

Steve returned the conversation to the Yarra Valley, by describing Margaret River and the Yarra Valley styles as “still emerging”, and Yarra’s wine community as being especially collaborative.  He described the Yarra terroir as having many pockets with mezzo and micro climates, and its style as showing lemon, lemon curd, and lemon peel with cool years yielding grapefruit peel and a spike of mineral.  The Chardonnay from the town of Gruyere that lies midway up Yarra’s hills at 175m delivers white peach with an acidic spine.  Higher yet in the hills more citrus is apparent.

Mark, “That spine of acidity has airways defined really good Yarra Chardonnay.  But frankly I think that is something that is in modern Australian Chardonnay, where the charm is and the refreshment value lies.  Even in areas other than Yarra, where there may be more body or other attributes, there is always that limelight acidity that runs through.

In closing, I’ll add a nice compliment to Australian winegrowers from Oz Clarke.  This quote is from his book, along with Margaret Rand, Grapes & Wines.  “I can see how those early Californian and Australian trailblazers, back in the late 1960s and 1970s , chose Chardonnay to plant in their vineyards because one of the few European white wines with any reputation was white Burgundy – and the grape they used for white Burgundy was Chardonnay…and they could plant the same grape – Chardonnay.  Which they did, with awesome determination.” (4)

  1. Wine Australia
  2. Wiki Commons
  3. Wiki Commons, Viala u. Vermorel
  4. Grapes & Wines, p.63, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand

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