photo credit Ben Macmahon Images 2

Adelaide Hills Chardonnay: six new releases

The Adelaide Hills staked its claim to producing cool climate Chardonnay early in the piece, when Brian Croser (then of Petaluma, now Tapanappa) planted the region’s first 20th century vineyard.  This Adelaide Hills Chardonnay tasting showcased the hereafter, with six highly rated examples.

Although Adelaide Hills wine region has a reputation for boutique wineries, Nepenthe’s Winemaker James Evers surprised me when he described it as “the largest premium region in Australia.”  I think Great Southern in Western Australia may have the edge, but maybe not when you take elevation in account?

Anyway, his key point – reinforced by his fellow winemakers – concerned the region’s diversity.  Stretching 70km from south (McLaren Vale) to north (Eden Valley), Evers and his peers are excited by the region’s diversity – further west, he said, closer to Adelaide, it is higher and cooler, with more moisture.  To the east, it is lower and drier, which “allows us to make many different styles and varieties.”  And being hilly, winemakers can select which aspect best suits.  Hosting the event, Australian wine writer Nick Ryan added the region’s diverse, ancient soils into the mix.

For The Pawn Wine Co.’s Tom Keelan, with vines hitting their straps in maturity and still untapped reserves (of new and undeveloped sites), Adelaide Hills Chardonnay has a bright future ahead.  Here are my notes on the wines and click here for Ryan’s engaging and insightful interviews with each winemaker about the Hills and their wine.

The Pawn Wine Co. Chardonnay 2018 (Adelaide Hills)

This is a 50:50 blend of clones and fruit from Macclesfield on rocky ironstone soils (Entav 76, the ‘musqueclone,’) and Lenswood (I10 V1).  Describing the ‘musqueclone’ as “polarising,” winemaker Tom Keelan has recently bought Chardonnay from Geoff Weaver’s vineyard in Lenswood – a cooler, later ripening site (although Macclesfield, he pointed out, benefits from cooling afternoon breezes off Lake Alexandrina).  The elevated location and different clone “winds down the volume,” accentuating line and length, he said.  This Chardonnay was wild fermented in barrel, with partial solids and was lees stirred during fermentation.  It matured for 10 months in French oak, 20% new.

The Pawn Wine Co Chardonnay 2018 is quite nutty and textural, with orange pith and dried honey flavours to its white peach, the whole cut with a persistent blade of fresh acidity.  Ryan mentioned an exotic ginger note, which I found in the Henschke and Nepenthe too.  13.65% UK importer Seckford Wines

The Lane Heritage Chardonnay 2020 (Adelaide Hills)

The Lane’s flagship white is only made in exceptional vintages.  It comes from a single south-facing block at the elevated (400-450m) Hahndorf estate, first planted in 1993. This Chardonnay features Bernard clone 95 (known for its texture) and, said winemaker Turon White, a quite new Burgundy clone – 124, which imparts Gin Gin-like pristine fruit of richness and depth.

Typical of The Lane, it is a perfumed Chardonnay with pretty nectarine and white peach fruit, orange blossom and ever so gentle flint, vanilla oak, lanolin  and sourdough nuances.  The lees work is deftly done, as in silky and seamless, letting the fruit quality shine.  Distinctly Australian in that fruit purity, but crafted with incredible lightness of touch. 13.5% UK importer Corney & Barrow

Nepenthe Ithaca Pinnacle Chardonnay 2018 (Adelaide Hills)

This flagship Chardonnay is a barrel selection.  The grapes were handpicked in the cool of the night to protect the delicate fruit before transporting to the winery. Following a very gentle pressing, the juice was allowed to settle, then transferred to French oak barrels (50% new and 50% old French oak), where it aged for 10 months.  For Evers, Adelaide Hills’ Chardonnay really starts to shine at three years age.

With deeper yellow hues than the other Chardonnays in the line up, this is a potent Chardonnay, which shows the wood the most.  The fruit seems a notch or two richer and riper too.  A potent nose and palate reveals sweet, toasty oak, with cashew and ginger notes to the nectarine, roasted pineapple and creamy fruit salad flavours – “mouthfeel to wrap around that beautiful acid line,” said Evers.  A firm, mouth-watering backbone of acidity lends balance.  Opening up, I found incipient amaretto biscuit stuffed roast peach notes.   13.8%  UK distributor Australian Vintage

Murdoch Hill Tilbury Chardonnay 2019 (Adelaide Hills)

When Michael Downer returned to the family label in Oakbank, having worked elsewhere in Australia and Europe, he looked beyond estate fruit.  In particular, for Chardonnay, he wanted to reach the higher parts of Adelaide Hills.  One might add, refreshing the parts others cannot reach.  Tilbury Chardonnay is a case in point.  It was sourced from Lobethal (40%) at 450-500m and, higher (and wetter still), Piccadilly Valley at 550m (60%). The mature vines have a fruit salad of clones – Bernard C76, C95 & C96 with I10VI,G9V7 and Mendoza. The hand picked grapes were part whole berry &whole bunch pressed, then fermented in French larger format oak barrels (30% new). Partial malolactic fermentation was allowed, with a touch of lees stirring.

A fresh, lively nose with flint, fresh grated lime zest (bringing lime oil lift), white peach to the mid-palate and delicious un-erring grapefruit drive.  Silky lees with a lick of sourdough sheathe the backbone of acidity, without detracting in the least from line and length.  Impeccable freshness and precision to the crystalline citrus and mineral, mouth-watering finish.  On point.  I really wanted to drink this! 12.5%  Imported by Graft Wine; RRP c. £33. 

Penfolds Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2019 (Adelaide Hills)

A multi-site blend, true to the Penfolds’ style; each parcel is vinified separately and, said Penfolds’ white winemaker, Kym Schroeter, blended over a “painstaking day” on the bench in the lab.  The fruit is hand-picked into small bins, whole-bunch pressed, with a portion going straight to barrel and naturally fermented on solids.  The balance is barrel-fermented with selected yeasts.  For Schroeter, regular lees-stirring is “key to complexity, so we do it a lot – every 2 weeks for 9 months, but it adds layers, flavour, weight and get creamy texture.”  The wine underwent 100% (natural) malolactic fermentation.  Whilst it aged in 80% new oak, this wine can certainly take it.

Among Australia’s most decorated Chardonnays, Reserve Bin A once represented the acme of reductive flinty styles.  Penfolds’ talented white winemaker, Kym Schroeter has eased back on the flint and funk lately, but this character – especially the flint – still set it apart in this line up.  There and again, this Chardonnay is also built to age.  I tasted it last September when I reviewed The Penfolds Collection 2020 and described it as ‘high wattage,’ needing time in bottle to settle down.  Nine months on and it has unwound a tad, but it is still taut – like a coiled spring – relatively austere compared with the others.  But so flinty and interesting too, with riffs of zesty lime, lemon, hints of fresh fig and mesmerising structure – terrific grapefruit drive to the palate.  “I’m a bit of an acid junkie,” said Schroeter, ”but, for him, given the Hills’ diverse sites, you can richness of flavour and acid line,” he asserted. Much to come.  Top Drawer.  13%  £79 at Averys 

Henschke Croft Chardonnay 2019 (Adelaide Hills)

Whilst the Henschke family have grown grapes in Eden Valley for generations, Stephen and Prue Henschke were the first to plant vines in Adelaide Hills.  Stephen described the Croft Ridge site overlooking the Barossa to one side and McLaren Vale to the other as “edgy [climatically].”  Fresh from studying in Germany, he and Prue were keen to explore making Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a cooler climate.  The Chardonnay vineyard in Lenswood was planted from 1984 onwards, making it one of the region’s oldest vineyards.  Notwithstanding the bush fires of 2019, which seemingly devastated the vines, planted on own roots, the winemaker marvelled at their recovery from rejuvenated basal buds.  They got a jump start, he observed because the 30-year-old roots were chock full of carbohydrates – food!

I found this Chardonnay to be quite different from the others.  The fruit is less overt and it has an introspective air about it.  I found intriguing mineral, earth, bay leaf, ginger, orange pith and blossom nuances to the gentle wash of melon, fresh fig and apricot fruit.  A strikingly refreshing saline quality too, with crisp apple to the finish.  13.5%  £32.99 at AG Wines.

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