Barwang, Tumburumba: smart Aussie cool climate Chardonnays & a rivetting Pinot Gris, really!

Today and tomorrow I’ll be judging Australian Chardonnays for a Decanter panel tasting.  It’s a variety that still suffers from outmoded prejudices even though, pretty much across region and price point, the country’s winemakers have pulled the plug on super ripe fruity styles with lashings of oak, butter and cream.  

Instead, the focus is less on fruit and oak, more on acid structure, texture and site expression.   Shadowfax winemaker Matt Harrop’s tweet today sums its up: ” Just finalized the 2010 Macedonian Chardonnay, in tank now and looks very backwards…and very taut, like a taut thing ??”

So what gives?  Acid structure, which brings freshness and longevity, has been enhanced by sourcing fruit from cooler regions (like the Macedon Ranges), harvesting earlier and more judicious (if any) malolactic fermentations.  Wild ferments on solids followed by lees-ageing and stirring account for texture.  Aside from the drift to cooler climate regions, of which sparkling wines have been another major beneficiary (see yesterday’s report of the Landmark Tutorial sparkling tasting here),  Australian Chardonnay has also become increasingly site specific.  More and more producers make a range of Chardonnays, invariably sourcing their top wines from a single vineyard or parcel within a vineyard, so character is forged less by the winemaker, more by the vineyard.  Check out my report on September’s Mornington Peninsula visit here for some beautiful examples.

And below you’ll find my notes on a couple of benchmark cool climate Chardonnays (also a Pinot Gris) from Tumburumba, New South Wales.  The wines are made by McWilliams under their Barwang label, who showed me the flagship wine, Barwang 842 Chardonnay 2008, during my visit with them in the Hunter Valley.  Apparently the winemaking team experimented with Tumbarumba Chardonnay for some years before unveiling Barwang 842 Chardonnay in the outstanding 2006 vintage.  For Barwang winemaker Andrew Higgins, the region’s chilly winters and very moderate summer temperatures help to retain healthy natural acidities and excellent flavour intensities, while the soils (which are infiltrated with fractured granite) greatly contribute to the overall complexity and palate structure of the Chardonnay.  Tasting the Barwang 842 Chardonnay 2008, I could well understand why Higgins says Tumburumba Chardonnay “stands tall against many other Chardonnay producing regions in Australia” and was delighted to have the opportunity to taste more from this exciting producer! 

Barwang Chardonnay 2008 (Tumbarumba) – a lifted melon nose and palate with citrus and fresh fig, cut with brisk,  mouthsluicing and mineral lemony acidity, with a wash of smoky oak (30% new French).  All about the structure not the fruit.  In fact, so linear and focused that there’s almost a mid-palate bypass!  But I like it and it’s cracking value at RRP AUS $20 too.  Higgins reckons this can be cellared for up to 8 years.

Barwang 842 Chardonnay 2007 (Tumbarumba) – so-called because it comes from a vineyard at 842m above sea level (the previous wine comes from vineyards between 500-842m). A very attractive flinty, savoury nose is dusted with cedar oak.  In the mouth it shows lovely weight and cedary complexity with steely grapefruit and fresh grated lime zest on the mid-palate.  That mineral, mouthsluicing chassis of acidity makes for tremendous persistence.  A nutty, long finish shows savoury, leesy notes and smoky oak.   Showily complex and tightly structured, it puts me in mind of Penfolds Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay 2008 from the Adelaide Hills.  Very good. RRP AUS $35.00

Barwang 842 Chardonnay 2008 (Tumbarumba) – Barwang 842 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2008 – a little less showy than the 2007 vintage with elegant white peach and perfumed nectarine on the mid-palate, underscored by zesty lime, flint and smoky oak.  Taut acidity carries a long finish.  Very good.

Barwang Pinot Gris 2009 (Tumbarumba) – from a vineyard at 800m, the fruit is harvested at different levels of ripeness, some of which has “a small brush of barrel fermentation.”  Wow, though it has great varietal typicity with its scented ripe naschi pear, peach skin and spicy musky, slightly honeyed notes, Tumbarumba makes it mark tautening the whole with tightly etched bright, lemony acidity.  Mouthwatering and delicious.  14.5%, not that you’d know it.  A clever Pinot Gris – yes, they do exist!  RRP AUS $20

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