Keep on trucking: a visit with Yarra Valley Chardonnay maestro David Bicknell of Oakridge

I caught up with Pinot Noir specialist Bill Downie in the week who reckons it’s high time Australian wines were not referenced to Burgundy et al.   Through his involvement in the no expense spared 1000 candles project, he’s set to go red hot at it, making wine which is its own reference point.

Though I agree with Downie that wines ought to be judged on their own merits, comparisons are sometimes useful (stylistic) shorthand or a means of benchmarking quality. But yep, sometimes the cap just doesn’t fit.

Comparisons of Australian Chardonnay with Chablis tend to fall into this (cap doesn’t fit) category. Not only is it Burgundy’s coolest region, but its soil type – limestone rich kimmeridgian clay – is particularly distinctive.  No wonder Chablis is so lean and mineral.

In Australia, picking early and turning the oak dial off or down does not a Chablis make.  Wines can look skinny and lack flavour intensity, while attempts to re-balance them and build body and flavour through batonnage can make for top-heavy, awkward wines.

Referring to “our [Australia’s] significantly higher temperatures, ozone depletion and soil types” David Bicknell, winemaker at Oakridge, questions “why copy the ingredients when you can’t apply it?” Nonetheless, the C word came tumbling out of both our mouths as Bicknell and I tasted together on Wednesday.

While Bicknell, (pictured), described Oakridge’s entry level Over the Shoulder Chardonnay as “an ode to Chablis,” seven cuvees from the high acid 2011 vintage put me in mind of tasting through a really cracking Chablis producer’s range – from village wines through 1er Cru to Grand Cru Chablis.

Why? Limpid but far from limp, the flavour spectrum is subtle and the wines tightly wound, with uncommon rifle shot linearity.  Double barrel, I might add – in 2011, Oakridge have produced two 864 cuvees in this vintage, each from single vineyards.  And though the wines gather intensity as you scale the ranks to the much feted 864 label, there’s great continuity of style. No doubt because, irrespective of cuvee, grapes are sourced from the cool end of the Yarra Valley spectrum – generally the Upper Yarra or south of “Warbie” (the Warbuton) highway.

As Bicknell sees it, his job is simple – to amplify site and express that coolness in the glass. With that in mind, picking dates are critical. Bicknell picks by taste not numbers.  He tells me pick for floral notes and you’ll get citrus flavours, pick for citrus flavours and you’ll get stone fruits.   Because acid is more important than sugar, floral notes not fruit are what he covets in the raw material.  His wines have impeccable balance and no shortage of flavour intensity, so I reckon his picking dates are bang on the money.

Once picked (100% by hand), keeping the fruit pristine (for me, an Australian thumbprint) is equally critical.  It’s a measure of Bicknell’s fastidiousness that all the winery team have truck driving licences. It means they can get the fruit to the winery when they want it rather than depending on others.

With, he says, “95% of decisions made at picking,” with the wines safely into barrel to ferment within 24 hours  “we’re pretty much done and dusted.”  Particularly so in the long, cool 2011 vintage which Bicknell describes as “the most complete Chardonnay vintage in 20 Yarra vintages.”

Winemaking is kept simple.  Save for Over the Shoulder which sees an element of tank ferment and is only 40% whole bunch pressed, aach wine is whole bunch pressed directly to 500 litre French oak puncheons where it is fermented naturally and aged for around 10 months on lees.  Bicknell doesn’t do batonnage “because it helps bring the fruit forward” (which, he says is why it’s commonly used in France).  Conversely not stirring the lees creates a degree of reduction which usefully holds the wines back.

Oakridge Over the Shoulder Chardonnay 2011

Straw with green glints this, the entry level wine has a subtle lemony nose and, in the mouth, a hint of green olive bite.  Bright, juicy and lean without being hard, it finishes fresh and gently, leesily lingering.  A perfect companion for neat, fresh shucked oysters.  12.3% abv

Oakridge Denton Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

Though located north of the Yarra River near Yarra Glen, the close planted Denton vineyard is east-facing (so it just gets the morning sun) and located in a degraded granite plug.  It’s relatively cool.  There’s a hint of flint to the nose and lively citrus striated palate, which is well supported by zippy lemony acidity. 12.6% abv

Oakridge Barkala Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

Barkala Ridge is at the cooler southern end of the Yarra at 250m at Wandin East on deep red volcanic soils (good for water retention).  The vineyard is in a very sheltered land slip (which protects it from wind damage) and planted east to west.  The row orientation may be unfashionable, but it protects the grapes from exposure to the western sun.  Stepping up a few notches in intensity, Barkala Ridge has great lemony drive.  The fruit (lemon and pink grapefruit) is tightly focused but ripe, edged with honey and sweet hay.  Long and chalky/talcy, the finish is attractively textured and mineral.  13.2% abv.

Oakridge Lusatia Park Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

Lusatia Park is  a mature, closed planted vineyard at 200m in Woori Yallock (owned by Shelmerdine who, together with De Bortoli produce the PHI range from this vineyard). Because of its fruit purity, Bicknell dubs this the Snow White of the four tasted so far.  It’s exceptionally fine, long and persistent in the mouth, lemony with white flowers and delicious stony minerality as well as a salty touch of oyster shell and toast (autolytic not toast).  Bell clear with great resonance to its flavours.  Builds in the mouth.  Terrific.

Oakridge Guerin Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

The south and east-facing Guerin vineyard is in Gladysdale.  Slightly heavier soils produce a more muscular, expressive style.  It shows leesy apples and hay with a subtly textured core of animated white peach (fruit close to the skin and stone) and toast and oyster shell hints to the finish.

Oakridge 864 Drive Block Funder & Diamond Vineyard Chardonnay 2011

The flagship 864 label reflects Oakridge’s address, though fruit is sourced from elsewhere.  Bicknell says this immaculate, mature, north-facing vineyard at 230m is on red soils. As if more seasoned, fruit is high definition (ripe citrus without the sunshine), salt licked and mineral sculpted.  Though tightly coiled, it has great palate presence and plenty of momentum to the finish.  Very youthful – some way from fully declaring its hand.  Keep.

Oakridge 864 Charlie’s Block J & J D’Aloisio Chardonnay 2011

This north-facing vineyard from an exposed site at 250m near the top of a hill belongs to a cousin of Oakridge’s owner.  It shows plenty of charge with its racy but penetrating layers of fresh cut green apple, jewel-bright grapefruit, minerals and oyster shell.  A compelling run away finish just keeps building.  Terrific.

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