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Australian Chardonnay: Exploring the journey with Liberty Wines

The phrase ‘the journey’ is liberally bandied about on TV these days.  From underdog to bookies’ favourite, we are enthralled by the steep trajectory of Masterchef, ‘GBBO’ and ‘Strictly’ contestants.  As for the wine world, Australian Chardonnay has been on an “incredible journey,” said David Gleave MW, MD Liberty Wines

Casting his mind back 30 years ago, the importer recalled the big, buttery wines of yore, like Rosemount Roxborough, “with oak everywhere you looked.”

Fast forwarding to today, Michael Hill-Smith MW said, “I’m so proud of the wines Australia is producing… they are really wines of great presence and quality, that hold up in any company.”  Rightly so.

Gleave invited three of the importer’s top Australian Chardonnay winemakers to discuss the route to refinement. Hill-Smith (Shaw + Smith, Tolpuddle), Steve Flamsteed (Giant Steps) and Vanya Cullen (Cullen Wines) provided fascinating and frank insights into their own wines, as well as the broader context.

The video of this in-depth discussion of Australian Chardonnay’s “steps and missteps” (as Gleave put it) can be viewed here. You might find this Australia Chardonnay Buyers Guide I penned for Decanter useful too.

I wholeheartedly agree with Hill-Smith’s analysis that “Chardonnay make perfectly serviceable wine in lots of different sites, but it is the cooler more moderate sites where it really sings.”  Unsurprisingly, he added, the best Australian Chardonnays come from a fairly small number of regions.

But as Cullen pointed out, there is “astounding variety and range within those cooler regions.”   I’m particularly drawn to producers like this well chosen trio, who produce fascinating compare-and-contrast ranges of single site/single parcel wines.   They really highlight the winemaking renaissance.  As Hill-Smith put it, nothing [oak, malo] can be “too loud.”   It lets the terroir speak.  And be ‘heard.’

Cullen additionally highlighted the negative impact of “additions [acid, enzymes, yeast inoculation], manipulation or filtration” on “vibrancy and intensity.”  For Hill-Smith, a shift towards minimal intervention farming techniques is all about not having to adjust. “We all farm much differently than we did,” he said.

Harvesting differently – earlier – has been another important string to the bow of contemporary Australian Chardonnay.  Our wines were “missing savoury character and tension,” said Hill-Smith.

Having cultivated her vineyards biodynamically for around two decades now (certified since 2004), Cullen drew attention to the capacity of the land, microbiology and soil to make “a big [positive] difference to the vitality of wines.”  Where possible (it happens once a month), Cullen likes to harvest during the planetary node of Moon Opposite Saturn, which also brings “incredible energy in wines,” she added.

Hill-Smith contended, “[A]nyone in world of wine not looking at Australia and taking it seriously needs to catch up.”  The wines shown thoroughly vindicated that bullish statement.

Giant Steps (Yarra Valley, Victoria)

Phil Sexton at the Sexton Vineyard 2012; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Phil Sexton founded Giant Steps in 1997.  It focuses on single site Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Flamsteed, the long-term Chief Winemaker, showed two of four Giant Steps’ single vineyard Chardonnays – from the Sexton and Wombat Creek vineyards.

Blown away by the acidity balance at flavour ripeness in both vineyards, Flamsteed attributes it to the Yarra Valley’s “beautiful continental climate, which lends itself to Chardonnay.”  It means that the temperature drops even in summer, he explained, so with cool nights, the grapes retain acidity. Great years feature cooler nights than most.

The winemaker compared Chardonnay’s consistency and fit in the Yarra favourably to Pinot Noir.  Whilst, he said, “Chardonnay makes wines of personality regardless of vintage…Pinot Noir can be depressing some years.”  

Still, he admitted that the picking decision is always the hardest decision.  The aim is for flavour and physiological ripeness, with the retention of finer acids.  In good years, the picking window is wider.  In difficult years, it is shorter.

Incidentally, whilst noting he doesn’t chase it, Flamsteed notices more struck match reduction if he picks earlier.

Both Chardonnays hailed from the 2018 vintage.  In retrospect, said Flamsteed, it was “quite warm” and the Chardonnays were “cuddly from the get go…and still lovely and in balance.” (In comparison, 2017 was a very cool year and 2019 quite cool).

Here is Giant Steps’ 2018 vintage report: good winter rains which left the ground with adequate moisture resources for the growing season. The canopies in the vineyard were healthy and the fruit set was highly successful. This allowed for shoot thinning and cluster selection down to one bunch per shoot. The ripening season was slightly earlier than normal and was relatively dry except for a period of rain in January. The fruit was harvested with lower sugar levels but with great natural acidity and flavour concentration.

The winemaking process was more or less the same.  The fruit was hand picked. Upon arrival at the winery, whole bunches were lightly pressed to tank and the juice was settled to 500 litre French puncheons. Fermentation took place with 100% indigenous yeast with batonnage for the first month. The wines aged for a further eight months on lees in tight grain French oak, 20% of which was new. They were then coarse filtered and bottled by gravity.

Because the Sexton site is the warmer of the two, it produces less malic acidity, so the resulting wine rarely goes through malo[lactic] fermentation.  On the other hand, being cooler, Wombat Creek produces grapes with higher malic acid, so wines can undergo a bit of spontaneous malo.

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (Gruyere, Lower Yarra Valley)

Phil Sexton planted his eponymous 30ha vineyard in 1997 with cuttings from Leeuwin Estate (where Flamsteed used to work).  It is located between 130 – 210 metres on a steep, exposed north-east-facing slope of the Warramate Ranges.  The soil is grey clay loam over shallow granite/ironstone.  Flamsteed described this chunky, compressed 450 million years old eroded clay with its thin topsoil as ‘hungry.’  It has water-holding capacity, he added, but also good drainage.  Bunch yields set naturally low in this environment, resulting in intensely flavoured fruit with a high skin to juice ratio.  With ‘hen and chicken,’ the Leeuwin Gin Gin clone cuttings play into that too.  With not a lot of juice and phenolic input on pressing, Flamsteed finds lemon curd notes are quite typical for this wine.  I certainly found it citrus-driven – zesty, relatively punchy, with mouth-watering lime, together with lime blossom and green almond to nose and palate.  The citrus flavours have lovely drive, clarity and (fresh grated zest) perfume.  Subtle hints of savoury lees bring mouthfeel, balancing the acidity.  Persistent finish, with slate undertones. Very good.  13%, TA 7.0 g/l pH: 3.24.  RRP £32.99

Giant Steps Wombat Creek Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (Gladysdale, Upper Yarra Valley)

Planted in 1988 (originally for sparkling production), the Wombat Creek vineyard is located on north-east-facing slopes.  Rising to 410m elevation, the 16ha vineyard lays claim to being the Yarra Valley’s highest.  This Chardonnay (clone I10V1) is planted in classic Upper Yarra red/ferrous volcanic loam. The vines behave very differently in this soil, said Flamsteed, producing much larger canopies than the Sexton vineyard; the roots drop deeper (you could dig 2 to 3 metres with a shovel, said the winemaker).  According to the fiche, the soils produce “distinctively soft yet long wines.”  Being deep and moisture retentive, I suspect they contribute to the long hang times.  But I imagine that elevation is a major factor too?  Whilst the Sexton vineyard (perhaps 50 minutes away) is typically picked in mid-February, Flamsteed said Wombat Creek is picked 4-5 weeks later, because it is so much higher.  I think of long hang times as producing softer wines with finer, seamless acidity (so less overt/punchy drive).  With longer hang times, the fruit profile is different too – stone fruits, not the citrus of the Sexton site (although Flamsteed sees more citrus in this wine, with poached pear with bottle age).  Thanks to the different (finer) acid structure, Wombat Creek delivers its softer stone fruit in ‘slo mo,’ elegant fashion.  No hurry here.  And plenty of layers to unfurl, with nectarine, honeysuckle, apple pie, acacia and almond paste.  The finish is long, textural, ever so subtly nutty and floral, with a hum of acidity. RRP £32.99

Shaw + Smith (Adelaide Hills, South Australia)

Shaw + Smith was founded by Martin Shaw and Michael Hill-Smith MW in 1989.  Brian Croser had planted Chardonnay vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley (Adelaide Hills’ coolest and wettest sub-region) in the 1970s, but the cousins were very much at the vanguard of making wine in the Adelaide Hills. They originally planted Chardonnay in Woodside.

Hill-Smith ruefully recounted that Croser was “completely correct” that Woodside could not possibly rival the ‘dress circle’ of Lenswood & Piccadilly.  “The higher we go, the more interesting the outcome,” he said.  Shaw + Smith’s Chardonnays now come from three higher locations – Lenswood (predominantly), Piccadilly Valley and Lobethal.

It partly explains why, though very well received in its day, the original M3 was richer and fatter.  I visited in 2004, so I must have tasted the 2002 or 2003 vintage.  I particularly recall a discussion about wild yeasts, which Hill-Smith denounced following unsuccessful experiments.  These days, of course, most leading Chardonnay producers ferment naturally, so there has been a volte face, with dividends for texture, (savoury) complexity and terroir-expression.   Still, it was early days then – M3 was first produced in 2000.

Another factor which has contributed to the new, slimmer M3 is early picking.  Especially following Chief Winemaker (now joint CEO) Adam Wadewitz’s arrival (2013), said Hill-Smith.   We wanted to protect the natural acidity and better show the character of region, he explained.

Simplistically put, he describes Adelaide Hills Chardonnay as characterised by slightly under-ripe nectarine/stone fruits, “seasoned by process [winemakeing] by different producers.” 

The trend, he added, is for zero or little malo, but there is no recipe.  Indeed, both of the Shaw + Smith Chardonnays went through 100% malo!  Exclamation mark, because you wouldn’t pick it.  It has to be said, there is malo and malo (diacetyl is the compound that creates the broadness and butteriness, but the concentration of diacetyl/butteriness can be managed during the malo).

Increased use of puncheons (500l) and backing off lees-stirring has also contributed to M3’s tighter profile, greater freshness/cool climate expression.  Hill-Smith observed, “with lots of lees-stirring, all we ended up doing was making the wines age faster than we would have liked, with a dominant leesy flavour.”

Shaw + Smith M3 2019 (Adelaide Hills)

The grapes were chilled overnight, whole-bunch pressed, and then fermented in French oak barriques and puncheons, a third of which were new. The wine was matured for nine months in oak with some lees stirring, followed by two months in tank on lees prior to bottling.  A toasty nose reveals more oak artefact than the Giant Steps wines, albeit M3 is a year younger.  And it is attractively toasty, with nothing over-played or, to use Hill-Smith’s phrase, “too loud.”   In the mouth, it is more textural too, with hints of struck match and lanolin and phenolic/savoury leesy chew (which I like) to its lemon and lime accented firm white peach.  A hint of acacia too.  Ripe, lemony acidity makes for a balanced finish. 13.5 % TA 6.3 g/l, pH: 3.34  RRP £31.99

Here is Shaw + Smith’s vintage report for 2019: – a growing season that challenged even the most experienced and well-equipped vignerons. Hot and dry conditions in January and February were partly mitigated by good canopy management. Yields were down, owing to the cold and wet period during flowering, and bunches developed with berries of different sizes. The small crops of fruit produced showed wonderful flavour and intensity, and natural acidity, despite the warm, dry summer.

Shaw + Smith Lenswood Chardonnay 2018 (Lenswood, Adelaide Hills)

This sub-regional, single vineyard Chardonnay hails from Lenswood/the Lenswood vineyard, which Shaw + Smith acquired in 2012.

In 2014, Shaw + Smith produced its first single vineyard Chardonnay from this vineyard (my review here, together with some background history about the vineyard).  “If the wine is different enough, that’s a good reason.  Not just because of the trend to single site wines,” asserted Hill-Smith.

Shaw + Smith are using the technique of layering (burying a cane from an existing vine, which itself takes root) to “retrofit a density problem;” the aim is for 10,000 vines/ha – double the original density of the Lenswood vineyard.

The Lenswood vineyard was first planted in 1999 and sits at 455 to 500 metres above sea level.  The east and south-facing blocks are located on soils of brown loam over clay with some broken shale. I find this intricate Chardonnay is always finer tuned, with a finer acid structure – that seamlessness of the higher, later-ripening site. Glancing freshness on the nose and palate, with mountain pond/petrichor minerality (a coolness), white blossom, almond and acacia notes to its juicy, lingering, fresh grapefruit palate.  The fruit and oak is fully subjugated to terroir – there, but somehow barely there.  Those details less important.  Which I think is part of the singularity of a site, moreover one which has terrific inherent balance – a walk to ripeness.  Great finesse.  Whole bunches were chilled overnight, then pressed, before fermentation took place in a mix of new and used 500 litre French oak puncheons. The wine then spent a further 10 months in barrel with gentle stirring.  12.5 % Acidity: 6.9 g/l Residual sugar: 0.53 g/l pH: 3.26  RRP £59.99

Here is Shaw + Smith’s report on the 2018 vintage: After some heat in January, the moderate, dry and sunny months of February and March delivered beautifully balanced fruit. Crop levels were slightly below average, enhancing flavour and intensity.

Tolpuddle Vineyard (Coal River Valley, Tasmania)

Tolpuddle Vineyard, Coal River Valley 2016 – photo credit Sarah Ahmed

I visited this beautiful 20ha Coal River Valley vineyard in 2016 with vineyard manager, Carlos Souris.  Tolpuddle Vineyard was first planted in 1988 by Tony Jordan and Garry Crittenden. Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were sold to, among others, Hardys for their iconic Eileen Hardy label.  Souris told me Shaw & Smith’s “what can we do to make it better” regime had lifted quality even higher.

The vineyard is situated on a gentle slope and enjoys commanding  views.  The soil is light silica over sandstone and of moderate vigour, ensuring well-balanced vines. Being in the south and east of Mt. Wellington, the Coal River Valley is in a rain shadow, so is dry but cold with low disease pressure, allowing for long hang times.

Cold, not cool, like Adelaide Hills, Hill-Smith loves the site’s ability to produce wines of extraordinary intensity of flavour combined with challenging acidity (“like Mosel or Chablis acidity”).  The wine undergoes 100% malo – “I reckon it would be a bit of a challenge without it,” he joked.

In 2019, mild conditions in spring and a dry September encouraged moderate shoot development through the early part of the growing season. Temperatures remained mild during the latter period of ripening, resulting in fruit that ripened slowly with great concentration, power and natural acidity.

Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2019 (Coal River Valley, Tasmania)

From the maiden release, this taut, mineral wine asserted its compelling presence.   It reveals savoury whetstone minerality to the nose, with lime peel and struck match nuances, which follow through on the palate, together with a lick of bay leaf.  As always, the acidity – long leash – defines this wine.  Spooling out energetically and incisively, this is a lively Chardonnay, a touch sour (attractively so) with those lime pith and peel notes.  Saturating, the acidity is mouth-filling and mouth-watering at the same time.  Singular.   A great site.   The grapes were all hand picked, whole-bunch pressed, and fermented in French oak barriques (Hill-Smith pointed out that Tasmania’s/Tolpuddle  vineyard’s intense flavoured fruit copes with barriques (225l) better than the Adelaide Hills’ Chardonnays). The wine spent nine months in oak, one third new, with different toast levels. There was gentle lees stirring as required, then a further two months in tank on lees prior to bottling.  13 % Acidity: 7.4 g/l Residual sugar: 0.52 g/l pH: 3.21 RRP £49.99

Cullen Wines (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

Chardonnay vines at Cullen Wines – photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Founded in 1971 by Diana Madeleine and Kevin John Cullen, Cullen Wines celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.   Subscribers to Cullen Wine’s newsletter are currently being treated to archival material (photos, clippings, letters), together with a rolling account of daughter Vanya Cullen’s memories over the years.  Vanya celebrated her own anniversary last year – 30 years as Chief Winemaker at Cullen Wines.

The Chardonnay is grown in three separate blocks in Cullen’s own Wilyabrup vineyards, a short distance from the ocean, off the Caves Road.  The vines are more than 30 years old, having been planted in 1976 and 1988.  The aspect is mostly level or southerly.

A pioneer of wild yeast ferments, following trials between 1993-95, Vanya introduced natural ferments in 1996.   Incidentally, at a previous tasting, she has remarked that a beneficial side effect of natural ferments (which take longer than inoculated ferments) is lower concentrations of diacetyl – the compound which lends itself to more buttery styles of Chardonnay.

Cullen has long made Chardonnay without acid addition.  Biodynamic practices have also “super-charged” the wines’ sense of aliveness, minerality, acidity and physiological ripeness across the board, she said, with a change in the balance of the Chardonnay.

Having been hard, with biodynamic cultivation, the soils have become “soft and silky…you can imagine vines enjoy growing there and dig deep in hot summers.”  The vines recover really quickly, said Cullen.

Low yielding, (just 2.88t/ha in some years), Cullen’s vines produce grapes with “amazing acids and low pH, whether at 12 or 14 baume – you get texture, incredible concentration and you don’t have to adjust,” she said.

In recent years, Cullen has used a broader range of fermenting vessels –  – amphorae lined with beeswax, concrete egg (good for texture) and puncheons as well as barriques. Grapes are pressed whole bunch.  In addition to the natural primary fermentation, they usually undergo 100% natural malo.

For Cullen, bottling under screwcap has been an important facet of Australian Chardonnay’s journey too. It is now possible to age the wines with confidence – “we can look back to 2002 and we don’t have to tip the wine out.”

I was fortunate to attend Cullen’s 40th anniversary celebrations.  Vertical tastings reinforced the longevity of not only Diana Madeline red Bordeaux blend, but also Kevin John Chardonnay.  So, whilst fuller-bodied than the other wines shown, make no mistake, it has terrific underpinning and cellaring potential.

You can read my notes on the 40th anniversary Chardonnay vertical (1997-2010) here and will find recent vintages report here (2010-2015) and here (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018).

Here is Cullen Wines’ note on the 2018 vintage: In the winter months, rainfall was close to 20% above the fifteen year average. Warm and dry conditions in November contributed to excellent conditions for flowering and fruit-set and enabled a healthy canopy growth.

The summer leading into the 2018 vintage saw temperatures which were below average. This lead to a very effective photosynthesis within the canopies and consistent, even ripening of the fruit. The vines were not impacted by any severe heat or moisture stress and lead to full-flavoured and balanced wines.

Harvest took place between 29th January and 12th February 2018. Slow ripening conditions allowed for a large number of smaller picks down the vineyard in a rough north to south picking schedule as things ripened.

Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2018 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

I reviewed this vintage here for Decanter Premium last year.  The fruit concentration and intensity, especially its aromatic intensity, remains striking.  Very Margaret River, with its evocative rock melon, grainy pear and lime speaking of the relatively warm climate (compared with Tasmania, Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley).  The palate is broader shouldered too, with a fleshier sensuality, which is enhanced by the heady aromatics – the perfumed rock melon and, going through, white blossom, acacia and incipient honey.  A backbone of acidity – insinuating – underpins and sustains the flavours on a lingering finish.  Doubtless another marathon runner, but bountiful already. The bunches were hand harvested, whole-bunch basket pressed and the juice racked to barrel. One parcel was fermented in concrete egg before ageing in puncheons. Of the remaining juice, 70% was fermented in puncheons and 30% in barriques, with 50% new oak. It underwent 100% natural malolactic fermentation and spent a total of six months on its lees in barrel. Battonage was carried out daily during fermentation and monthly thereafter. The wine has had minimal bentonite fining and no filtering or cold stabilization.  Acidity: 6.4 g/l pH: 3.2 13.5 %   RRP £87.99


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