I read with interest a little rant from Irish MW Dermot Nolan this week, taking square aim at modern Australian Chardonnay.
Have a read here.
His post does come across as grumpy and presumptuous, and there are some laughable generalisations like this:
‘Too many pinots and chardonnays were lean to the point of being unpleasant, yet we were pretty constantly lectured (and I use that word deliberately) that this was the way things should be. While Australian winemakers are known for their openness I have to say that discussion frequently seems to be a one-way street with them and this was highlighted on this trip.’
However Dermot makes a relevant point – there is no joy in anaemic, sulphides-instead-of-flavour modern Chardonnay.
In many ways, it’s a reaction to the ‘wine with shoulder pads’ style of Chardonnay that was once very popular. Those wines were very rich, ripe and viscous – almost too rich. Winemaking-wise they were made from grapes picked ever riper, with more new oak and 100% malolactic fermentation.
Said wines, while loved at the time, encouraged a culture where artifice and heavy-handed winemaking was the norm, extending well beyond Chardonnay. It also led to a drinking movement lovingly called ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ (ABC), which was driven by drinkers who couldn’t stomach those old-school wines.
The pendulum has completely swung the other way now, though, with the winemaking focus presently turned to early picking, limited malolactic fermentations and less new oak. In turn, the wines are now more about freshness, ‘minerality’ (stupid word) and delicacy than hedonism or richness.
In many ways this is a welcome move, for things really did go too far. Look only at mid 90s Rosemount Roxburgh Chardonnay. But there is a point when early picking and minimal winemaking goes too far, resulting in flavourless, complexity-less Chardonnay. To counter that, winemakers found that reductive winemaking could give these lean, early-picked wines an extra level of complexity.
It is this ‘sulphides first’ style that Dermot is most rallying against and, to be honest, I don’t blame him. Wines that are lean and delicate, but dominated by the artifice of sulphides just aren’t enjoyable to drink. Modelled on Coche-Dury they may be, but too contrived to match the white Burgundy of that famous Meursault estate.
More to the point, and Dermot nails it again here, everyday drinkers don’t want sulphides, they want flavour:
‘I often get customers asking me for oaky chardonnay, as this is an increasingly difficult style to find, but no-one (and I mean NOT ONE PERSON) has ever asked me for a wine that tastes of struck match.’
So what is the answer? Well, like everything in life, it’s all about balance. A little sulphide is fine, but it shouldn’t be dominant (so less struck match). Nor, for that matter, is it useful to pick Chardy grapes when they are just beyond sparkling base point. We want Chardonnay to at least taste like Chardonnay.
What riles is that Dermot assumed that all of Australia makes their wines in this sulphide-dominant form. That’s a foolish assumption for an MW who has been here a few times. Do we need to remind him that Australia is a bloody big place?
Still, it is important to realise that some Aussie Chardonnay has gone too far.
Conversely, Australian Chardonnay is still in a very good place overall. As Jancis Robinson pointed out recently, that overly lean, sulphide driven style is simply not indicative of Australia’s best wines:
‘As a reaction to the big, fat, oaky Chardonnays of old, many Australian winemakers went too far in the other direction a few years ago, picking so early that the wines ended up with high natural acidity but a distinct lack of flavour and body… But from about 2012 Australia has been producing a raft of truly world-class Chardonnay, very much in the savoury, steely, super-crisp style of refined white burgundy, but often with more apparent potential for future development than a typical white burgundy’.