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OPINION: There is a place for big and buttery Australian Chardonnay (and much more)

August 19, 2022

Australian Chardonnay has come a long way. From the 'wine with shoulder pads' of the 1980s through to the forgettable early noughties unwooded Chardonnay and the variations of today, this most important grape has evolved so many times. But what is cutting through? What styles are winning in the drinks trade? Do we need a winner? What is the way forward? Here, the ever-clever Adelaide-based marketer and writer Tijana Laganin ponders what the way forward is for local Chardonnay.

Over the last decade, rosé has conformed to a modern standard - salmon coloured and dry.

The lolly-sweet rosé previously so previously adored? Now a distant, blood-orange-hued memory, the final remnants of a bygone era, those who failed to follow left four vintages behind, with wines now a shade of lacklustre orange.

Sometimes, this can be a brutal, constantly-changing industry where fads and favourites come and go so quickly. Did you ever think non-alc wines and Arneis would have a place on the same shelf?

If you had to pick a victim of these changing fashions, look only at Chardonnay, which had its fall from grace condensed to a three-letter acronym (ABC - Anything But Chardonnay).

Economists call this a business cycle, with peak -> recession -> recovery. To draw a lesson from the rosé recession (and recovery), producers and suppliers must address the bestselling style of wine.

Chardonnay is no different. Still our most planted variety, it faces the same questions. What style is king? The big, bold, and buttery? Or the delicate and lean? Is there a spot for both? Or have we forced Chardonnay to a single identity, like its ‘bone dry’ pink counterpart?

Harvesting Chardonnay in Chablis

Ed Cellars Manager Sam Taylor has studied these Chardonnay ‘cycles’, recounting back to the 80s when the variety was served with a butter knife and dinner roll. Or the 2010s - a lesson on the silent ‘s’ in Chablis, with a constant clamour for vitality. And today, Taylor refers to local Chardonnay as 'the best in the world'.

Having firsthand experience in the Adelaide Hills, he calls Chardonnay a 'winemaker’s thumbprint' where we see 'quality based on the production method'. While terroir plays a significant role, Taylor acknowledges that climate change and rising temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have blurred the line between old and new world wines. For Taylor, the most exciting part as Burgundy gets more expensive is that there are 'bloody good' Aussie Chardonnay to fill that void.

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. So, what style is the proverbial gain? For Taylor, it is about 'taking elements of the midpoints' – oak, sulphur, reduction, lees, and acidity. 'Balance, that’s the thing with Chardonnay', he explains, 'edgy reduction, flint forward, racy acidity and judicious use of wood'. Rather than the big and bold or the delicate and lean, people want 'the best of both worlds', and with today’s technology, evolving techniques and winemaker innovation, Taylor acknowledges, they can.

Someone who lives and breathes Chardonnay is Chain of Ponds winemaker and XO’s Greg Clack. Do not be misled by Greg’s visible youth; the man is a real-life Benjamin Button, his 19 years of experience working with the grape in focus proof. Mentored by Penfolds’ original ‘White Grange’ maker, Neville Falkenberg, Greg believes 'there is always a position for multiple styles in the market'. A pragmatic winemaker, he acknowledges that 'everyone’s taste is different, and it is good for people to enjoy what they like'. In the trade, Greg has noticed the increasing popularity of Chablis as people gravitate towards 'a more crisp example of Chardonnay'. However, the biggest demand comes from what he considers 'a modern Australian example with a focus on purity and balance with some oak'.

His inclination? Like a judicious parent, Greg’s preference is determined by 'weather, time of year and food'. Pressed further for confession, his favourite child is 'a combination of the pure mineral style and modern Australian style – if not both in the one sitting'. However, the big, bold and rich mode is not to be dismissed, as he notes, 'there are still a number of people that really enjoy the style'. When paired with heavier sauces, more decadent flavours, or Greg’s suggested 'roasted chicken thigh with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms and a fennel puree', it is the buttery, full-bodied one you want in your glass.

Someone who can scientifically vouch for such pairing is Dr Marcell Kustos, holding a P.H.D in ‘food, wine, and emotion pairing’. Re-defining the role of a modern-day sommelier, Kustos is the Beverage Director at Restaurant Botanic, with currently 26 Chardonnay on the list (including blanc des blanc). Kustos’ belief that 'there is a place for great wines of both styles and everything in between' is also adopted by customers. He has seen a notable shift towards the 'more elegant, cool climate style with restrained new oak influence' but with a paralleled demand for 'Californian Chardonnay'. In other words, big, bold and buttery.

But what makes our hero variety so unique? As Kustos puts it, this is 'a winemaker’s grape. Relatively neutral on its own, it presents a blank canvas for skilled winemakers'. The Chardonnay canvas is not limited to one art style – abstract, expressionism, delicate or bold. Dr Kustos not only values 'perfumed, delicately-handled, cool climate wines' but 'the guilty pleasure of indulging with richly textured, ripe, oaky yet harmonious Chardonnay'. A preference dependent on 'the occasion and the food', it is no surprise that Marcell’s pairings break the status quo. Would you think to pair a generous wine with 'various beef dishes, from steak tartare to roast gravy beef'? Proof, he says, as to why 'the colour matching theory is not only outdated but not based on scientific evidence'.

Marcell Lustos in the Restaurant Botanic cellar

Dubbed the ‘Molecular Sommelier’, Kustos has had a multifaceted career, including his wine brand LUDO. Topically, they are in the process of making their first Chardonnay. So, what style does a winemaker with sommelier insider-trading craft? Organically farmed grapes with intense flavours and crunchy acidity, fermented in stainless steel and matured in a seven-year-old American hogshead with occasional lees stirring. Keep your eyes peeled.

Ultimately, diversity is clearly the winner when it comes to Chardonnay. You can guarantee that if this trio of a sommelier, bottleshop manager and winemaker walk into a bar, it’s anyone’s guess what Chardonnay they choose. The only thing we can almost guarantee is that they’re not reaching for a glass of dark red, sweet rosé.

Photos - Instagram