Some visitors to our cellar door are reticent to even taste chardonnay. Many still bear the scars inflicted by old school Aussie chardonnays from the 1980s and 90s and expect a big, alcoholic, urine-coloured wine with far too much splintery oak. These wines were often sourced from warm regions and aged quickly, becoming dark and fat after two years of age and dying a death soon afterwards. For some folks, choosing white wine is still strictly ABC (Anything But Chardonnay).
And then our visitors try a Colmar Estate chardonnay – pale, fine, elegant, subtly complex. After a sigh of relief, they usually ask: what has happened to chardonnay?
Actually, quite a lot has happened. Firstly, winemakers are now sourcing fruit from cooler regions, like Orange, so the wines are lighter and finer with more crisp natural acidity, which ensures they age more slowly. It should come as no surprise that chardonnay produces its finest wines in cool climates – think of where it comes from. The variety emerged in eastern France and obviously feels at home there. Many still believe that the finest chardonnay wines come from the cool Burgundy region. Head northwest from there and you arrive in Chablis, which is cooler again, and renowned for its refreshing, zingy, long-ageing style of chardonnay. Keep going northwest and you’ll run into the Côte des Blancs, the famous chardonnay-growing region of Champagne, which is seriously cool. Chardonnay loves a cool climate!
Another step on the path to more elegant chardonnays has been earlier picking. Some big-name chardonnays used to weigh in at 14-14.5% alcohol but now it is common to see wines of 12.5-13%. Earlier picking changes the flavour profile too, with flavours more akin to grapefruit and white peach than the rich, yellow peach characters of very ripe chardonnay.
Although oak has long been a contributor to the complex flavour of fine chardonnays, change is afoot here too. The old-fashioned, big-as-a-house style of chardonnay often relied on oak chips to provide oak flavour but too often the unwanted result was bitterness in the wines. Fine French oak barrels are a much better option, though much more expensive, of course. Another trend has been towards the use of bigger barrels, the larger volume increasing the ratio of wine-to-oak, which ensures a softer impact of the barrel. At Colmar Estate we exclusively use French oak puncheons, which contain about 500 litres, twice as much as the traditional barrique.
Another step forward towards great chardonnay has been winemakers curbing their natural tendency to show off. Chardonnay provides winemakers with an opportunity to exercise all their winemaking skills and employ techniques such as malolactic fermentation and battonage – the stirring of the wine after the fermentation to keep the dead yeast moving through the wine, building creaminess and mouthfeel. But in both cases winemakers have found that more is not always better and are using both techniques more judiciously, allowing the vibrant fruit and the vineyard that produced it to shine through.
So Australian chardonnays have changed a lot and for the better. But all this is a long-winded way of saying you just have to try our new 2017 Colmar Estate Chardonnay!