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  • Quentin Von Essen

Celebrating Australia’s Truly Adaptable, Versatile and Outstanding Wine

Don’t you hate it when you hear that it’s International Grenache Day or International Pinot Noir Day and you are not prepared? Don’t worry this month we have you covered and can inform you that May 3 is International Sauvignon Blanc Day (but do we care) and May 9 is World Moscato Day – and yes, we do care! Also, this month, May 23 is International Chardonnay Day. Now, this is a day worth celebrating!

Australian Chardonnay holds a special place among Australian wine lovers and remains Australia’s top white variety and is second overall behind Shiraz. So popular is Chardonnay, that in 2018, 408,000 tonnes of Chardonnay were crushed across Australia – making up 47 per cent of the total white wine grape crush.

Chardonnay, the noble, green-skinned grape, can trace its 1,000-year heritage back to the revered vineyards of Burgundy and the medieval village of Chardonnay in the Mâconnais wine growing region of southern Burgundy. Today, it is one of the world’s greatest grape varieties that grow well in a variety of locations throughout the world and is also an important component of many sparkling wines, including Champagne.

Chardonnay began its meteoric rise to fame in the late seventies and eighties when it was the “in wine” of the time. Fruit-forward, 'sunshine-in-a-bottle' became synonymous with Australian wine. Today, it is hard to think of Australian wine without thinking of Australian Chardonnay. It's a variety that has enjoyed the market highs and withstood the lows with a remarkable level of resilience and continues to hold a special place in the heart of Australian wine lovers throughout the world.

In fact, it was the Hunter Valley that led the way with Tyrrell’s 1971 Vat 47 Chardonnay initiating Australia’s love affair with this variety, causing Chardonnay sales to boom in the ’80s and ’90s. Such was the demand for Australian Chardonnay that the area of Chardonnay vines increased more than five-fold during this period so that in the 1990s Chardonnay became Australia’s most planted white wine grape variety and now accounts for more than half of Australia’s white wine production.

Chardonnay is now grown in every wine region in Australia - from the humidity of the Hunter Valley to the cool crispness of the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania to the warmer regions of Margaret River and Barossa Valley. It is ideally suited to Australian conditions and reflects a taste of place wherever it's grown.

One of the great virtues of Chardonnay is that it can produce compelling, complex and multi-layered wines capable of ageing from both warmer and cooler climates. Of all the white wines, Chardonnay is very responsive to the winemaker's craft – broadening the style possibilities and enabling the winemaker to create wine in a, particularly style that he or she considered desirable. This was the case when the market was dominated by the broader, buttery and toastier styles of wines that also had strong secondary characters.

These wines were big, rich and full-bodied with most not lasting more than a few years.

You can have too much of a good thing though, and this peak in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a change in tastes and increased competition. The market turned to red wine, and Chardonnay consumers became disenfranchised by the buttery taste and high level of oak used in these wines. Chardonnay sales declined as consumer tastes turned towards lighter wines such as Pinot Grigio and the crisp cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs.

But things change. Tastes change, fashion changes and Chardonnay changes! In recent years, we have witnessed the most remarkable change in premium Australian Chardonnay. Gone are the days of the fat, golden, oak-lavished style with Chardonnay making a comeback with styles that are lighter, more elegant and of course with a little less oak. The result is a wine that is brighter and fresher, with greater length and intensity, subtler and fruit-driven – something the golden oldies often lacked.

Ranging from un-wooded, light and fresh to full-bodied barrel fermented and aged, this versatile grape can produce a range of styles that can be matched with just about any food – especially poultry dishes, pork, seafood or recipes that have a heavy cream or butter base. Oysters and salmon also pair well with the citrus flavours of a crisp Chardonnay. Of course, there’s also nothing better than a cool, sharp Chardonnay all by itself on a fine summer day and served at a moderate 12°C.

Where to now for Australian Chardonnay? Presently, Chardonnay in Australia is as popular as it has ever been and it’s not showing any sign of waning. Demand continues for this popular wine which has done well to weather the onslaught of popular Sauvignon Blanc and the rapid surge of Pinot Gris/Grigio. The wine industry is also seeing a new generation of winemakers who are bringing experience, expertise, experimentation and bold ideas that are shaking up the Australian Chardonnay landscape and bringing new, exciting Chardonnays onto the market.

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