Fifty years of Australian Chardonnay

I like Aussie Chardonnay. I remember when I was first getting into wine, and I tried quite a few. In the mid-1990s Lindemans Bin 65 used to be quite a good drop. It was £5, and these days you can still buy it close to that price. It’s a very different wine – not a bad one, just different. I also remember some of the Aussie Chardonnays back then were richer and deeper-coloured, and they were good. But the style has definitely shifted. Rosemount Roxburgh, Brokenwood Hunter Valley, Tyrrells Vat 47, Lindemans Padthaway – those are names I remembered.

The first varietally labelled Australian Chardonnay was 1972. So it’s a relative newcomer, although it now turns 50. It’s now the most widely planted white grape variety in Australia, and is second only to Shiraz. Here’s a selection of good ones to celebrate that milestone.

Stylistically, Australian Chardonnay has got leaner. Many of these wines have pH levels quite close to 3, which is unusual for Chardonnay. Some critics say that the pendulum to freshness has swung too far. For some terroirs this might be true: they want to make generous wines, and as a winemaker you don’t want to make the foot fit the slipper.

But overall, I think this trend to freshness has resulted in a lot of exciting wines. I still enjoy the old style, but I love the new, when it is done well. There’s also the issue of using reduction (aka volatile sulfur compounds) to add some complexity. This can appear an artefact, but done well, it’s really interesting. Anyway, here are the eight wines. [These were small bottle samples.]

Tyrrell’s Winemaker’s Selection Vat 47 Chardonnay 2019 Hunter Valley, Australia
13% alcohol. From vines planted in 1968 on sandy loam soils, with Penfolds clone. It starts fermentation in stainless steel then goes to barrel (20% new). This is a style itching to be rich, but with some restraint, showing ripe pear and peach fruit with some bright citrus notes, and some toasty depth from the oak. It’s sophisticated and shows great balance: you’d expect a Hunter Chardonnay to be richer, but in this modern era, the grapes are picked earlier to preserve acidity and freshness. This will develop well in bottle. 93/100 (UK retail £45)

Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay 2018 Margaret River, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Gingin clone planted in 1975 and 1977 on iron-rich gravelly soils with a clay subsoil. Fermented and matured in new French oak. This is concentrated, mealy and spicy with fresh acidity underpinning powerful, rich, spicy citrus fruit complemented by well integrated oak. There’s some pineapple and peach exoticism here, and overall it’s a big wine with lots of flavour impact, immense fruit concentration, and piercing acidity keeping everything in check. This will age beautifully, I suspect. 96/100 (UK retail £75)

Forest Hill Vineyard Block 8 Chardonnay 2018 Mount Barker, Great Southern, Australia
13% alcohol. Gingin clone, planted in 1985 on gravelly loam over clay. Wild ferment with full solids in 225, 300 and 500 litre French oak with minimal lees stirring. Complex mealy, nutty, spicy nose with some compact citrus fruit. The palate is very fresh and lean with intense limey fruit complemented by nuts and minerals. Has high acidity, and there’s a lot of unfurled fruit here. Made in a restrained, taut style, this has a lot of potential for the future. 93/100 (UK retail £28)

Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2019 Tumbarumba/Tasmania/Adelaide Hills, Australia
13% alcohol. Fermented and aged in French oak, 35% new. A blend of three different regions, each with a talent for Chardonnay. This is a complex, detailed Chardonnay, offering bright lemony fruit with some richer pear and pineapple notes, bolstered with a bit of spicy oak. But there’s also some appealing matchstick/mineral character that frames the fruit really nicely. Shows some generosity, but the main theme is taut, lean fruit. Nice tension here. 94/100 (UK retail £29.99)

Moorooduc Estate Chardonnay 2018 Mornington Peninsula, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Clones I10V3, 95, 96, planted on sandy loam over sandy clay duplex soils. Wild ferment in 20% new oak. There’s some generosity here with pear and peach fruit, a touch of mandarin and pineapple, and good but not severe acidity. Textured and quite delicate, and drinking well now, although there’s potential for development. Seems at ease with itself, with really good balance between the freshness and the richness. Very stylish. 94/100 (UK retail £24)

Giant Steps Chardonnay 2021 Yarra Valley, Australia
12.5% alcohol. Clones: gingin, Mendoza, 777, 76, I10V1, P58, 96, 548. Vines planted 1988, 1997, 2001. Wild fermented with full solids in French oak puncheons, 15% new. 10% malolactic. Taut, linear and compressed with crisp citrus fruit and faint hints of pear and melon. There’s a very fine bready toastiness, and a bit of oak structure as well as keen acidity that helps everything stay fresh. Such precision here, with a sense of delicacy allied to good concentration of flavour. Another early-picked style that has good ageing potential. 95/100 (UK retail £26.99)

Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2020 Adelaide Hills, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Clones B95, B96, B76, 277. Brown loams over clay, and also some broken shale. Planted 1999 and 2001. Wild fermented in one-third new oak. Taut, mineral and expressive on the nose. Keen citrus fruit with a touch of pineapple. The palate is concentrated and fresh with ripe citrus, pear and pineapple, showing a juicy finish and a slight spicy framing. The oak is well integrated. Serious stuff that should develop nicely. 94/100 (UK retail £33.99)

Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 Tasmania, Australia
13% alcohol. Clones B96, I10V1, I10V3, 76, B95, G9V7. Light silica soils over sandstone, fermented and aged in French oak, one-third new. This is emerging as possibly Australia’s top Chardonnay. The 2020 version has that trademark matchstick minerality, but it’s perfectly integrated with pear, peach, lemon and grapefruit characters. There’s appropriate acidity but also some generous fruit, and it is knitted together with the precise acidity and mineral components. Will age fantastically. 96/100 (UK retail £64.99)

Find these wines with