Now, I understand some of you out there don’t like it. And to those people, I refer you to this post and the woman I served at the cellar bar yesterday who admitted she doesn’t like it and then proceeded to buy a bottle to take home!
Yes, Chardonnay can be divisive, but that doesn’t make its history any less interesting.
The first interesting thing you should know is that World Chardonnay Day (which is celebrated on the last Thursday in May) is conveniently close to Heather’s birthday (Friday 27th May for those who would like to pass on their best wishes!). And Heather just happens to be one of its biggest fans!
But wait, that’s not the only interesting thing about Chardonnay, there’s much more…
Chardonnay is the most planted white variety in Australia. It is made into all manner of styles of wine showcasing the distinctions of each region in which it thrives.
It is a variety that has enjoyed the industry’s highs and weathered its lows. It continues to hold a special place in the heart of Australian wine lovers.
With origins in France’s Burgundy region, Australia’s first Chardonnay cuttings arrived in the 1830s. Thanks to its disease resistance, hardy temperament and site adaptability it thrived.
There is no such thing as a typical Chardonnay. Australia’s expressions of this variety are informed by the region’s climate and geography in which it is grown, and by the influence of the winemaker.
Chardonnay thrives in a range of climates across Australia. From the warmer climate of the Hunter Valley to the cool crispness of the Yarra Valley and Tasmania, as well as classic regions like Margaret River. It’s ideally suited to Australia and reflects a sense of place wherever it is grown. It’s crafted into a variety of styles from light-bodied, crisp and unoaked through to full-bodied, complex barrel-matured versions.
As well and being a popular still table wine, some Australian sparkling winemakers use Chardonnay to craft single-varietal sparkling Chardonnay as well as blends.
Today, Chardonnay is grown in 89% of Australian wine regions.
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HISTORY OF CHARDONNAY IN AUSTRALIA
1820s – 1830s
While the exact origins of Australia’s first Chardonnay vines are subject to debate, we know it arrived on our shores as a humble vine cutting in the early 1800s.
Penfold’s experimental vineyard (now Tyrrell’s HVD vineyard) is planted in Hunter Valley, and is now one of the oldest Chardonnay vineyards in the world.
Many of Australia’s first Chardonnay cuttings in the early 1970s came from Mudgee, NSW. One of the prized vineyards was owned by Alfred Kurtz, a worker at Mudgee’s Craigmoor. These vines were identified in 1969 by a professor from France as one of the best Chardonnay clones with European providence in Australia.
Folklore says Chardonnay’s integral role in Australian wine culture is due to Hunter Valley winemaker Murray Tyrell. The legend goes that in the late 1960s Tyrrell jumped the fence of Penfolds’ experimental vineyard in order to plant Chardonnay vines in his family’s Hunter vineyard!
David Wynn from Mountadam Vineyards planted Chardonnay at the highest point in South Australia’s Eden Valley. He recognised the potential of a cool, elevated site to produce wines of great elegance and structure. As a result, he became one of Australia’s first noteworthy cool-climate Chardonnay producers.
Brian Crosser plants Chardonnay in the cool-climate Adelaide Hills.
A new style of Chardonnay enters the wine market. It’s oaked, rich and bright yellow – ‘sunshine in a bottle’.
Mid to late 1980s and 1990s
The charge to make big, oaked, buttery Australian Chardonnay is taken on by wineries all over the country. This style because hugely popular overseas and helped cement Australia’s wine export success.
This preference for oaked buttery Chardonnay was part of a global trend also seen in California. But just as fashion trends change with the times (see you later shoulder pads and perms!) so did our drinking preferences. People started seeker fresher, lighter, lower alcohol and unoaked whites. The sort of wine which can be drunk without food.
This Chardonnay style was a blessing and a curse. It brought Australia into the gaze of the world’s wine-drinking population but its market saturation saw production climb sharply and quality decrease.
Chardonnay becomes less fashionable as a lighter, unoaked, aromatic challenger arrives in the form of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Taste preferences moved from big, luscious, overly oaked wines to fresher, lightly or unoaked, fruit-driven styles.
Today, Chardonnay accounts for more than half of Australia’s white wine production. Aside from the Mediterranean climates of Margaret River, cool-climate regions excel at producing Chardonnay. These regions include Tasmania, Great Southern (WA), Yarra Valley and Mornington Penninsula (VIC), Adelaide Hills, and Canberra district, Orange and Tumbarumba (NSW-ACT).
Australia’s reputation for producing sparkling wines has also grown enormously thanks in part to Chardonnay being planted explicitly for sparkling wine production in suitable cool climate areas.
Turns out there are lots more interesting things I could tell you about Chardonnay, but I might save them for another post.
Has this post whetted your appetite?
After all… it is World Chardonnay Day!