Chardonnay has to be one of the most talked-about varieties on the planet. It’s arguably the world’s greatest white variety and is grown extensively throughout the globe, vinified into all manner of styles and expressions, including Singlefile’s own distinctive examples from Western Australia’s Great Southern. This area is evolving as a premium cool-climate region, with exceptional vineyards that produce outstanding parcels of Chardonnay fruit.
Chardonnay’s Australian story goes a little like this: after being introduced to Australian soil by James Busby in the 1830s, it rambled along quietly until flourishing in the 1950s. Jump to the Chardonnay boom of the 1980s and ‘90s, and a river of bright yellow, oaky “peaches and cream” wine flooded the market so exhaustively that by the early 2000s, punters ran kicking and screaming from the style, even terming their revolt the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement.
Hectares of unused Chardonnay vineyards lay in waste all over the country as the appetite for the variety died off. Turns out it was time for a Savalanche. The new aromatic kid on the block sashayed into the market wearing showy tropical fruit and grassy notes on its sleeve and not a touch of oak in sight.
As Sauvignon Blanc grew in popularity, shrewd producers began looking to the Old World for inspiration. And smart drinkers got over their one-night stand with NZ Sav Blanc tout suite. So what next? All was not lost for the Great White. In a slow creep, Aussie producers began knocking out elegant, more savoury, complex and balanced Chardonnays that mirrored the styles of Burgundy. Judicious oak treatment was key. And as is the nature of the Chardonnay grape, a new refined style was generated from the same variety that bore brash and bold whites decades earlier.
See, Chardonnay rolls like that. It’s humble enough to take on the characteristics of winemaker and terroir almost like a blank canvas. It’s the variety winemakers love to play with because it gives them the opportunity to show off their flair and express the fashion of the moment, an influence from which the winemaking industry is not exempt.
Vineyard is key, too, as we’ve found with Singlefile’s Denmark site in the Great Southern. Our first Chardonnay vintage in 2008 was a lean machine, with a linear structure and flavour profile. But now, seven-odd years later, the same wine sits in the complex camp, a result of changing styles, becoming more familiar with our turf and learning to push and pull our grapes (gently, of course) in the direction we’d like them to travel.
Singlefile has wandered Chardonnay’s yellow brick road with an open mind, discovering that making great Chardonnay is all about balance and pinpointing the right picking date, which dictates flavour profile and natural acidity levels; in simple terms, the earlier the pick, the leaner the style and the less winemaking influence is applied to maintain purity and balance.
Some argue it’s a conundrum of lean versus complex, but for me, balance is the ultimate destination. Like everything in wine, there are lots of elements to making great Chardonnay and this riddle is merely one.
Singlefile crafts both the leaner style of Chardonnay in The Vivienne and the more complex in our Family Reserve. When looking at The Vivienne, it's a wine of purity and drive with a very long life. We pick the grapes early – in the case of the 2012 vintage, we hand harvested from three separate rows on three different dates (beginning late February) based on optimal ripeness for the style. Each parcel was chilled overnight before whole bunch pressing direct to new and seasoned French barriques, for fermentation on full solids by ambient yeast, then seven months ageing on lees.
The 2014 Family Reserve, by contrast, is a more complex style. The grapes were picked later and as such imparted slightly more flavour and less natural acid to the resulting wine. The flavour demands a significant portion of new oak, so the wine sits in barrels with weekly bâtonnage for the first six to eight weeks to impart that oaky French flavour. The wine undergoes partial malolactic fermentation, which adds complexity, smoothness, and some call it a creamy layer. This complex style develops an attractive nutty secondary characteristic over time and still has sufficient natural acidity due to the cool climate site to remain fit and healthy for years to come.
But again, with both wines, the goal is balance, where no characteristic dominates and each time you take a sip, it’s a lesson in fully resolved winemaking, without noticing the flavour, acid or oak as overpowering elements.
So what does this say about our vineyard? Grapes from the same turf produce wines with distinctively different characteristics. The vineyard ripens extremely slowly – as the flavours develop, the acidity levels fall ever so gradually, so we have the good fortune to be able to pick for a style and deliver balance at the same time.
But we’re getting pretty serious here. Let’s get down to more prosaic matters that will ameliorate your Chardonnay consumption on an everyday level. Here goes: drink it at room temperature. Simple as that. The flavours will flourish and the balance will bare its soul. Serving Chardonnay at glacial temperatures is akin to knocking it out cold with no appreciation for the nuances of this classic variety. Can you tell I’m a fan of Australian Chardonnay? Try a member of the new guard for yourself, if you haven’t already. Then you’ll understand.