by PHILIP WHITE - This first appeared in The Independent Weekly in May 2008
“Chardonnay will be the vanilla of the Australian wine industry”, the late Len Evans, OBE, preached for thirty years.
Who? This feisty ex-Mt Isa Mines storeman eventually ran Rothbury Estate, owned Evans Family Wines, chaired Petaluma, controlled the national wine show ring, became a highly influential mentor to hundreds of adoring winemakers and critics, et al. Like Sir John Falstaff, Evans smudged the boundary between ebullient and bumptious, and, after port, was borborygmic.
In Champagne, chardonnay’s used for champagne; in Chablis it makes lean, unoaked chablis, and in Burgundy, it’s used to make creamy, extravagantly oaked white burgundy. Like chardonnay, all these words sound nice, and while it was all fabulously expensive, fabulist Len loved shunning expense at the table.
But it snows in those places. Apart from bits of Tassie, like the Upper Tamar, and tiny slices of the mainland - high Orange or Tumbarumba - we could never grow chardonnay vaguely like the great French vignobles. So why chardonnay? It doesn’t snow along the Murray. Then, Len never drank much Murray.
Locally, Romney Park proves that on one tiny ridge near Hahndorf, you can make delicious chardonnay, as Ashton Hills does near Summertown. Penfolds makes mighty stuff from other Hills vineyards. Mountadam’s returning from a ten year slump. There’s Evans’ ex-pet, Lion Nathan’s Petaluma, with its alluring bunch of Riverland doradillo on the front label. After that I’m scratching.
Scarce cool country is not the only problem with Australian chardonnay. From the start, back labels invariably claimed this new variety was lovingly fermented and matured in new French oak, oak being the only thing available to legally impart vanillin. But as I wrote in 1991, when Len’s sermon was reaching crescendo, France typically harvested enough oak to make only about 250,000 new barrels – about 800,000 short of the amount of Burgundy-sized barrels needed to contain the juice of our 20,000 freshly-planted hectares of chardonnay. If indeed they eventually grew a berry. Forget barrels for the reds, or for the rest of the world. Or for the French, for that matter.
Luckily, Len had an attitude to oak that didn’t always require barrels. At a tasting at Rothbury in May 1983, I sidled out for a smoke when a courier arrived with four large plastic drums of liquid. Rather than interrupt my host, who was inside preaching, I signed for it, then read the chit, which said “Essence Of Oak Chips”. That’s cheaper than chips!
Evans’ acolytes and disciples always rather contentiously insisted that the customer demand for chardonnay was insatiable. Only a few years back blokes like Phil Laffer and Stephen Millar, bosses of Pernod-Ricard/Orlando/Jacob’s Creek and Constellation’s BRL-Hardy, were urging more plantings.
As these come into production, we now have 32,151 hectares, mostly in the wrong places. We might as well irrigate weeds. Constellation’s retreating from the River, and Fosters and Pernod Ricard have just told growers there that demand for the vanilla of Australia is plummeting. So the punter is not a mug.
Chardonnay’s not dead: Penfolds paid $5000 a tonne this year for cool district grapes for its top example, the Yattarna, and Chablis and Burgundy sales are soaring. Champagne’s so popular they’ve just made the district bigger. But while their new price for River chardonnay, $300 a tonne, might be rather fortuitous for the transnational winemakers, it won’t cover the grower’s costs.
One of the world’s oldest wine merchants, Berry Brothers and Rudd, last week released a report suggesting the Murray-Darling will soon be too hot for fine wine production, and - surprise, surprise - that the future lies in expensive luxuries from cool places like Tassie. This was timed to lob explosively in the middle of the London Wine Trade Fair.
Even more practically destructive was the CSIRO’s announcement that our own Rudd’s budgetry idiocy will close the vital Murray Valley viticulture research establishment, just when Stephen Strachan, boss of the Winemakers’ Federation, was busy reassuring everyone that “the industry’s doing a lot of research around climate change”.
The poor old River couldn’t take deadlier hits below the waterline. Alley juice for our bladder packs is already coming from third world vineyards where wages are miniscule and environmental controls non-existent; now our bottom-end bottles are threatened.
As for Berry Brothers and Rudd’s forecast that China will be the world’s major wine supplier in fifty years? Anyone who’s believed my musings since Remi Martin helped China plant its Dynasty vineyard - in a place where it snows - way back when Len began his vanilla sermon, would have to agree that the real number’s now about ten years.
I don’t gloat over the agonies of the gullible and unfortunate, but it’s becoming increasingly tempting to say “I told you so”. If only the Chinese had planted chardonnay and oak, Australia could have avoided much terrible grief. And saved quite a lot of water.