“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





16 May 2012


Putting The Spin On Chardonnay
Bigger Than Shiraz Now In Oz 
Keep Shovelling In The Sawdust
“The ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ days are long gone,” wine marketing consultant Trish Barry tweeted yesterday. “Time to rediscover this fabulous varietal on 24 May.”

She referred to the third annual World Chardonnay Day. Funny how the ethanol peddlers presume special days to assist them market stuff they can’t sell as easily as they’d first hoped, back when they ripped out the native veg and installed the irrigation system.  I mean Chardonnay Day?  How does that look against International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation,  or the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficing, not to mention World Suicide Prevention Day?

“Hang on a bit,” I shot back. “Most of the Chardonnay made in Oz is still execrable industrial piss. You've been hoodwinked!”

Australia now produces around 405,000 tonnes of Chardonnay per year: for some dumb reason it has surpassed Shiraz as our main wine grape.  Imagine 300,000 pallets of it and you’re close.  Most of this is grown in the hot inland, the desert currently drying out after two years of record flooding.  The desert is not the place for Chardonnay, which comes from Continental Europe: Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy – places where it snows. 

You could argue that we should have stuck with the previous biggest Australian wine grape: Sultana. Sully loves the desert when it’s flooded.  When it’s not flooded naturally, you can flood it by emptying the River on it.  You can get over 20 tonnes per acre!

But the punter is not a mug. The Anything But Chardonnay movement sensibly began to form up about a decade back.  So Australia’s excess “Chardy” went to export, until the Anything But sentiment justly followed it. Winemakers panicked.

This is why, a couple of years back, somebody obviously wearing a tie obviously called a meeting in their smoke-free room and decided that it was time people in the wine industry began talking Chardonnay back up.  Whoever barked the order got what they wanted: it went first through the Chairmen of Judges on the national wine show circuit.  One after another, they briefed their teams to be kinder to Chardonnay, and one after another, the teams responded with bling which the Chairmen could then boast of in the round-up speeches and droll propaganda that oozes out through the presses and the screens and phones.

Then the wine hacks who grovel to get judging berths at these huge wine races obediently went back to their editors with obsequious nonsense about Chardonnay coming of age or however it comes.

“Maybe I've been drinking the good stuff over $10 (can't comment below that),” rattled Trish, “but in my opinion lots of great options.”  Rather than waste good guitar-pickin fingernails typing the sordid details of the swill below $20 that I swim through each week, I suggested “Judges, Wine Australia, Wine Communicators, all decided eighteen months ago they'd begin saying ABC is dead. Musta worked!”

She quickly shot back “Surely that's a better message for industry to be sending than all doom and gloom.”

“I don't work for the wine industry,” I responded. “I work for my readers. The Oz wine industry as we knew it has failed. It IS doom and gloom.”

New old-style French oak fermenters at Kooyong, Mornington Peninsula

There is no doubt that Australia is producing better Chardonnay than it did.  It's not saying much.  But so it bloody well should make better wine from it, having dedicated so much precious farmland to it, most of it inappropriately irrigated with water we don’t have. 

A few - just a handful of Australian winemakers of rare gastronomic intelligence – and I mean RARE: these are the MENSA dudes of wine smarts – are making stunning Chardonnays, many of which would stand their own in Burgundy, from whence we pinched the variety in the first place.  

Unfortunately for everybody else, and most of all my beloved readers, most who entered this racket never bothered to work a vintage or two there in Burgundy to learn about what they were trying to copy, so they made a terrible hash of it from the start.

Adam Wynn was first in with a serious purpose-planted high, cool-country Chardonnay vineyard at Mountadam, which his father David began in 1969.  By 1983 he was home from duxing the Bordeaux University winemaking course, bolstered with serious experience in Burgundy.  He was the first Australian winemaker with the intelligence, money and terroir to really understand the relationship between the best French barrels and cool climate Australian Chardonnay. 

Stephen Hickinbotham was another who’d studied and worked hard in Burgundy in those early student years, and was just beginning to get the fledgeling Mornington Peninsula and Bellarine Chardonnay vineyards together with his brother Andrew, who was planting them for people like Bails Myer, when he (StepHen) was killed in a plane crash.    

Australian wine would be a very different thing if Wynn and Hickie were still in the business: they provided a serious intellectual and spiritual counterbalance to the arrogant Evans-Croser axis, and from the start made wines of much more adventure, finesse and feeling.

Wynn went on developing a solid Burgundy style until a burst of ill-health forced his retirement, which was another terrible pity; at least he survives.  

I shall never forget the lunch Tony Bilson gave Paul Bocuse and his senior staff and about six of us antipodean yokels at Bilson’s on Circular Quay in the late ’eighties: I worked Australian wines in with Tony’s astonishing menu. When we poured the Mountadam, Bocuse could not grasp that the Chardonnay in his glass was not from Burgundy.

Bilson and White, 25 years later at O'Leary-Walker in Clare ... enjoying a glass of Nick Walker's racy Hurtle sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot from Oakbank, near Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills ... photo Matt Walker

You normally see livelier eyes in a fishmonger’s window, but at that Mountadam High Eden Chardonnay 1984, the old Lion of Lyon positively sparkled. 

He left wearing an almighty, if slightly bothered, smile.

It was Len Evans, the pugnacious Welshman, who pushed this whole C-word thing along.  He up and offed from his job as storeman in the Mt Isa mine, then waddled around Australia like a bumptious missionary, preaching that Chardonnay would be “the vanilla of the Australian wine industry.”  He eventually began boasting that his early Rothbury Estate versions were exemplary.  They didn’t ring any bells for me, however, and when I found myself in his lab in the early ’eighties, innocently signing the delivery chit for a shipment of plastic drums I later discovered were labelled “Essence of Oak Chips”, I began to realise the root of the Evans faith: he was obviously an artificial vanilla essence man, not a fair dinkum vanilla pod worshipper. 

Essence of oak chips was illegal in wine.  “Oh no,” whimpered the lab rat, when he realized what had happened.  “I only use that to work out how many barrels to order.”

I suggested he’d bought enough to turn Sydney Harbour into Chardonnay, and asked if he would pour me a snifter of the dark stuff, so I could see which forest they’d distilled. 

Seemed like Missouri to me.

As he went on to take control of the Australian wine show circuit, Evans ensured that his dogma was adhered to: everybody planted the stuff, and the peachiest ones with the most overt oak won all the bling.  Some blokes, it seemed, even went as far as to use barrels.

Evans mouthing off

We should sigh a heave of relief that those scarce serious gastronomes I mention above are making stunning wines.  Vanya Cullen’s got it nailed in Margaret River; some think Leeuwin Estate does it too.  Vasse Felix is a sure triumph.  Then we see marvelous works of epicurean art like the Chardonnays in the new Penfolds premium release: drinks which really do raise the national bar. And do yourself a favour and buy a full set of the single vineyard Oakridge Yarra Valley Chardonnays: David Bicknell is gradually unleashing a suite of brilliantly distinctive wines from individual sites: they all rock.

To go from one Oakridge bottle to the next is like taking a stroll down a back lane in the Côte-d'Or, cellar-to-cellar; vineyard to vineyard.  If David can keep this up, these wines will be the first set of Australian Chardonnays to sell out each year.

Closer to AddleAde, get into the new Romney Park Hahndorf Blanc de Blancs fizz: a pristine, elegant, totally disarming Chardonnay which must surely be the most stylish suds made this side of Tasmania. It takes me immediately to Mesnil, the heart of Champagne’s best Chardonnay patch.  
There are others, of course, and so there should be.  We have over 2,530 wine producers now; 1,707 of them have at least one Chardonnay.

But let’s just pause a minute.  Apart from Tasmania, and a few isolated bits of Australian upland, we have no climate which gets close to Champagne, Chablis or Burgundy, the places where the Chardonnay templates, like it or not, were set.

Apart from wines like that Romney Park and the exquisite sparklers that Ed Carr somehow continues to make for Heavens Above or Universe or the Milky Way or whatever Constellation’s now called – think Arras and Bay of Fires – we have little in the way of really good Champagne-style Chardonnay, and little chance of making much more.

We could follow the Chablisiennes, and make high acid Chardonnays without oak, if only we had enough cool climate vineyard to guarantee the high natural acid that makes Chablis special.  But we don’t, and generally, we can’t.

Which leads us to Burgundy, which is highly reliant upon the skill of its unique coopers, the tonnelleries.  It’s not uncommon to be tasting there in a cellar there with the winemaker when somebody else lets themselves in with a key, and starts tasting barrels on their ownsome.  That’ll be the local consulting cooper, making sure the wines fit the wood flavours he’s chosen, and vice versa.  "I think I'll put one more stave of Vosges forest in next year's barrels." You don’t get too much of that sort of service or trust in Australia.

New egg-shaped French oak fermenters from Taransaud

Which leads me in turn to the matter of oak.  We can’t make Chablis.  We’d be better off sticking to Riesling if we want unoaked, steely whites.  Fizz needs no new oak, so we can approximate Champagne in Tassie and Hahndorf and the odd spot here and there, but not much of it.  So we attempt, to varying degrees, to make our Chardonnay after the style set in the slightly warmer Burgundy, where some new oak seems essential.

When you ferment wine in a good barrel, and leave it there on its yeast lees, an electro-static reaction not only attracts the dead yeast lees to the inside of the staves, but makes them cling there.  Stir the wine – a nine iron is perfect – in the act called battonage, and the skeletal remains of the dead yeast form a thin calcarious film which lines the entire barrel. It moves up the sides, covers the heads, and stays there.  So when your Chardonnay soaks into the oak, to derive those lemon, spice, ginger and caramel flavours that make the great wines of Burgundy what they are – even soot, if the barrel’s been toasted – it must first pass through that natural chalky filter.  When it oozes back out of the wood, it must pass through the same layer again.

This is an absolutely vital key to good wooded Chardonnay.

A little well-placed wood can get you a long way

So here comes that doom and gloom: Australia has 405,000 tonnes of Chardonnay.  Say we extract 700 litres of wine per tonne on the average, and ferment that Chardonnay in 230 litre French oak barrels.  My figures err to the conservative side.  The average French oak tree harvested for cooperage is 170 years old and produces nearly enough staves to make two barrels.  We’d need well over 600,000 170 year old oak trees per annum to properly make our Chardonnay in the manner we’d like everyone to imagine we do: over  1,200,000 barrels.  But regardless of the French being the best forestry managers on Earth – silviculture, it’s prettily called - France can’t even get its total barrel production up to 300,000 units per year – 250,000 is more like it. 

Which means that if Australia’s Chardonnay makers got every French oak barrel produced in France, and there were none allocated for any other winemakers on Earth, including the French themselves, Australia’s Chardonnay would still be a million barrels short.  Every year.

So where do all those new French oak barrels come from that we read of on the back labels?   It’s simple: sawdust, shavings, splinters, chips, cubes, planks, inner staves, “wood derivatives”, “tea bags” … these are very much cheaper, but they do not work like a barrel.  There is no electro-static reaction. There is no calcarious filter between the raw sap and the Chardonnay.  Especially if you use essence of oak chips.

No comments: