What the f#ck would a couple of westies like Kath and Kim know about chardonnay? I mean really, it’s not the sort of wine they even ought to be drinking. Chardonnay’s not for bogans. They can’t even pronounce it, let alone afford it.
Wrong, well, mostly. But that’s exactly the kind of attitude that helped lead the supposed revolt against chardonnay that culminated in what would have to be the single biggest wine phenomenon to ever sweep Australia – sauvignon blanc. Primarily from Marlborough, New Zealand, though some notably excellent examples from the Adelaide Hills (properly good chardonnay country).
It’s chardonnay’s own fault really, or the winemakers that made it, and perhaps a bit of zeitgeist thrown in for good measure. Chardonnay was first realised in Australia in the late 1960’s, but it really surged to popularity in the 1980’s.
In a case of right place/right time, it became the wine that embodied the excesses of the 80’s; big, swarthy, rich and oh-so-over-the-top. You drank not one but five bottles at lunch, paid on the company card and kicked back with a Cuban in your post blowjob haze of ecstatic excess and pretended not to care as interest rates surged up through 20%.
The crash was spectacular. One day we woke up and chardonnay was on the nose, a yellow buttery wreck on the side of the road. Too oaky, too rich and too sickly – just plain over the top. Conspicuous was out of favour. The simple answer was to stop the oak, stop working it up in the winery and get it out nice and fresh, no wood, just the fruit.
The thing is, chardonnay needs all that grooming and layering to get across the line. It’s a pretty subtle wine when unadulterated, quite austere and easy to miss. Sauvignon blanc, the exact opposite, offered up lots of zesty, fresh and easily-identified passion fruit and the rest is all there in the cash register scan data.
Chardonnay grape prices tumbled, inventories grew and grew, and chardonnay makers really had to ask themselves whether it was worth even going on. We had the chardonnay recession we had to have, even though Keating always did drink Burgundy.
And like most consumables, wine is a cyclic thing that blows around on the winds of fashion. The market for chardonnay is now happily recovering, and recovering with pace and excitement. This very blog post day was celebrated as world chardonnay day via a network of social media once again, talking to a whole new generation of wine drinkers about a whole new and darn exciting generation of wines.
The wines leading this charge back to favour and fashion are very different to those muffin-topped golden beauties of the 80’s and 90’s. They’re sleek, refined, zesty and scintillating. Winemakers have done plenty of work to change their game and there’s a steady stream of impressive and exciting wines.
For one, chardonnay grapes are being grown and sourced in the right places and that means cool places like the Adelaide Hills, like Tasmania, the Macedon Ranges, Upper Yarra Valley and Tumbarumba. Grapes are being picked much fresher. Winemakers have re-configured the tools and techniques and are working all the magic into the wines with seamless edges.
They’re impressive but not too showy. They’re powerful wines, more in the citrus and nectarine spectrum than the big pineapple, peach and mango styles of warmer areas and bygone years. Oak is woven into the fruit, along with fine flinty complexity, supportive and balanced.
It’s fair to say that great chardonnay can’t be delivered as cheaply as many other great wines (like riesling), it’s a sheer numbers game. A lot more work goes into making a great chardonnay than most wines. But there are many winemakers delivering powerful, crisp and exciting chardonnay around the $20 mark and that’s not too much to ask. The fact is that nowhere in the world, is great chardonnay made at bargain prices. It’s just the nature of the beast.
So all you members of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club, it’s time to hand in your card, snip it up, toss it in the bin and think again. And to all you sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio drinkers – get on top, be cool and drink chardonnay.