Chardonnay style change in the Yarra Valley

By Jeni Port
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Enjoy the wonderful food and wine of the Yarra Valley, Victoria

Enjoy the wonderful food and wine of the Yarra Valley, Victoria [©Visions of Victoria]

Yarra Valley chardonnay is getting a major makeover worthy of its celebrity status. It's losing weight and looking firmer as winemakers go for lower alcohol levels, reduce new oak influence and work on complexing flavours.

But it's not only the winemakers and viticulturists doing the fine-tuning. Mother Nature is also playing a role.

Vintage 2004 was the last of the typical cool climate season and harvests. Since then, Yarra Valley winemakers have harvested earlier each year. The earlier harvests, not surprisingly, bring the grapes in earlier, smack dab into some of the hottest weeks of summer. What was once a March harvest is now turning into a late February harvest, and with it comes a loss of the gradual ripening and flavour development time once considered the norm. Winemakers talk of "compressed" or "rushed" vintages where sugar levels can rise dramatically within days.

Some suspect it is the early warning signs of climate change, others aren't sure but either way it is forcing Yarra Valley winemakers to reconsider the notion of ripeness.

"To me the big issue is what winemakers consider as 'ripe' these days," suggests former long-time Yering Station winemaker, Tom Carson, who left Yering Station earlier in the year to join Yabby Lake.

"The criteria for me is the balance with the three essential, but basic characters of grapes: flavour, tannins in the skins and acid. Sugar is not critical here."

Carson, amongst others, is turning away from the traditional notion of picking grapes based on sugar levels. As sugar and accompanying  richness of flavour develops in grapes, acidity falls. In the past, winemakers went for richness of flavour. Today, they're choosing what some now openly suggest is a "better" balance with higher acidity.

"Let the fruit hang out just that bit longer and the risk is losing the acidity and minerality which gives us our wine structure and vineyard identity," argues Rob O'Connell, sales manager for Rochford Wines at Coldstream. Rochford has "significantly" changed its chardonnay style in recent years to one that emphasises primary fruit characters, minerals and freshness. It's not the only one.

One of the most influential winemakers in the Valley - indeed Australia - is Steve Webber at De Bortoli. Webber oversees the making of not one but four tiers of chardonnay from De Bortoli's Dixons Creek winery: reserve (around $45), estate (around $30), Gulf Station ($20) and Windy Peak ($15). The top three tiers all use Yarra Valley fruit exclusively. Since 2002, Webber too has changed significantly in his winemaking philosophy. He no longer wants his wines to "taste of the sun." He wants wines that "taste of the earth."

Any wine made in Australia, he reasons, has plenty of sun to ripen it. He wants his wines to express the place where they were grown. In 2005 - interestingly, the harvest that started a series of earlier, compressed vintages - Webber went one step further. He wanted to show less of the grape variety in his top wines. Now, varietal character in a wine is everything isn't it?

"People look funny at me when I say a wine's 'a bit too varietal,'" he says. Understandably so, too. "We're now looking for less of the obvious varietal character. If people say they can see nectarine and melon in my chardonnay I'm going to be disappointed. "We're looking for tight, lean wines with minerality, texture."

Webber's view is important for lots of reasons. Young winemakers regard his winemaking as setting benchmarks for the Valley. He's also the newly-installed chairman of judges at the Melbourne Wine Show, an influential position when it comes to matters of wine style. Australian wine shows set style parameters and when they go out of fashion (as they regularly do) the show judges move on. In the past 18 months they have been moving on.

At this year's Perth Wine Show, leading wine judge Dr Tony Jordan noted that not only were the chardonnay classes lower in alcohol than in recent years but were better for it. Lower alcohol doesn't tempt winemakers to load their wines down with artefact, ie. lots of malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and medium (or possibly heavy) toasting/charring of barrels. Artefact swamps fruit character. Valley winemakers are getting back to the fruit and a finer style.

Someone who has never gone down that road is Peter Snow of Outlook Hill at Healesville.

"I've always been looking for the leaner, more austere, stronger acid backbone style," says Snow who planted his vineyard in 2001 and with his first vintage in 2003 picked up Winestate Magazine's Best Victorian Chardonnay for 2004 award. His wines are always made without malolactic (or second) fermentation and his style is definitely more Chablis than Meursault in character.

"I set the style," says Peter Snow, confident that there is wine drinker support for the new finer, trimmed down version of Yarra Valley chardonnay.

Only time will tell.

Regions

  • Melbourne Surrounds (VIC)
  • Yarra Valley (Wine) (VIC)
  • Yarra Valley, Dandenongs and the Ranges (VIC)

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