Australian Chardonnay

Australian Chardonnay

Shoppers look to the continent down under for consistent quality and good value, but shouldn’t forget regional nuance in the process.

Reliably good wines and good values—members of the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel found heaps of both in a roundup of over 120 Australian Chardonnays. Not one of the wines that the panel (led by Tasting Director/Senior Editor Joe Czerwinski and Senior Editor Daryna Tobey) tasted scored a rating under 80, or Acceptable, on Wine Enthuisast’s 100-point scale. A full 95 percent of the wines we sampled were rated Good to Excellent. Those are odds that we like.

Most of the Oz Chardonnays that we tasted have a stone-fruit core, often dressed up with oak or mineral flavors and textures; a medium-weight, often soft mouthfeel, and a clean finish. (The generalization, of course, leaves aside winemakers’ styles and regional differences.) Most of these wines are meant for near-term drinking, not for the cellar.
A full 53% of the Chardonnays that we sampled cost $15 or less. And retailers nationwide say that Chardonnays at lower price points are the ones that consumers are seeking most.
At Grape Vine Market in Austin, Texas, “folks are shopping on a $10 price point,” says managing associate Chris Black. Top sellers at the shop include Jacob’s Creek, Yellow Tail and Oxford Landing.

In California wine country, demand for Australian Chardonnay isn’t quite as great, because so many regional whites are selling for a song. Oz Chardonnays are “not a big factor in our store,” says Ben Pearson, wine buyer and general manager at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, California, “because we’ve seen such tremendous deals on local wines.” (The shop is selling DeLoach’s Sonoma County Chardonnay at the closeout price of $5.99.) Still, Oz mainstays such as Lindemans Bin 65, Wynns Coonawarra Estate and Penfolds Rawson’s Retreat are selling swiftly at the Sonoma County store.

Head for the Hills, and Take
me to the River

“Western Australia is hot right now,” enthuses Don Simmons, owner of Norwood’s, a restaurant and wine shop in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where customer favorites include the 2002 Devil’s Lair (87 points, $23).

Back in Texas, the limited-production, more expensive Western Australian wines such as “Leeuwin Estate and Vasse Felix are a little under the radar for most folks,” Black says. “People who are paying $30 for Chardonnay are buying those from California, or France.”
Under the radar or not, wines from Western Australia, more specifically Margaret River, were among the best that we tried.

Chardonnays from the Margaret River Geographical Indication (GI) scored an average of 2.4 points above the mean score of the wines reviewed. Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood, Brookland Valley, Vasse Felix and Evans & Tate all scored 88 points or better. Adelaide Hills wines, too, fared very well—about two points better than the average. Bottlings from Victoria and Eden Valley scored above the mean, and wines from Hunter and Yarra valleys, two regions in which Chardonnay has been known to perform well, had scores that were just in line with the tasting’s average score.

Wines from Margaret River “have intense varietal flavors but show an overall elegance,” says Richard Rowe, chief winemaker at Evans & Tate. The winery produces 500,000 cases a year, of which about 35,000 are exported to the U.S. Rowe says that the Evans & Tate’s Chardonnays are “improving. Our vines are becoming older and we have also implemented a number of changes in the vineyard.” Two of the winery’s bottlings were among the top six wines we sampled: the 2001 Redbrook Chardonnay ($39, 90 points) and the 2002 Chardonnay ($15, 89 points).

Margaret River’s wines may have had an edge in quality, but with those scores come higher price tags — approximately $9 more than the $19 average bottle price for wines that we reviewed. Such a price gap may be difficult to grasp for shoppers who are accustomed to finding good-quality wines with under-$15 price tags. But, says Rowe, the American market won’t see these prices going down anytime soon.

“There are essentially no big players in Western Australia,” he explains, humble, it seems, about the size of E&T’s production. “Most of these [wines] tend to have only small international distribution. There has been a relative scarcity of quality product, which has driven up wine price.”

Adelaide Hills, a region on par with that of Margaret River in terms of Chardonnay quality, is in the Mount Lofty Ranges zone. It spans the eastern side of Adelaide, in South Australia, stretching southward toward McLaren Vale. The region’s most famed winery, Petaluma, was established by Winemaker Brian Croser in 1976. Adelaide Hills is a region that will become more and more familiar as Chardonnays like Petaluma’s 2001 Piccadilly Valley (90 points, $28), 2003 Mak (89 points, $16) and The Lane’s 2002 Beginning (89 points, $38) keep showing so well. Wines from the region (and its subregions, Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood) toe the line between crispness and unctuousness, often with a peach-citrus-mineral flavor profile. Though Adelaide Hills has microclimates and soil types that vary from valley to hilltop, it is, on the whole, a cool-climate region, one known also for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

According to the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation, Australia exported over 43 million liters of Chardonnay to America last year; less than 3 percent of it cost more than $10 per liter. We’ve come to look to Australia’s inexpensive wines as reliably good to a fault—the fault being, perhaps, that they make us wary of straying from the fruit-forward, good South Eastern Australian wines that we know in order to try bottlings that might be more nuanced, but also more expensive and more difficult to find. Australia can, as we’ve come to learn, almost be all things to all wine drinkers.

—Daryna Tobey

Published on July 1, 2004

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