Those wonderful vineyards of Oz
A lot of my early wine drinking was spent popping corks at the altar of Australian Chardonnay. For a generation, it was a welcome arrival after an initiation with what they call sugarwater, vapid and artificially sweet wines that gave proper German whites a bad name. How lucky is today's wine drinker, with the choice and quality available?
We loved the Oz Chardonnay because it had body and vanilla flavour, thanks to time spent in contact with oak. But the relationship went sour. Suddenly there was too much oak, some not even from a barrel, but perhaps from a teabag-style infusion, and it tasted oily and flabby. So, no wonder palates perked up with the next big thing: crisp, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Australia had a rethink and there followed an evolution in styles. Unoaked Chardonnay, for one, with the emphasis on clean fruit flavours.
That's fine, up to a point, but Chardonnay does have a natural affinity with oak. Get the marriage right and the wine is greater than the sum of the two parts; it is after all the basis for fine white Burgundy.
Properly handled, oak contributes weight, complexity and toastiness.
It must also be said there are very good unoaked Chardonnays. Australia has also been paying greater attention to deciding what grows best where. So, you get the distinction between big-brand wines, made from grapes grown across a wide geographical area, and labelled, for instance South Eastern Australia and something more focused, from cooler climates.
Now, when I pick an Australian Chardonnay I search out places such as the Margaret River of Frankland River in Western Australia or Tyrrells in the Hunter Valley. What a shame it would be not to fall in love with Australian Chardonnay again. It is great with chicken, Thai curries or salmon.