My favourite Australian restaurant is France-Soir, the iconic Parisian bistro in South Yarra, Victoria. It’s compact, often crowded and bustling. Its wine list is perhaps the finest with a Francophilic flavour in Australia and it’s priced to sell. And while its specials alter on a daily basis, its menu has never, ever changed (I think). I was once talking about food and fashion with its owner, Jean-Paul Prunetti. His opinion was a straightforward one: ‘We never change. Sometimes we might have one hat (in the local The Age Good Food Guide), sometimes two, and sometimes none. But we’re the same. It’s what people are looking for that changes.’
Early in his time as winemaker for Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley, Sam Middleton once said a similar thing to me about his Chardonnay. ‘For years our wine was widely considered to be too fine and delicate, but these days it’s viewed by those defining the trends as being a little on the heavy side. But broadly speaking, we haven’t really changed that much.’
Back in the mid 1980s, when chardonnay first became a big thing in Australia, it was typically a fat, oily and viscous beast. Usually fermented in stainless steel and then transferred to inappropriate and often American oak, it was usually overblown and fast to develop. The deep, golden appearance of its youth could almost infer it had been drunk before. People left chardonnay in droves. Enter stage left Kiwi sauvignon blanc.
Pendulums, as we know, don’t spend enough time in the middle. For reasons that continually escape me as well as countless experts around the globe, it remains fashionable to make Australian chardonnay from fruit that might be sugar-ripe but lacking in flavour. Compounding this felony, it’s often matured in largely pointless 500 litre oak that fails to deliver any real qualitative impact. That’s why so many Australian chardonnays are lean, tart and lacking oomph in the mid palate. Len Evans, who loved full-bodied and rounded chardonnay, would have called them ‘stripped of fruit’. Furthermore, because they’re lacking in flavour – the very thing responsible for most regional difference, our chardonnays tend to taste much the same, no matter where they’re grown. What’s the point in having a Margaret River chardonnay taste exactly as if it could have come from the Yarra Valley?
That’s been the feedback from overseas for years, which has largely fallen on deaf ears. I agree with it entirely and lament the constant failure of our great sites to deliver the wines of which they would otherwise be capable. It’s as if our winemakers are running scared of being called simple and unsophisticated because they might deliver flavour and plenty of it. But that’s what the great chardonnays are all about – even Chablis.
The makers of our best chardonnay snub this trend and just go about their business. They won’t win medals or trophies in wine shows, because most judges are equally obsessed with leanness and meanness, but they don’t care. All power to them.
Similarly, the wine public want wine that has taste. They don’t want the chardonnays of yesteryear, but instead want purity and flavour tightly balanced with oak and acid.
Unlike France-Soir and unlike Mount Mary’s Chardonnay, most Australian chardonnay had to change. The problem is that way too much has been pushed well too far in the opposite direction. The pendulum needs to spend more time in the middle.