A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
I spent all last week tasting 2016 burgundies, but the more whites I tried, the more I lusted after the Western Australian alternatives I came across during a visit there last November.
Western Australia’s most famous wine region, Margaret River, may have only half a century of wine production under its belt, as opposed to Burgundy’s at least 20 centuries. And Chardonnay was by no means the first grape variety tried in ‘Margs’, as some Australians call it. But the local grape growers and winemakers certainly have a way with the white burgundy grape.
Internationally, Margaret River in the far south west of Australia is probably most famous as one of the surprisingly few places in the world where the Cabernet Sauvignon grape makes great, subtle wine. And within Australia, white wine drinkers perhaps more readily associate Margaret River with its distinctively grassy blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes.
But a couple of major tastings in Margaret River last November reminded me just how good the region’s Chardonnays can be. The first of them was of 19 Cabernets and 16 Chardonnays chosen to celebrate the region’s fiftieth anniversary. The Chardonnay vintages varied from 2005 to 2016. For what it’s worth, I gave 10 of the 16 a score of at least 17 out of 20 – real largesse from me – two of them being the oldest in the selection, Leeuwin Estate's Art Series 2005 and Cullen's Kevin John 2007. These wines proved that Margaret River Chardonnay has longevity, one of the tests of wine quality that too many smart white burgundies fail.
But the youngest of these Margaret River Chardonnays were already very appealing and clearly already drinkable, whereas young white burgundy can be notoriously slow to reveal itself.
The second tasting even more clearly demonstrated how well these wines stack up as alternatives to white burgundy, for decades regarded as the classic dry white wine. Every year for 32 years the Cullen family, pioneers of the region, has hosted a blind tasting of Margaret River Chardonnays all mixed up with top white burgundies and some of the most highly regarded Chardonnays from the US and elsewhere in Australia.
This year’s selection compared wines from the 2013 vintage – neither too young for a white burgundy, nor too old for an Australian Chardonnay. There were eight Chardonnays from Margaret River plus seven from the rest of Australia, five grands crus or equivalents from Burgundy and one each from California and Oregon. This sort of comparative tasting is nowadays presented as a non-competitive intellectual exercise, but I could not help scoring the wines, noting as usual their likely optimum drinking period.
When I put the wines in score order, it was quite notable how well the Margaret River Chardonnays performed. All five of my favourites of the 22 wines, scoring 18 or 18.5 out of 20, were from Margaret River.
What’s great about them is that they have all the tension and precision (as opposed to fatness or, heaven forfend, oakiness) that is currently in vogue but, unlike many Chardonnays from the rest of Australia or even from cooler parts of California such as the extreme Sonoma Coast, they have enough fruit to counterbalance the acidity and austerity. For my palate, some Chardonnays nowadays are just too skinny by half as winemakers try to prove just how much weight they’ve lost.
Margaret River Chardonnay first came to international attention when the debut vintage of Leeuwin’s top bottling, the 1980 Art Series with its Mouton Rothschild-esque label adornment of a painting specially chosen each year (the 2014 bottling is shown above), was voted best Chardonnay in the world by the British wine magazine Decanter in 1982. The Horgan family who founded Leeuwin were generous with cuttings from their world-beating vines, with the result that most of the region’s Chardonnay is from the same clone, known as Gin Gin in Western Australia and Wente in California.
This clone is useful in that the vines don’t set fruit very well (they suffer from hen and chicken fruit set) so that yields are low and the resulting wines have a good concentration of rather salty grapefruit-like fruit. Virtually all the wines are aged in oak but, such is the competence of the winemakers and, presumably, the age of the barrels, that I did not detect a trace of oak in the final wines.
We knew which wines we were tasting but not the order in which they were served so I did try to guess where each wine came from. The lone California example, the single-vineyard Stone Flat bottling from highly regarded Chardonnay exponent Kistler, was the most obvious, seeming fatter and sweeter than most. I thought the lone Oregonian, on the other hand, could have been burgundy, and indeed Domaine Drouhin’s Édition Limitée is made by a Burgundian, Véronique Drouhin of Beaune.
I knew there was one Chablis in the tasting, a Valmur from Patrick Piuze (which suffered badly from a poor lot of corks), but I thought two of the non-Margaret River Australians could have been Chablis, so austere were they. And the Leroy, Meursault Perrières had the Chablis-like characteristic of smelling (not unpleasantly) of wet wool.
The penultimate wine, Domaine Leflaive’s 2013 from the grand cru Bâtard Montrachet was, rather amazingly, put in the shade by a special bottling from our host Vanya Cullen, Kevin John Flower Day Chardonnay. We had already tasted blind and enjoyed her main bottling of Kevin John Chardonnay 2013 but, as an early adopter of biodynamic practices in the vineyard, she made a small lot of her top Chardonnay, named after her late father, picked on a date in the biodynamic calendar deemed a ‘flower day’ (as opposed to a fruit, root or leaf day). Not only this, but the wine was aged in barrels made from oak that had also been harvested and coopered on a flower day.
In 2014 she made three more special biodynamic selections of her top Chardonnay, including one called Flower Day Chardonnay Moon Opposite Saturn Harvest.
Yes, it all sounds pretty barmy, but all I can say is that the results are thrilling. That 2013 Flower Day wine had all the intensity you would expect of a top grand cru white burgundy.
Not surprisingly, deeply satisfying Margaret River Chardonnays are not given away, and are very much easier to find in Australia than on export markets. But below I suggest a few fine examples that can be found in the UK, with surprisingly wide price variation.
RECOMMENDED MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAYS
Larry Cherubino 2014
£26 Hard to Find Wines
Cullen, Kevin John 2013
£69.99 The Wine Reserve, Surrey
Flametree, SRS 2014, 2015 or 2016
2014: £26.99 Reserve Wine Shop of Manchester
2015: £29.99 Noel Young and other independents
Fraser Gallop, Parterre 2013
£20.70 Exel Wines of Scotland
Leeuwin, Art Series 2013
£80.40 Hedonism, UK importer Domaine Direct
Lenton Brae 2013
No UK stockists found
McHenry Hohnen, Calgardup Brook 2015
£25.99 Oz Wines of Berkshire
£42.99 Henley Wines of Kent
Vasse Felix, Estate 2014, 2015
2014: £18.99 House of Townend and others
Vasse Felix, Heytesbury 2013, 2014 or 2015
2014: £35.50 Halifax Wine Co, £39 Soho Wine Supply
2015: £39.95 Slurp.co.uk also Berry Bros & Rudd in bond and others
MORE RECOMMENDED MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAYS
Cape Mentelle 2012
Deep Woods, Reserve 2013
Devil’s Lair, 9th Chamber 2013
Flametree, SRS 2014, 2015 or 2016
Fraser Gallop, Parterre 2013, 2014 or 2016
Redgate, Reserve 2015
Stella Bella 2015
Xanadu, Stevens Road 2013 or 2015
For more stockists anywhere see wine-searcher.com.