TWF Chardonnay in 2018 – The Year in Review

It’s hard to believe that another year has passed since the Brisbane tasting panel’s December 2017 review of the tWf trio’s work on top end Australian Chardonnay (those which scored 96 points or better) but indeed it has. So once again the panel assembled to review the 2018 Chardonnay guidance given by the three Winefront reviewers in 2018 to the tWferati.

 

Between them CM, GW and MB seemed to undertake a fair amount of globetrotting in 2018 but nevertheless still found time between journeys to proffer the tWferati some guidance on high end Chardonnay. There were some regrettable omissions in the tWf coverage (2016 Deep Woods Reserve Chardonnay, 2017 Flametree SRS Wallcliffe Chardonnay, 2017 Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay, 2016 Oakridge 864 Funder & Diamond Chardonnay, 2017 Penfolds Cellar Reserve Chardonnay, 2016 Handpicked Capella Chardonnay to name a few – all of which were good performers on the circuit of State capital wine shows).

However, this didn’t stop us from having plenty of wines to review as can be seen from the list below. In our first Review in 2015 there were 12 Chardonnays to review (rated 96-96+) and we hadn’t seen a Winefront 97 pointer for nearly 5 years. This year we had no less than 24 wines which were rated 96 points or better, including three 97 pointers before I closed the list for the tasting about three weeks ago. In the three weeks since the list closed we have already had five Chardonnays score 96 and they will go into the Panels’ 2019 tasting.

This year the Panel had the pleasure of having both GW and MB join us for the tasting. This proved highly educational and enabled us to share some of their insights. It was also great to see a couple of wine Professionals in action and to share their perspectives as they took us through their evaluations of each of the various wines.  A bonus and the highlight of the evening for me was a Jura Masterclass which MB conducted at the conclusion of the tasting.

 

We did not include scores from GW or MB in the tasting results given below – so as to eliminate any element of the tWf reviewers influencing the review of their own work.

The Line-up

 

Last year’s list of 23 reviewed wines featured 8 scored by CM, 11 scored by GW and 3 scored by MB. The eagle eyed will point out that this only adds to 22 wines and that is quite correct however we also included last year’s JHCC winner, a wine which was not rated on tWf. This year saw a slightly larger sized field of 26 wines (detailed below), and had 9 wines scored by CM, 11 scored by GW and 5 scored by MB – so a reasonably consistent breakdown with MB becoming more involved.

 

The 2018 line-up and tWF ratings were:

Tyrrells SFOV Chardonnay 2013                                            (GW 96)

Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2016                                    (CM 96)

Denton Yellow Chardonnay 2015                                         (CM 96)

Rowlee Chardonnay 2016                                                      (CM 96)

Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2016                                             (MB 97)

Eastern Peake Intrinsic Chardonnay 2015                           (GW 96)

Salo Chardonnay 2017                                                            (MB 96)

JJ Morel Saint Aubin 1er Les Combes Au Sud 2015           (GW 96)

Tarrington Vineyards Chardonnay 2016                              (MB 96)

Les Dolomies Les Combes Chardonnay 2015                      (MB 96)

Domaine Naturaliste Artus Chardonnay 2016                    (CM 96)

Hoddles Creek Syberia Chardonnay 2016                            (CM 96)

Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay 2017                                          (GW 96)

Pooley Cooinda Vale Chardonnay 2017                               (GW 97)

Domaine Michelot Meursault Genevrieres 1er 2015        (GW 96)

Onannon Chardonnay 2017                                                   (GW 96)

Domaine de Montbourgeau Cuvee Speciale 2012             (MB 96+)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2015                      (GW 96)

Holyman Chardonnay 2017                                                    (GW 97)

Oakridge SVS Willowlake Chardonnay 2017                       (CM 96)

Mount Mary Chardonnay 2016                                             (GW 96)

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2016                                    (CM 96)

Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay 2017                           (CM 96)

Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay 2016                                    (CM 95/ Winner Best Chardonnay DWWA)

  1. Rodda Willow Lake Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 (Winner – 2018 JHCC)

Moutard-Diligent Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2014           (GW 96)

 

 

The 2016 Cullen Kevin John, the 2015 Denton Yellow and the 2103 Tyrrells SFOV were all wines which should have been in last year’s review but could not be procured in the short time available between when they were rated and the 2017 tasting so here they are this year. This probably worked in their favour as the extra 12 month period will have given those wines additional time in which to develop.

 

This year’s line-up saw six wines from the Yarra Valley, a French contingent of five, three wines from the Margaret River, two from Tasmania, two from the Hunter Valley, two from the Adelaide Hills, one multi-regional blend (Yattarna) and one each from Orange (Rowlee), Ballarat (Eastern Peake), Henty (Tarrington), Macedon (Bindi) and Mornington (Onannon). 2017 was a pretty good year in Margs, Tasmania and the Yarra but there weren’t as many ‘17’s in the field as one might have expected.

 

The inclusion of the 2017 Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay in the line-up was cause for a little nostalgia. It was some of the early Vat 47’s back in the 1970’s which were responsible for my introduction to Chardonnay – but at that time there wasn’t much else in the way of Chardonnay around. That Vat 47 can still hold its own given where Australian Chardonnay has progressed to in the intervening 40 year period is remarkable, a credit to Tyrrells and satisfying in a funny sort of way.

 

Enter Penfolds Yattarna. Yattarna is a Chardonnay hobo – that is to say that it is a multi-regional blend of no fixed abode. However even with no fixed address, Yattarna’s invitation to this ‘party’ always seems to have no difficulty arriving in the mail. Yattarna may be likened to an eccentric rich ($175/btl) Aunt who attends a gathering (sometimes accompanied by her sister Aunt Eileen Hardy and/or her Reserve Bin A niece) with a formidable reputation that causes the other guests a little anxiety as they wonder what sort of performance she might put on.

 

There were a number of French wines that qualified for inclusion in the line-up this year and we included them all. While the Les Dolomies and the Montbourgeau from Jura were very different stylistically (and easily identified) the other three French wines were less readily apparent.

I added Brian Croser’s 2016 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay to the line-up because of its success as joint winner of the Platinum award for best Chardonnay at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards – no small feat for an Australian wine on arguably the world’s premier international stage. Like last year I also added the recent 2018 Halliday Chardonnay Challenge winner which was Adrian Rodda’s 2017 Willow Lake Vineyard Chardonnay.

 

Finally, in a move that David Lloyd of Eldridge Estate fame (whose 2016 ‘Wendy’ Chardonnay wouldn’t have been out of place in this line-up) would approve of, I included the Moutard-Diligent Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos from 2014 in the line-up as a benchmark. A Chardonnay from Chablis (one of the best Chardonnay producing areas in the world) from a great year (2014), from Les Clos (probably the best Grand Cru Climat in Chablis) seemed a highly appropriate benchmark. GW subsequently rated the wine into the tasting.

 

The 2018 Year

 

2018 has been an interesting year in Australian Chardonnay. During this year it seems likely that we have seen the resolution of the questions around the origins of the gin gin clone. It would appear that gin gin is another Chardonnay clone that has its origins at the University of California, Davis campus and that Professor Harold Olmo (one of the young Brian Croser’s Professors when he went to UC Davis) sent it out to the WA Department of Agriculture in 1957. Prof Olmo had previously been engaged by the Department as a consultant and while in Western Australia he had visited the Great Southern region of WA pronouncing it capable of becoming a quality wine producing region. Originally known at UC Davis as FPS 1, the Chardonnay plants he sent out were originally planted in WA at, and took their name from, Valencia’s Gin Gin property known now as ‘Moondah Brook’. Brian has written a very interesting piece for Jancis Robinson in which he tracks the origins of Tapanappa’s OF Chardonnay clone – which turns out to be gin gin (or more accurately FPS 02A – its three-quarter brother).

 

Survey of Characteristics of the Wines

 

Speaking of Chardonnay clones the Australian Chardonnays in this year’s line-up saw a very mixed bag. P58 was predominant in the Tyrrells wines, the Bindi, the Oakridge, the Holyman and the Rodda. It was also part of the clonal mix in the Eastern Peake, Tarrington, Pooley and Hoddles Creek wines. Gin Gin was predominant in the Cullen, Domaine Naturaliste, Leeuwin and Tapanappa wines and was part of the mix in the Hoddles Creek. Various of the Bernard clones were predominant in the Rowlee, Salo and Onannon wines and were again part of the clonal mix in the Hoddles Creek. I10V1 was in the mix in the Pooley Cooinda Vale and the Oakridge and I10V5 was in the mix in both Eastern Peake Intrinsic and the Tarrington Vineyard. No clear themes emerge out of the clonal differences. All of the major Chardonnay clones and the various mixes thereof used in Australian production have produced outstanding Chardonnays. If ‘vine age trumps clone’ as winemaker David Bicknell has suggested to me clonal difference may become less relevant going forward as Australia’s stocks of Chardonnay vines age.

 

Alcohol levels in the Australian wines (were claimed to) range from 12.5% in the Denton Yellow, the Hoddles Creek, the Penfolds Bin 17 and the Holyman through to 14% in the Leeuwin Estate Art Series.

 

Four of the French wines were under cork and the rest (including the Domaine Michelot Meursault Genevrieres 1er) were under screwcap.

 

You might have thought that the oak treatment received by the Australian Chardonnays in the line-up would have been fairly standard however that thought would be wrong. At one end of the spectrum sat the Salo and Eastern Peake Intrinsic Chardonnays which saw no new oak. At the other end of the spectrum sits Leeuwin Estate. The 2015 LEAS saw 100% new oak in barriques (small format) and Leeuwin claim that mlf is completely prevented. That is a big whack of oak and unsurprisingly LEAS Chardonnay invariably tastes oaky early in life – it seems amazing to me that the fruit can handle that much oak especially with no malo but it has always been exceptional fruit. I can’t help but wonder what the wine would look like if the oak treatment was dialled down a little – but you can’t dispute Leeuwin’s success and I see that LEAS Chardonnay has now been named (and is the only white wine) in the Heritage Five of the Langton’s Exceptional category. The Tarrington and the Holyman also see 100% new oak but it is in puncheons (large format) and seemed less pronounced. The other Australian Chardonnays in the line-up see various percentages of new oak (between 15% – 45%) in different formats for varying periods of time.

 

Again, given some popular narratives around you might have thought that a majority of the Australian Chardonnays would have prevented malo altogether (as we strive for leaner styles with a clear acid line) but again it turns out that that thought would be wrong. About 50% of the Australian Chardonnays in the line-up have undergone full or partial malo and even when producers do try to block it out there is often a bit of secondary fermentation that takes place.

 

In summary, (and yet again this year) the Australian wines in the 2018 line-up are another complete hotchpot and don’t lend themselves to any simple explanatory categorization. The desire by the respective winemaker/teams to produce high quality Chardonnay is probably the major thing the wines obviously have in common.

 

The Tasting

 

To the tasting. We tasted the wines blind (but not double blind) in that tasters had the list of wines but not the order in which they were tasted. The tasting was conducted in three flights. The wines in each flight were lightly chilled and poured 30 minutes prior to serving. It took us nearly 4 hours to conduct the tasting and make our notes.

 

As has been noted before, a blind comparative tasting is a great test of a wine – because any weaknesses in a wine (which may not be apparent on an individual tasting) tend to come into stark focus as the wines are tasted side by side and comparisons can be made. The format probably favours wines with flavour, power and drive over wines whose attributes are more subtle. As noted above we did not include scores from GW and MB in the ratings given below to avoid any element of the tWf reviewers influencing the review of their own work.

 

As a general observation each wine showed well and the overall standard was terrific although one might expect that conclusion given the qualifying rating required for inclusion in the tasting. The wines in the 2018 list were on a par with the wines from last year (possibly even slightly better). 2017 was a much easier year to grow high quality fruit and make high quality Chardonnay in most of Victoria and Tasmania than 2016 where winemakers faced challenges because of the hotter season – although see the comments on the 2016 versions of the Hoddles Creek Syberia and Bindi Quartz Chardonnays below. The Australian wines in the main exhibited balance, complexity, great flavour and outstanding length. My impression was that sulphide characters (though present) were again slightly less prominent in 2018 line-up than they were a couple of years ago.

 

In our Review last year we included the Les Dolomies Les Boutonniers Chardonnay 2014 because it qualified but we didn’t rate it due to our unfamiliarity with the Jura style. This year the Panel included ratings for the Les Dolomies Les Combes Chardonnay 2015 and the Domaine de Montbourgeau Cuvee Speciale 2012 although we are still relatively unfamiliar with the style. MB’s Masterclass following the tasting helped us travel a little distance up the learning curve.

 

The Panels’ ratings wines as follows:

 

97           Moutard-Diligent Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2014, Holyman Chardonnay 2017, Tarrington Vineyards Chardonnay 2016,

96+        Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2016, Salo Chardonnay 2017, Domaine Naturaliste Artus Chardonnay 2016, Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2016, Hoddles Creek Syberia Chardonnay 2016, Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2016,

96           Tyrrells SFOV Chardonnay 2013, Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay 2017, Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay 2016, Denton Yellow Chardonnay 2015, A. Rodda Willow Lake Vineyard Chardonnay 2017, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2015, Domaine Michelot Meursault Genevrieres 1er 2015, Onannon Chardonnay 2017, Eastern Peake Intrinsic Chardonnay 2015

95+        Mount Mary Chardonnay 2016, Pooley Cooinda Vale Chardonnay 2017, Les Dolomies Les Combes Chardonnay 2015, Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay 2017, JJ Morel Saint Aubin 1er Les Combes Au Sud 2015,

95           Rowlee Chardonnay 2016, Domaine de Montbourgeau Cuvee Speciale 2012, Oakridge SVS Willowlake Chardonnay 2017

Overall – the standard of top Australian Chardonnay as judged from this line-up is high.

No surprise to find the 2014 Moutard Chablis Les Clos in the top group – a great vintage from the top Climat of Chablis and the favourite wine of one Panel member. Joe Holyman has produced his best Chardonnay yet. It has less sulphide character, is better for it and is deservedly in this group. The wine from the top group that might surprise readers is the 2016 Tarrington. A wine of some richness and flavour, good minerality, exceptional length and the favourite of another Panel member. John Nagorcka, the winemaker should take a bow for this one.

 

Just slightly off the pace of the lead group came the Cullen Kevin John, the Salo, the Domaine Naturaliste Artus, the Yattarna, the Hoddles Creek Syberia and the Bindi did that little bit extra to raise themselves above the pack. The 2016 Kevin John is a worthy follow up to the 2015 – notes of citrus, honey, almond with nice balance and long finish. The Salo is complex, savoury and detailed, has length and six months in the cellar has seen it loosen up a little – look out for this wine in 2 years. If you like sulphides as part of your Chardonnay mix the Domaine Naturaliste Artus is for you – complex, balanced wine with great Chardonnay flavours.

 

The 2016 Yattarna was a bit of a surprise packet. Lovely nose, great line and length, nice restrained Chardonnay flavours – fine boned but elegant. All Panel members scored it highly – I thought it was a much better wine than the 2015 Yattarna which scored comparatively poorly last year. The ‘16 Hoddles Creek Syberia had greater generosity of flavour than the 2015 version which I remember as a much leaner style (though it still scored well in the Review last year) and it also scored well with all Panel members. Like the Hoddles Creek ‘Syberia’ I preferred the ’16 Bindi Quartz to the ’15 version of the same wine (as did the other Panel members) – I thought the flavour, balance and mouthfeel of the ‘16’s were both better. Counterintuitively perhaps, the warmer season in ’16 in Victoria seems to have benefitted both the ‘Syberia’ (which comes from a difficult vineyard) and the Bindi.

The bulk of the wines were rated 96 or 95+ which was not that much of a surprise given the selection criteria. You would be pleased to have any of these wines in your cellar. Which ones you would pick really boils down to a matter of stylistic preference. The Penfolds Reserve Bin 17A has done well on the 2018 Show circuit (Wine of Show in Sydney 2018 and a brace of gold medals at others) and the Panel could see why. You have to give Penfolds credit for quality of their Chardonnays and you can see why some critics suggest that their whites are currently better than their reds.

The 2016 Tapanappa Tiers and the 2017 Rodda Willow Lake Vineyard were both worthy of their spots in the line-up and were rated highly by all of the Panel members. I hadn’t come across the Onannon Chardonnay before – from Mornington and showing stonefruit, green apple, minerality it rode a nice acid line to a long finish. I found the oak in the 2015 Leeuwin Estate Art Series very prominent and distracting but the other panellists were less distracted and rated it well.

The two Premier Cru French wines (the JJ Morel and the Domaine Michelot Meursault Genevrieres) found themselves rated by the Panel into these two groups and though they were good wines they did not really stand out. I have had a number of bottles of the JJ Morel in recent months and have experienced a fair bit of bottle variation – this bottle was in good shape.

The surprise for me in the group rated 96 was the Denton Yellow – the more I came back to it the more I liked it even though it was radically different in style, resembling a ‘Vin Jaune’ from Jura. Most members of the Panel scored it highly and it impressed MB (the Winefront Jura expert).

The 2017 Rowlee and the 2017 Oakridge Willowlake Chardonnay both seemed a little tight and lacking the flavour and intensity of some of the other wines. On the plus side they should both improve given a couple more years in the cellar. We clearly have a way to go with the Domaine de Montbourgeau as it was MB’s only 97 pointer in the tasting – but we are on the journey.

Review Conclusions

 

So – how did we assess the Chardonnay guidance given by CM, GW and MB to the tWferati during the 2018 year?

Put shortly, the guidance given by the Winefront reviewers during the year was again of a very high standard. There were no bad wines in the line-up even though there was a great variance (or a lack of conformity) in style. That a multiplicity of different Chardonnay styles are appreciated by the Winefront reviewers, and are scored highly, is a good thing and educational for the tWferati.

The reviews themselves were well written and substantive and thereby afford Winefront subscribers the opportunity to educate themselves by analysing what’s in their glass against what is written in the review. This is incomparably better than simple short written reviews simply accompanied by a number. You mightn’t always agree with the rating assigned to a wine by CM, GW or MB but even that can be a learning experience especially when it is accompanied by the opportunity to discuss the matter with the reviewer in the commentary. The participation from time to time of so many winemakers in the Winefront commentary comes as a bonus.

 

Quibbles? We had some minor ones. The first of these, namely the omission of some prominent wines from coverage by the Winefront in 2018, has already been mentioned.  The second is that the discernible preference for cool climate styles of Chardonnay that each of the three Winefront reviewers exhibits comes at the expense of Chardonnays from the Margaret River. In our Chardonnay review last year we commented that this issue seemed to have been sorted out, however again this year Margaret River Chardonnays seem to be under represented judging by the composition of the tasting line-up.

For all wine reviewers the pressure that comes from the Industry for good reviews is no doubt considerable and can be seen in attempts by some producers to carefully manage the review process. This pressure from producers/winemakers seems to have been met with pretty sober assessments by the Winefront reviewers of the quality of the wines reviewed.

And so again this year – well done CM, GW and CB.

We look forward to next year’s tasting.



Tasted : Dec18


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