Apr 18, 2023

Chardonnay – At home in the Adelaide Hills

In May, the Adelaide Hills Wine Region indulges in one of its true passions, Chardonnay. Chardonnay May is part trade, part consumer, and all flavour. Tijana Laganin takes time out to talk about her favourite South Australian grape variety.

varWritten by Tijana Laganin
Wine Communicators of Australia – Wine Media Cadet

As humans we have a natural tendency for beauty – it is the reason we give a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day instead of cacti and why Emmanuel Macron was re-elected for his second term. Wine is no different, we gravitate to a variety based on its scale of attractiveness, ranging from the unfairly judged Merlot to the aromatics (Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Torrontés). These are the natural beauties – pure with minimal intervention and aromas reminiscent of day spas and handmade soaps.

Whilst Chardonnay is not conventionally beautiful, it is made flawless by the deft hand of the winemaker. Like a symmetrical face with perfect skin seated before a makeup artist – Chardonnay is a canvas of potential. And for twenty years we attributed it the stigma ABC (Anything But Chardonnay). We should be ashamed of ourselves!

With one of the widest ranging flavour and aromatic profiles of any grape, Chardonnay is a lesson of self-affirmation, a testament that “you can be anything”. Take for instance Burgundy, the literal golden standard of Chardonnay, producing some of the world’s most coveted wines. Spanning over 200km, the region reflects diversity starting from Chablis in the north, with its lean wines of characteristic crunchy acidity and minerality. Then down through the gentle slopes of the Côte de Beaune with its winemaking prowess and truffle scented wines from its famed Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. Last is Burgundy’s southern most zone, the Mâcon, where a combination of warmer temperatures and fertile soils produce fleshier Chardonnay with a more tropical palate.

Downunder, the Adelaide Hills have been able to condense the same diversity over half the distance. Spanning from Kersbrook up North to Kuitpo in the South are a range of unique mesoclimates, similar to that of Burgundy. The variation in mesoclimates in the region, be they through differences in elevation, slope, aspect, or availability of water, mean that there’s certainly not one ‘Adelaide Hills style’ to explore and enjoy.

Piccadilly, the coolest subregion, thanks to its high elevation, has a reputation for Chardonnay with crisp acidity, minerality and citrus fruits. Whilst Kersbrook is to the Adelaide Hills what Mâcon is to Burgundy – earlier ripening with fleshier, tropical fruit notes. Beauty is, by definition, a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, and form, that come together to please the senses. Round or lean, golden or green hued, full bodied or light – the beauty of Chardonnay manifests not just in the eye of the beholder, but in their glass as well.

2021 Heirloom Vineyards Chardonnay (RRP: $30AUD)
The wordsmiths at Heirloom have summarized the intriguing beauty of our hero grape, “Chardonnay can be a simple sip or a symphony of the senses, a moment of pleasure or an eternity of contemplation”. Youthful, this symphony is only being counted in by the conductor – with its vibrancy and zest. Like walking through a market garden – traces of white peach verging on the riper side, kaffir lime and Fuji apples, the ones from the Adelaide Hills roadside stalls (if you know, you know). Mouthwatering acidity, felt from the tip of the tongue to the back palate – almost Riesling-esque with a combination of lemon pith and nashi pear. Like salted nuts at the bar, the acidity is a ploy, begging for just one more sip or maybe two.

2021 Honeymoon Vineyard Chardonnay (RRP: $40AUD)
This is a great example as to how Chardonnay production is inspired by its origins. The team at Honeymoon Vineyard left a note: ‘shooting for a Petit Chablis style of Chardy!’. Commendable hand eye co-ordination, as they certainly hit the target, the 57% portion from Piccadilly may have helped. Water-like clarity with a drop of chartreuse, the nose is oh so pretty – a combination of white blossoms, white nectarine and pear drops. A lot of white – fitting as this wine is a reflection of purity, and at 11% alcohol you too will feel virtuous. On the palate there thirst quenching acidity is complemented by an evolution of flavour. Co-founder Hylton McLean attributes these refreshing yet delicate flavours to the Bernard clone, discovered during his decade tenure as senior white and sparkling winemaker at Orlando Wines. Never excessive, the wine presents with delicacy – that initial bite into a Granny Smith apple, freshly sliced lemon, white nectarine and a soft crème brûlée close. A youthful wine, you wish you could embody.

2019 Henschke Croft Chardonnay (RRP: $52AUD)
When you think of Henschke you think Barossa and Hill of Grace, warranted. However with a reputation for producing elegant wines it only makes sense to practice in a region known for the same. The contrast between Henschke and Honeymoon is a great example how versatile Chardonnay can be with the influence of time. In two years we move away from the bright and zippy ‘Honeymoon’ period, to complexity and depth. Couldn’t have summarised marriage better if I tried! However, in true Henschke fashion, this is a wine that will continue to age gracefully. At 13.5% alcohol, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be treated like a red and decanted or at least given some time to breathe (think a few marriages could attest the same). An intoxicating nose, that keeps you guessing. At first honeyed nougat, pink grapefruit with a light whiff of oyster shell; a triptych of Burgundy. Mirrored on the palate with richness and a full body, she holds her weight with poise thanks to the more measured acidity typical of the Lenswood subregion. Oh so long, there is a journey – yellow nectarine skin -> quince -> nougat -> praline…. The finish defined by a flinty, acid line, further proof that ABC is an unjust stigma.

2019 Anderson Hills O Series Chardonnay (RRP: $45AUD)
“O” la la, I sense some Burgundian inspiration here; cork-closure, barrel ferment (oui well-seasoned French oak), wild yeast and some Côte de Beaune-like fruit, thanks to Lenswood’s comparable ripening season and the site’s 600m elevation. Harry Winston’s yellow diamond in the glass, this, like the Henschke, deserves some space – let it come to before making an impression. I found this ever evolving – an initial lemon curd and orange blossom before a scene transition of amaretto and a vanillin almost creaming soda curtain close. The flavours echo, mouth-filling and moreish – marzipan develops, golden delicious apples and a texture of vanilla custard. By no means a dessert wine, but the mind is fooled momentarily into thinking so. Delicieux.

2020 Shottesbrooke Single Vineyard Chardonnay (RRP: $33AUD)
Knowing that I had a trophy winning wine on my hands, I wanted to test the accuracy of the 2021 Sydney Royal Wine Show panel. No MW or winemaker here – instead an esteemed panel of judges comprising a roofer, a cost consultant and a new Australian for whom English is their second language. Straw in colour with a green hue, there is an impression of modesty. A delicate perfume of orange blossom, grapefruit, flint and this intriguing fresh hay and Sicilian olive combination (don’t ask me but it works). The panel were unanimous on the wine’s smoothness, a sign of skillful winemaking as ‘silky acidity’ is, by definition, an oxymoron. Lemon sherbet at the fore is met by a midpalate creaminess that continues to linger whilst the fruit slowly fades. The tongue is left toasty and warm, thanks to exceptionally well-integrated oak. Here is a wine of poise and purpose. Very Audrey Hepburn. And, at $33, exceptional value.

2021 Golding Rosie May Chardonnay (RRP: $45AUD)
Rosie May is named after the Golding’s first-born daughter. The eldest child myself, I understand what gift being the first-born daughter brings. A wine of such affection must be represented in a similar light. Referring to the forementioned attractiveness scale, I doubt Darren and Lucy Golding had an RMM (Rosie May Merlot) envisioned. If this Chardonnay personifies Rosie, then she is warm, abundant in personality with a little bit of spice. Lemon with a golden hue, here is a seriously aromatic wine – ripe nectarine, guava, dried orange peel, clove and a hint of musk stick. I have a feeling that the greater GDD (Growing Degree Days) of this Lenswood site may play a part in such ripe richness. Orange pith almost amaro-like bitterness is matched with fleshy stone fruit flavours and, that famed, Adelaide Hills line of acid. Grilled peaches with a dollop of cream on the finish. If I was Rosie May, I’d be proud to have my name on this.

Six wines, representing less than six percent of the region’s producers, are proof that the Adelaide Hills is a myriad of beauty. It is time to expand these three letters to include the rest of the alphabet, because Chardonnay is just that: Delicate, Enigmatic and, without sounding like an acrostic poem, Zippy. There is no better time than during Adelaide Hills’ Chardonnay May, because (apologies in advance) who knows… a ‘Chardonnay May’ catch your eye.

To find out more about Chardonnay May, check out the Adelaide Hills Wine Region website.

Learn more about Great Wine Capitals: Adelaide|South Australia