Half a Century of Loving Wine

 

I love wine. Not just drinking it with good food, but reading and writing about it, sharing it with friends. I’ve loved good wine for decades, and the challenge of finding wines that stand out from the ordinary. Wines that we ordinary mortals can afford. And meeting the extraordinary people who make them.

It’s over fifty years ago that I discovered the joys wine can bring into your life. I’ve loved good food since I was 6 years old. For my birthday I’d ask for cheese and salami. No kidding. My parents shook their heads and mumbled words about a budding gourmet.

When I reached drinking age, I contracted hepatitis A and alcohol was off the menu for several years. My father used to buy some wine for Christmas, cheap and not very cheerful German wine like Zeller Schwarze Katz, one rung below Liebfraumilch. We weren’t exactlyI remember clearly when I discovered the joys of wine: I was at a trade show in Canberra, held in the old Hotel Canberra. On the last day I treated myself to lunch in the sun-flooded dining room on a cold winter’s day. I ordered a chicken dish and asked the waiter if there was a half bottle of wine that would go with the chicken.

He suggested an Orlando Riesling that was a revelation, and taught me a lesson in matching wine and food.

The sixties had seen big changes in the wine business down under. The popularity of Sherry waned, and so did that of cheap bubblies like Barossa Pearl and Mardi Gras. Table wine began to grace lunch and dinner tables, and soon outstripped supply. Chateaux Cardboard made it easy, affordable and ubiquitous.

A bottle of Grange cost $2.40, same as St Henri. Mildara’s Coonawarra Cabernet was up there with those two, and the most expensive wine was Seppelt’s Great Western Champagne. Yes, this was years before the Europeans objected to us using their place names.

The Big Bang

The 1960s saw new vineyards planted at breakneck speeds, from the Hunter to the Barossa. New areas were opened up for grape vines: The Upper Hunter, Margaret River, the Great Southern, the Limestone coast, then called Padthaway or Keppoch, and even Tasmania which was said to be too cold. Old areas that had ceased making wine long ago, were reborn: Mudgee, the Yarra Valley, Geelong, Bendigo

New stars were born and shone brightly – Vasse Felix and Cullens, Rothbury and Rosemount, Mount Mary and Seville Estate, Brand’s Laira and Piper’s Brook Grape growers in South Australia grew into wineries. The Berry co-operative grew into the wine giant of the Riverina.

New varieties were planted, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We saw the promise of Aussie Burgundies at a fraction of the cost. New Zealand saw the same drastic changes. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough became the new wave that ended up conquering the world.

There were many setbacks, of course, once the dust had settled. Many new ventures failed to deliver on starry-eyed expectations, others had simply grown too fast. Big Business joined the heady gold rush and bought wineries, many with hallowed names and histories going back well over a century.

Barbarians at the Gate

The corporate raiders, as they became known, swept across the wine landscape like the Huns had swept across Europe centuries before. They didn’t understand that wine was different from iron ore or pork bellies. Their victims soon filled up the graveyards like so many old cars that had rusted into the ground they stood on.

Lindemans, Orlando, Mildara, Minchinbury, Saltram, Seaview and Stanley Leasingham are a few that come to mind.

The red wine glut hit the industry hard in the eighties. The writing had been on the wall for years but no one had taken notice. Shiraz muffins didn’t soak up the excess, so governments paid wineries to pull out vines.

What did they do? Being farmers first and foremost, most pulled out the oldest, least productive wines. The ones that produced the exceptional fruit.

During the nineties, I focused on caring for my wife Benita who suffered from a terminal illness, and wine took a back seat. When I came back to it in the new millennium, that world had changed. Prices for the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were reaching for the stratosphere, driven up by American brain surgeons and newly minted Chinese billionaires.

Down under, wineries were creating prestige labels and demanding small fortunes for them. They grew the export market with vins ordinaires from the bottom end of their production, and sold them as ‘sunshine in a bottle.’ The export market boomed but our wineries lost money on every bottle they sold. 

In 2001, at the height of the export boom, Southcorp paid Bob Oatley the princely sum of $1.5 billion for Rosemount Estates and became the world’s largest premium brand winemaker. A couple of years later, BRL Hardy merged with Constellation Brands to create the world’s largest international wine business.

The new world was ruled by faceless people in shiny suits who knew nothing about wine and had no respect for tradition. Constellation Wines Australia sold the original .8 acre vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon by John Reynell in 1838 to Pioneer Homes, which built 41 high-density homes on it. All they kept was the shingle.

New World

I didn’t like the new world of wine, and the new generation of pretentious punters and wine writers that came with it. Suddenly sommeliers strutted like peacocks at precious new restaurants that charged small fortunes for smaller servings. They were needed, I soon realized, because the diners at these places knew nothing about wine or food. They just wanted to impress the people they were with.

I opted out of the whole scene, except for dinners with the front bench as we called the motley lot of true wine lovers that had gathered at Peter Bourne’s Wine Emporium since the late 1970s. Peter decided to move to Orange but the dinners continued at a nw venue at Pyrmont.

I didn’t like many of the wines either, not just because their prices were inflated but because their alcohol levels had gone through the roof with them. Grange and St Henri were 12.5 to 13% when I made their acquaintance; now they were 14.5. Others went to 15 and more. The biggest, ripest, plushest reds won all the trophies in those days, with the judges falling for their ever-so-obvious charms.

The same story played out in France, where more and more winemakers in Bordeaux picked their grapes later and cranked up the alcohols because Robert Parker loved big, ripe, plush reds.

My new partner Tracey lived in Cremorne, on Sydney’s lower north shore, with a Vintage Cellars an easy walk away, and we tried some of their $7 blackboard specials. I kept looking for affordable bargains, and became pretty good at finding them. I still had a lot of wines from the good old days left in my cellar, which were ready to drink, and we’d share a couple of those with friends most weekends.

Lift-Off

One day over a long lunch with good wine friends, one of them was so impressed with my latest find that he floated the idea of setting up Best Wines Under $20. I had no trouble seeing a ready market of wine lovers who’d be happy to pay for good advice that raised their drinking pleasure while reducing its cost.

I ended up with a couple of thousand rusted on subscribers who keep telling me that I’m the only wine scribe they trust, which is gratifying. The downside is that I buy many of the wines I taste, because many wineries want nothing to do with a wine site that’s focused on bargains under $20.

I’ve lost track of the number of winemakers I meet who tell me they don’t make wines that cost less than $20, and I have to tell them how wrong they are and remind them of their lower-level labels. Some seem stunned and then dart off to talk to someone else, while the smarter ones sign up to my weekly mailer so they can stay in touch with the real world they lost touch with.

Other wineries, distributors and merchants have been happy to support what we’re doing. Yalumba is one winery I have enormous admiration for. Intelligent, forward-looking, pioneering. Kumeu River is another, run by the Brajkovich family. Neither one has nothing to gain from talking to me but always responds with enthusiasm. Jim Barry, Rosily, Richard Hamilton / Leconfield and the Usual Suspects Collective (formerly Hesketh) are others.

A few independent wine merchants have survived and thrived in a world dominated by Woolworths, Coles and ALDI. Kemenys in Sydney continues to support us, despite reviews that CEO David Reberger has described as ‘brutal’.

Winedirect in Adelaide is an outfit I admire just as much. They continue to send us samples despite the harsh words I’ve written about some of them. MyCellars in Adelaide has also been really supportive, offering free freight to our subscribers.

All Things Nice, Never Mind the Price

Harsh words are rarely spoken in this industry; more often whispered. All the wine scribes are ever so polite, at least in print. You don’t bite the hands that feed you. The exception was Philip White who had a huge scare with cancer a few years ago, and is hanging in there against the odds, but no longer smithing words for his Drinkster site. I miss his words and his wit.

I think it was Len Evans who said good wine writers should make their readers want to rush out and buy the wine they’re reviewing. Len lived in some vinous cloud cuckoo land, mostly writing about wines that cost hundreds or thousands, or wines that were simply not procurable. Halliday follows his advice to the letter.

I never saw my job that way – I thought it was to tell subscribers what wines not to waste their money on: bottles decorated with medals and poetic descriptions on back labels, tricked up wines with artificial charms, or ‘industrial autoplonk’ as Philip White describes it. The big guys have become really good at making deceptive wines of this style.

Most wine writers describe the wines they review in great detail, and what they come up with often has me rubbing my eyes, twitching my nose and shaking my head. They must resort to the aroma wheel to find the fancy words they use, and who is going to argue with them? The punter who shells out hard-earned dollars for the wine, and then wonders why he can’t see what the reviewer raved about.

At a Kemenys lunch at the Quay Restaurant some years ago, the MC supplied by Penfolds talked us through the brackets of wine in front of us, describing the various aromas and flavours in great detail.

A gentleman at my table frowned as he said he couldn’t see many of the things the reviewers saw in these wines, from the blueberries and violets to the charcuterie and chocolate … He asked me if I did (my name tag said I was a wine scribe). When I confided that I often had the same problem, a relieved smile came over his face.

No Bull

I’ve tried hard to keep Best Wines Under $20 a bullshit-free zone. My friend Jeffrey put it so well when he sent me this capsule: ‘Kim, the world wine industry is soooooo full of bull-shit and false direction that I sometimes think I need out, to sell off my wines and go vegetarian just to escape, to regain perspective.’

‘Honestly, I’m sick and tired of the bull-shit journalists, the pretension, the hustling, the egos, the point scoring, the investment portfolios. Can you tell me what I can do to regain my lost respect, my lost interest, even my sanity? I want imperfection. A little bret. A wine that says ‘up yours’ Mr journalist … Mr connoisseur … just drink me with a piece of good cheese.’

Andrew Caillard’s piece in Gourmey Traveller years ago struck a chord as well. He talks about ‘a language that is developing to satisfy the expectations of luxury wine buyers and wine aficionados. We live in an age of beautifully packaged wines with superbly exaggerated stories and prices.’

Luxury goods. Pretentious restaurants with eye-watering prices. Reviewers talking about wines as if they were fashioned by angels, writing wine poetry instead of wine reviews.

The luxury goods market runs on a different set of rules, which are all to do with building a formidable brand on a pedestal of exclusivity. On the consumer side, it’s not what we say about luxury goods – it’ what they say about us.

The most prestigious brands let others know that you’re a person of ample means and impeccable taste. Chanel, Rolex, Chateau Lafite, Penfolds Grange … Even people who know little about wine know that Grange is a special red with a hefty price tag, except for the ex-premier of NSW.

Still Crazy after all these Years

We’ve kept our feet on the ground, even while we’ve raised the price ceiling to include special wines under $50, like the wonderful Wynns black label Cabernets. Yet I still get excited when I find great wines around $20.

This where ‘the fundamental things apply …’ to quote from that song in the movie Casablanca. Stunning, seductive, succulent, beguiling, delightful, luscious, attractive, morish, exciting, charming, appealing, easy on the gums, easy on the pocket.

Of course there were times when my enthusiasm faded, but then a wine would come along and smack me in the face in the nicest way.

Kemenys’ Hidden Labels often do that. The Coonawarra Cabernet 2020 is a classic Coonawarra red with a big future. You’d be more than happy to pay twice the asking price of $17 if you don’t mind the plain wrapper.

If your budget is more elastic, recent Wynns Cabernets are as good as any I can remember. The 2018, 2019 and 2021 are all still out there for a bit over $30, Peter Pan reds that are easy to admire in their youth, and slow to grow up.

Some of the stunning 2022 Rieslings from the Clare Valley put big smiles on my face, as did the Village Chardonnays from Kumeu River across the Tasman, the great reds from the 2021 vintage in South Australia, from the Barossa to Coonawarra …

I haven’t been buying a lot of reds these last few years, since I eat far more seafood than red meat these days. Most samples of reds I see are barely 2 years old, and tasting them is not an experience I look forward to.

I’ve written about the Wolf Blass reds from the late sixties – they were soft, smooth and seductive in their youth, and good drinking for many years beyond that. When I tasted the current reds from Larry Cherubino’s Robert Oatley Signature range, I wondered if Larry had worked out Wolfie’s secrets.

The Shiraz and the GSM are seductive, enjoyable already, and don’t hit your hip pocket too hard at $18. They’re great moral boosters for our claim that you don’t to spend big money to find terrific wines, and just the ticket for those of you who don’t have a decent wine cellar.

From Another Planet

Out of the Blue a box of samples arrived on our doorstep from Picardy, a winery at Pemberton in the Great Southern of W.A. The winery is the work of Bill and Sandra Pannell who set up Moss Wood in Margaret River in the sixties.

They sold Moss Wood and planted a vineyard at Pemberton in the nineties, in a ‘holy grail’ style quest to make Pinots Noir down under that are up there with great Burgundies. The wines are not exactly in our sweet spot for bargains, but you can’t argue with the quality or value.

Now I’ve been pretty blunt about Pinots made down under, conceding some years ago that even a sleuth of my experience and cunning could not find a decent Pinot under $25, let alone good one. Even spending $50 and more rarely produced the goods. Grenache became my go-to choice for foods that needed a red with a light touch. And it still is.

The Pinots from Picardy showed me that we can make truly great Pinots. First you have to find the right place, and Margaret River clearly isn’t that. Every other variety thrives there, but not Pinot Noir. That’s why the Pannells started all over again at Pemberton, and built a small chateau there in the French style.

From there it’s all about clonal selection, an ongoing process of importing and planting clones to find out which perform the best in the vineyard’s soil and climate (after some years have passed). I suspect that this has taken tremendous dedication and patience from Bill and Sandra and their team.

I’m saving up for the Picardy Pinot Noir 2022, which will be released soon, because it’s knockout. You can read Ray Jordan’s short summary of this ambitious venture on the website https://www.picardy.com.au/. And here’s all you need to know about clones, from Decanter.

Just as the samples had come out of the blue, so did the short enail from Bill Pannell:

‘Dear Kim,
I would like to congratulate you on your recent appraisals of our wines, which I believe were eminently and objectively fair and thoroughly professional.’

Kindest regards,
Bill Pannell

Yes I love wine because it never fails to surprise you, or lift you when you’re down, and excite you when you need fresh enthusiasm.

Picardy – a tiny slice of France at Pemberton

Wynns Black Label Hits Purple Patch

 

April 2024 Update

When I wrote this post a few years ago, we could still find most of the recent vintages with a bit of hunting around. Last year it became really hard to find any vintage before 2015, mainly because the winery hasn’t released any museum wines for some time. The only consolation was that the new vintages of the black label Cabernet were as good as ever.

Another thorough check has unearthed sources for the 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages, and we’ve provided reviews of the most recent vintages to complete the update at both ends. So this is as complete and as current a picture you’ll find anywhere on Australia’s most underrated red  wine with a 60 year pedigree (see below).

Closing the historic Coonawarra winery and relocating the team to the Barossa seems to have had little impact on the quality so far. TWE has also pushed the release date forward, which now sees the black label released at 2 years of age.

We have Sue Hodder and her team to thank for the consistent quality of the wines; it’s one of the longest partnerships in Australian wine. Viticulturist Alan Jenkins has worked with Sue for about 3 decades, and winemaker Sarah Pidgeon joined them 23 years ago. Sue says the Black label Cabernet is still the most important wine they make in Coonawarra, even though her team has created a bunch of much more expensive labels.

That’s not propaganda. Huon Hooke posts lists on his website that show his scores of wines from specific varieties, areas and vintage years. His list of Top 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons from Coonawarra has the 2010 black label in second place out of 50, on 97 points, just behind Wynn’s Messenger, and in front of Alex 88, Leconfield, John Riddoch, Penfolds Bin 169 and Yalumba’s Menzies. The John Riddoch is over $100, and the Penfolds over $300. The 2012 black label did even better, scoring 98 points and grabbing the No 1 spot from 56 competitors. 

Miracles Take a Little Longer

The obvious question is: How can a wine made in huge quantities be this good? How can a wine this good cost so little? How can the quality improve without the price going up? How did this winery produce such a consistent style while demands from its owners kept changing? And how come we can buy the last 7 vintages of the Black Label Cabernet for just a few dollars more than the current release? Or less in some cases.

David Wynn established this famous line over 60 years ago, and sold Wynns in the early seventies to focus on the Mountadam Venture with his son Adam. Over the last 50 years, Wynns has had many owners with different agendas. In the new millennium, the company ended up in the vast portfolio of Southcorp / Fosters / Treasury Wine Estates. These days Wynns makes a lot of different wines from its 500 hectares of vineyards in Coonawarra, from the basic white label range to icons like John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Shiraz (introduced in 1982 and 1990).

From 2010, Sue Hodder introduced a black label Shiraz to keep the Cabernet company, along with a number of single vineyard wines that sell at higher prices, but the black label Cabernet remains the backbone of the enterprise. The wine with one of the most recognizable labels in the business became an institution long ago. These days it is made from the top 20% of Cabernet off Wynns’ terra rossa vineyards. Still, the volume is large and has kept the prices low, and made it easy for Wynns to keep back vintages for regular museum releases.

Lost in the Wilderness

After such a dream run, why has Wynns always been the poor cousin to Penfolds in the TWE family? It’s as if they only had enough people and money to market one brand. The black label is about the most well-known label out there! Then a few years ago, TWE added insult to injury when they moved the winemaking from Coonawarra to Karadoc in the Riverland, and to the Barossa for the ‘Masstige’ labels. Masstige is marketing bullshit for mass-produced, relatively inexpensive goods that are promoted as luxurious or prestigious.

I believe the last decade was the best we’ll ever see at Wynns. Sue Hodder and her team have made a string of great Cabernets, culminating with the great 2019. Huon Hooke gives it a huge wrap and 97 points. Even the super-critical 3 amigos at the Winefront are fans of the Black Label Cabernets, even if their scores rarely match their rave reviews. Chris Shanahan is another fan, who says you can buy the black label for its RRP of $45, if you try really hard.

Right now Wynns is a wine lover’s heaven, with reds that other companies would charge 2 or 3 times as much for.

Bold Vision and Hard Yakka

Over the last 20 years, Sue Hodder and Allen Jenkins have overseen a program of revitalizing and replacing the old vines damaged by excessive machine pruning. Sue and Sarah Pidgeon have developed a consistent style: precise Cabernet expression, bright fruit, seamless oak integration, elegance with depth of flavour, medium-bodied (13.5 – 14%) with great line and length and fine tannins on the finish.

It must be said that Sue Hodder has won many battles over her 25 years at Wynns. She says she was expected to make bigger reds than she wanted to when she started with Wynns, but she returned the style to elegance and lifted fruit, to maturing the wine in French oak barrels to enhance the style; 20% of the wine is aged in new barrels. She also made sure her team got the best winemaking equipment available, including an optical grape sorter. The real winners are we lucky punters, of course.

The Wines

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 – $30 at MyCellars where the freight is free for subscribers on any quantity. A warmer year, but the team has somehow managed to maintain the freshness of fruit, the cool of the mouth feel and the classy style this label is famous for. More reviews at the link.

Wynns Coonawarra Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 – $35 at United Cellars. This vintage passed me by somehow. Stuart Knox at The Real Review talks about an ‘Ink black core into a deep purple rim. Cassis, dry earth, graphite and dry tobacco aromatics. Medium to full-bodied with an intensity and concentration that is beautifully balanced by fine-grained tannins that drive the palate incredibly long. A seamless wine that will cellar for many years. 95 points. 

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 – $32 at JIMURPHY. A close to perfect vintage that delivered a close to perfect black label. It’s choc-full of seductive dark berries, cassis and cherries, subtle smoky oak and hints of dark chocolate. Seamless integration, great line and length with a fine tannin finish. I love the shape of these wines, the depth of flavour in a medium weight, elegant package. 97 points. Will last for years but will be hard to keep your hands off.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 – $32 at MyCellars. A little bigger and firmer than thw 2019, a classic black label built for the long haul. Perefct Pitch. 96+points. The wine gets good reviews from others as well. (check the link). 97 points from Huon Hooke, 96 from Jeni Port, and 93 from the scrouges at the Winefront.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 – $34 at Wine,com.au2017 was a wet year, and no single vineyard wines were made; there will be no John Riddoch either. Huon Hooke’s review says: ‘Very deep, bold red/purple colour, youthful and fresh, as is the bouquet. There are intense, fresh, vibrant ripe blackberry and blackcurrant cabernet aromas galore and oak takes a back-seat. A very smart, elegant, intense and tidily-constructed Cabernet. It shouts “Coonawarra”. 94 points.’  

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 – $36 at JIMURPHY’S. A Cabernet from a warm, dry vintage. Rich, almost opulent, ripe dark cherries, oak in the back seat as usual, good line and length, fine tannins on the finish, but the wine isn’t on song right now. It lacks energy. 93 points. Andrew Caillard gives it 98 points and calls it ‘a brilliant black label with all the hallmarks of a great vintage, reflecting the Coonawarra terroir at its best.’ Best check for yourself.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – $38 at Jimurphy. Huon Hooke rates this vintage as one of the best, along with the 2012, and scores it 98 points. It felt big on release but alcohol is right on average at 13.8%. It’s rich and ripe with great depth and length yet elegance and finesse too, and it’s good drinking early in its life My only quibble is some bottle variation I’ve seen over 5 years and about as many bottles. My average score is 95 points.

Wynns Black label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. This vintage wasn’t on song either when I opened a bottle a couple years ago. A bit angular, and four-square. 92 – 93 points. Huon Hooke likes it though: ‘Very deep, youthful purple colour, with a hi-fi blackcurrant, mulberry nose with a trace of blueberry. It’s all about the fruit. The wine is intense and powerful but also supremely elegant, the tannins super-fine. All elements of the wine are in superb harmony. It just needs time. 95+ points.’

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet 2013 – the only source I can find for this wine is as part of a 3-pack, which includes the 2015 and 2016. The price is $130 at wine.com.au. This vintage didn’t grab me when first released, but 8 years later it’s a different story: it’s full-flavoured, rich and concentrated but not heavy. The classic cassis fruit is backed up with subtle pencil shavings oak, good line and length, and fine tannins on the finish. Classic Black Label firing on all cylinders, with years in front of it. 96 points.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – $50 at Garnet CellarsIt’s a great release from a great year, with gorgeous dark fruit and seamless oak treatment. It’s medium-bodied but tastes richer than usual, with great depth of flavour and perfect balance. Great drinking now and for the next decade. There are 6 reviews at the link. Huon Hooke gives it 98 points97 points from me. This is my pick of the last decade, with the 2013 hot on its heels.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – $65 at Canterbury Wines. The 2010 didn’t grab me in its youth, despite the outstanding vintage, but it’s really opened up and now shows great depth of ripe dark cherry fruit backed by subtle French oak; the fruit is richer and more succulent than usual, and the tannins on the finish softer. Seductive drinking now and the next few years. 95 points.

I never noticed the subtle changes to the classic label over the years until I took this shot.

Some light Reading:

Tasting notes from Chris Shanahan

Insightful Interview with Sue Hodder

Why Wynns Coonawarra Estate is one of Australia’s best-value wineries, indepth piece by Huon Hooke

Wynns Coonawarra – short story – long shot, indepth piece by yours truly

Best Chardonnays in Australia – April 2024 Update

 

This is the only list of the best Chardonnays in Australia that

  • Is totally independent, free of bull and free of ads
  • Finds the best Chardonnays from $10 to $50 (street price)
  • You can buy right now, at the sharpest prices online
  • Is updated every 6 months
  • Is as free as the air you breathe

And why not subscribe to our weekly Best Buys mailer, the best wine mailer in the business? We find 20 hand-picked wines every week, at prices that will make you sit up straight. It’s just $20 for 12 months.

This is Part 6 of a series we started 3 years ago, and update every 6 months. For a broader background, you can read Part 5 HERE, Part 4 HERE, Part 3 HERE, Part 2 HERE, and Part 1 HERE.

CHARDONNAY – THE SHORT STORY

The peachy, buttery, oaky chardies of old seem to be making a comeback, which is promising. We’ve always liked the rich old style chardies, the ones the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement turned its back on, with all the young Turk winemakers producing grapefruit cocktails with struck match overtones, and barely reaching 13% alcohol. Malolactic fermentation, which gives chardies their creamy texture, is out or minimal, crunchy acid and grapefruit are in. What’s wrong with having a choice of both styles, and one in between?

Why is there a debate at all, when there’s a market for different styles. Wine snobs telling us what we should like? Sure, some of the cheap chardies from the turn of the millennium were caricatures of the real thing, but the swing to lean and mean went over the top and punters got really confused. That’s how Sauvignon Blanc become a popular refuge for many.

Why do winemakers behave like lemmings? I’ve had Tyrrell’s chardies that were trying really hard to look like cool climate wines. Even the old Scarborough label went that way in recent years … why don’t our winemakers use the natural assets of our vast terroir, and get their heads around the big market for old style chardies? You wouldn’t believe how many requests I get from my subscribers for good wines of this style. So we’ve included a few more in this update, but be warned: they’re a mixed bag.

Fat Bastard Chardonnay 2021 – $13 at Our Cellar. This wine is everything a good chardy is not, so why are we listing it here? Because the punters love it; it’s the best-selling chardy at Nicks for the last 5 years, they tell us. Other merchants say people buy cases of this stuff. Not surprising since the price is sharp, but everything else is really blunt. We have thick slabs of caramel oak, fruit that lacks varietal definition but is ripe and pineapple sweet. The taste is confected, makes me think of lollies. 87 points. Give it a big miss.

Given the wine’s popularity, the wine deserves more discussion. The guys at Nicks agree that the wine lacks ‘varietal character and depth,’ and add that ‘the palate is full, soft and round in the mouth possessing a sweet vanillin confection like character with some apricot, banana and peach fruit also present. Sweet, creamy finish with a vanillin apricot and banana lolly like aftertaste. A disappointment from this perennial favourite.’

Deep Woods Estate Chardonnay 2022 – $15 at Vintage Cellars. Stone fruits and grilled nuts, a soft rendition of Margaret River chardy from a winery that‘s built quite a reputation for its chardies. It’s rich and round and polished. Nothing’s overdone so it sneaks up on you, softly, softly – you look at the empty glass and wonder where it went. Good value. 93 points.

Petaluma Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2022 – $18 at Our Cellar. Modern style, clean, fresh and energetic. White stone fruits and a squirt of grapefruit dominate, with oak taking a back seat. No fireworks here, but a lovely wine: soft and silky in the mouth, good length and fine balance, no struck match nonsense. Drink over the next couple of years. 94 points. 

Robert Mondavi Buttery Chardonnay 2021 – $18 at WSD. Another Californian, and a better rendition of the old-style peachy, buttery and oaky chardy . This example is a touch obvious in the execution as well – the butter is spread a bit thick, as is the vanilla custard, and the oak reminds me of a 4 x 2.

OK, I’m being picky here – the wine costs $20, and the elements will most likely integrate some more with another year or two in the cellar. In the meantime, make sure to drink it with rich food such as baked mac and cheese or Chicken Stroganoff91+ points.

Mondavi Bourban Barrel Aged Chardonnay 2021 – $19 at WSD. This is the better of the 2 Mondavis. Buttery and peachy with some toasty vanilla oak. A touch more subtle than the Buttery version above, but still rich and ripe, peachy and full-bodied. Hints of butterscotch and toasty vanilla oak. The creamy texture adds to the wine’s appeal. Drink over the next 2-3 years. 93 points.

Wickhams Road Gippsland Chardonnay 2022   – $19 at WSD. A much more subtle style of chardy. It’s a little riper and richer than usual after a warm vintage, even a touch creamy, but still Chablis in style. 93 points.

Pedestal Margaret River Chardonnay 2022 – $20 at Nicks. One of Larry Cherubino’s many labels. It shows the finesse Larry brings to all his wines, along with stone fruits, gentle oak and hints of struck matches. Medium-bodied but full flavoured, with great line and length. 94 points.

Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2022 -$22.50 at ED Cellars in Adelaide – last place down under for the 2022 (the 2023 is a leaner style). A pristine, fresh, energetic chardy form this great winery, up there with the Estate in terms of quality, at half the price. Seriously. classy, stylish and elegant, it glides across the tongue with a gentle touch, offering white peaches and cashews. Oak takes a backseat. You get a lot of polish for your money here, and perfect pitch. Brilliant style, reminded me of good Mornington Peninsula chardies and Chablis. Now showing gentle hints of maturity, but it’ll be good for another year or so. 94 Points.

Dog Ridge Butterfingers Chardonnay 2022 – $23 at Our Cellar. It’s not as buttery as it suggests, but it’s buttery enough for me. The oak is kept in check as well, letting the s the gorgeous fruit do most of the talking – ripe peaches and apricots, a touch of vanilla from the oak, good mid-palate weight, medium-bodied (14%), fresh and crisp, supported by a clean line of acid. McLaren Vale in a tux. 94+ points. Good drinking now, but will fill out a little more over a year or two.

Beechworth Wine Estates Chardonnay 2021 – $25 at WSD.  Chardies from this area tend to be expensive, a trend led by Giaconda. This one shares the babbling brook squeaky cleanness and minerality at a more appealing price point. 94 points.

Oakridge Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2022 – $25 at Nicks. Some struck match funk but not overdone, some citrus notes keeping the peaches in check, and roasted nuts in the background. Good depth of flavour here, and good length leading to a dry finish. 94 points. Stylish chardy for the asking price.

Isabel Estate Chardonnay 2021 – $25 – $30 at DM’s (a regular member special). Buying the winery was a smart move by Dan Murphy’s – these are quality chardies at attractive prices. They tend to start life with fairly obvious oak (which integrates over time), but this vintage has produced a more fruit-forward style, rich, ripe and seductive. A lot of Chardonnay for the money. 95 points.

Creamery Chardonnay 2021 – $25 at Our CellarMade by O’Neill Vintners, who make ripe Chardonnays from grapes grown in California – Monterey, Paso Robles and Clarksburg. It’s 100% barrel fermented, sees 100% malolactic fermentation, and spends seven months in American and French oak. It delivers what it says on the label: rich, ripe, buttery and peachy Chardonnay with a creamy texture, backed by toasty oak. The best of the Californians on this list IMHO, and the sharpest price down under. 94 points.

Kooyong Clonale Chardonnay 2022 – $26 at Barrel & Batch. This was a hot favourite a few years back when it sold for less than $20. The tightly-wound, energetic and elegant style has not changed a lot since. An seamless blend of citrus and honeysuckle, nectarines and cashews, finished with a touch of ginger. The fine acidity gives the finish a lift. 94 points

Rosily Margaret River Chardonnay 2022 – $27 at Winesquare. 2022 was a warm, dry vintage, and the wine reflects that with rich and ripe fruit, and adds seamless oak integration. A lovely rich, round mouthful. 94+ points.

Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Chardonnay 2021 – $28 at Crown Cellar. Named the No. 1 winery in New Zealand by the Real Review in 2023. Bob Campbell’s review led me to expect a Kiwi version of Chablis, but instead I found a compact, round, smooth chardy serving nectarines and melons. To my mind it lacks a fine line of acid guiding it toward its conclusion. 93 points.

Garagiste Le Stagiaire Chardonnay 2023 – $30 at Barrel & Batch. Barnaby Flanders is a pinot noir and chardonnay tragic, they tell us. He travelled the world and fell in love with the wines of Burgundy. In 2006 he founded Garagiste Wines on the Mornington Peninsula, where he makes small batch premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is Garagiste’s value leader. The fruit was  whole-bunch pressed directly to 500-litre puncheons and spent 8 months on lees to build richness. The style is fine-boned and pure, fresh and zesty, fruit-driven with citrus overtones. Oak doesn’t intrude. 94 points.

Neudorf Tiritiri Chardonnay 2022 – $32 at Nicks. From beautiful Nelson on the south island of NZ.  A faint whiff of struck matches leads to an elegant chardy of some complexity. It spent 10 months on lees with monthly battonage (stirring), then went through malolactic fermentation. Peaches, ripe apples, a squirt of grapefruit and some chalky minerals. Chalky minerals  and a creamy texture complete the picture. Subtle and elegant. Delicious chardy. 94+ points.

Scorpo Aubaine Chardonnay 2022 – $34 at The Vine Press. Aubaine is an historic Burgundian synonym for chardonnay and means amongst other things, good fortune. This a great intro to classy Mornington Penisula Chardonnay. White peaches and melons do the talking, backed by nutty oak and a touch of struck match. Good depth of flavour, and ready to drink. 94 points.

Scotchmans Hill Chardonnay Bellarine Peninsula 2021 – $35 at Winesquare. Haven’t tried this vintage but these guys have a great track record for chardies. Here’s is JH’s take: ‘Clones P58, I10V1, I10V3, I10V5, 76 and 95; whole-bunch pressed to barrel, wild-yeast fermentation, lees stirred monthly, matured in new and used French barriques for 12 months. A mouth-filling, rich and creamy palate is striking, but does allow grapefruit to make a limited appearance on the complex, satisfying finish. 95 points, Special Value.’

Merricks Estate Chardonnay 2021 – $34 at Summer Hill Wine. This wine from the Mornington Peninsula is made from 2 batches picked 10 days apart. Both went through the malolactic, and the result is a wine that offers white peaches and cashews and a rich, creamy palate yet retains its natural cool climate freshness. Purity and precision here, classic Mornington Peninsula chardy. 96 points.

Montalto Pennon Hill Chardonnay 2022 – $33.50 at Wine Square. A blend of fruit from Montalto’s Tuerong and Red Hill sites, whole bunch pressed to French oak barriques and puncheons (23% new), wild fermented and stored on lees for 9 months. It went through full malolactic fermentation. White peaches and nectarines backed by cashews from the gentle oak. More intensity and mid-palate depth then I remember from past examples; the creamy texture leads to a long, fine acid finish. A class act. 95 points.

Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay 2021 – $36 at Wine Square. Made from Tumbarumba grapes grown at 700 m above sea level by Alex McKay who prides himself on the ‘purity of regional expression and varietal definition’ of his wines. He set up Collector Wines back in 2005 and has built quite a reputation for his Chardonays. Check the story here.

This is cool climate chardy of great intensity, offering stone fruits and grapefruit, maybe a couple of struck matches too many, but I confess that the flintiness adds complexity. Oak does not intrude. Great example of the style. 95 points.

Evans & Tate Redbrook Chardonnay 2021 – $40 at the winery (Fogarty Wine Group), or $36 for club members. The 2019 won 10 gold medals at Australian shows; the 2021 won 3 trophies in Sydney 2023 including Best Wine of Show. The 2021 also topped the James Halliday Chardonnay shoot-out. I haven’t tasted the 2021 yet. The style is refined, complex and textural. Chair of judges Sarah Crowe summed it up this way: ‘Australian Chardonnays are at the top of their game, and the Evans & Tate Redbrook Estate Chardonnay is delivering the highest quality at an accessible price for this level of wine.’

Santolin Gladysdale Chardonnay 2019 – $40 at Nicks. Matured in French oak (30% new) on lees for 10 months. A textbook Yarra Valley Chardonnay made in tiny quantities. Touch of struck match here, not overdone, white stone fruits and polished oak at the centre; the creamy texture stands out, the wine crackles with energy and strikes the balance between fruit and oak to perfection. 5 years old and still fresh, a lovely wine. 96 points. 

Dappled Appellation Chardonnay 2022 – $40 at ED Cellars. Last place down under with stocks of the 2022; the 2023 is not out yet. Shaun Crinion burst on the scene a few years ago, as they say – he had been pretty quiet before James Halliday named his small operation the top new winery of the year. The story is that he went surfing in California about 20 years ago, ran out of money and ended up working for his uncle who was a winemaker over there. He caught the bug and ended up travelling the world, working in various wineries.

Shaun’s 2019 Chardonnay was a perfect example of modern Yarra Valley Chardonnay, a masterpiece of energy, tension and fine balance; he didn’t make a lot of wine in 2020, and it was gone in a flash. The 2021 was a little too uptight for my liking, but the 2022 is a riper, richer customer. The white peach fruit is gorgeous, and the oak lavish, and the wine has instant appeal. What is missing is some of that the energy and tension that made the 2019 so exciting. 94 points.   

Freycinet Chardonnay 2022 – $42 at the Wine Collective. We have to have a Tassie chardy in the line-up. I’ve seen stunning Rieslings from this winery but not their Chardonnays. Huon Hooke’s review starts with ‘a bitter orange-peel, lemon pith, cumquat and nougat range of aromas and flavours. It’s quite unusual but attractive, the palate intense and full, rounded and ample, with a distinct trace of bitterness that helps cleanse the follow-through. The tannins will help it stand up to flavoursome food. Long carry. A generous style of chardonnay, and really classy. 13.5%. 96 Points.

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2020 – $45 at Your Wines in an unbroken dozen. 10% off for our first order. This is my top Chardonnay under $50, and this is the last source I can find. The wine judges agree: at the International Wine Challenge 2022 they gave it 3 Trophies, including New Zealand’s first International Chardonnay Trophy (97 points). A touch of gun flint on the nose, there’s rich and ripe peachy fruit backed by some nutty oak and a creamy texture, all fully integrated in a medium-bodied package of perfect pitch. 97 points. Serious Bargain.

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2022 – $42 in a 6-pack at Summer Hill Wine. Cyclone Dovi did a lot of damage to the east coast of New Zealand in 2022, but Kumeu in the outskirts of Auckland but spared Kumeu River, which had another good vintage. Bob Campbell at The Real Review talks about green apple and grapefruit notes and ‘taut acidity that gives the wine a nod in the direction of Chablis.’ After reading his review, I was in no hurry to try the wine.
When I tasted it 6 months later, it was a rich, ripe, almost voluptuous Chardonnay, with white peaches doing much of the talking, backed by some complex elements that suggested storage on lees. As always, the oak is a subtle addition and the integration seamless, and the malolactic fermentation adds a touch of cream to the texture. A lovely surprise. 94 points, heading for 95.

Petaluma Picadilly Chardonnay 2022 (yellow label) – $42 at 1st Choice. (Delivery). I haven’t tried this vintage, but Huon Hooke has: ‘Light-medium yellow with a complex bouquet of toasted nuts, cashew and almond, the palate rich and complex, full flavoured yet elegantly structured, some wheaty notes and there is richness and fullness on palate that finishes right out in a very long-lingering aftertaste. Spicy oak adds extra layers without being intrusive. A faint impression of sweetness sits in the core adding an extra degree of richness. Powerful, satisfying finish. A statuesque chardonnay. 96 points.’

Dog Point Marlborough Chardonnay 2020 – $45 at Summer Hill Wine. ‘Dog Point owns New Zealand’s largest organic vineyard,’ Bob Campbell tells us. ‘It has a proven record of producing good wines in challenging vintages and superlative wines in favourable years. 2020 was such a year.’

I haven’t tried this vintage so I’ll let Bob continue: ‘Intense, mouth-watering chardonnay with lime, pineapple, oyster shell/mineral, hazelnut and subtle spicy oak flavours. A delicious high-energy wine in a rather Chablis-esque style, with purity and power. 96 points.’

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2022 – $50 at Winestar. Tom Carson has built a great reputation for his Chardonnays and Pinots Noir. I haven’t tried this vintage, but Jane Faukner from the Wine Companion has and says ‘this is an exceptional wine. A perfect amalgam of stone fruit and citrus, zest and spice, savoury oak and cedar, mouth-watering acidity and creamy lees. A delicious wine. Get it while you can. 96 Points & Special Value Star.’

Cherubino Dijon Chardonnay 2022 – $50 at Grevillea. Larry the wizard won the trophy for best white wine producer at the IWSC in London. He makes about half a dozen single vineyard Chardonnays, and this is one of them. I haven’t tried this Margaret River chardy yet but Huon Hooke has: ‘Smoky reduction and traces of butterscotch, hazelnut and nougat: latent complexity here. Refined and subtle, but also really intense and focused, with excellent line and length. A stylish, refined and understated chardonnay that promises to have a bright future. 96 points.

Domaine Naturaliste Artus Chardonnay 2021 – $52 at Summer Hill Wine. This chardy made by Bruce Dukes at Margaret River manages to unite diverse characters into an exciting wine. There’s the opulence and creamy texture that malolactic fermentation produces, backed by spicy, toasty oak. Yet it doesn’t lack a certain finesse, a touch of mineral elegance, and a fine line of acid keep it all neat and tidy. 96+ points. Will improve for a couple of years at least.

Yalumba – A Great Experience

 

Subscriber Pete L. dropped into Yalumba and got a big surprise

‘Hey Kim,

Yalumba. Yes, that ancient Barossan dinosaur. Or so I thought. We were visiting a friend up Eden Valley way and happened to be rolling past Yalumba with time to kill. Never been there but your tip on the Y Series wines piqued my interest.  Looked big and corporate – probably owned by TWE or some other faceless corporate empire run by soulless bean counters. I braced myself for well rehearsed spiels and big red wines that wanted to hurt me. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong! My good experience started with a carpark shaded by huge European deciduous trees. Very welcome in a place that can be oppressively hot in summer. Wandered up to the tasting room and was stunned by the beautifully manicured grounds – their gardeners are next level OCD. Quite obviously not farmed out to a generic grounds maintenance company. This is more like an old retired guy who does it for the love of it. Stunning. They provide you with a map of the place which identifies every tree. There’s that OCD again – that I appreciate so much.

Heading inside we were met by a woman who was quite passionate about her job. Surrounded by that classic Barossa timberwork that has a smell to it that’s hard to describe – maybe I’ll call it “The Barossa Winery Smell”. All of the chunky timber, all of the barrels, bottles, awards, history placards, etc, etc. But the real revelation was the wine. Not tired old reds trying to hurt me at all – these guys have moved with the times and we enjoyed some beautiful fresh examples. They have numerous paid-for tastings but we’re tight-arses so Kath went for the Whites Flight at $10 and I did the Samuel’s Collection cos the wines are priced nearer to what I’m likely to actually buy. Of course it was the mid-range Viognier that I wanted to try after consuming so much of the Y-series (which isn’t mentioned at the winery – I imagine that’s some sort of “made for Dan’s” kinda deal that pays the bills but they’d rather not admit to). Once the woman realised that we were into their Viognier she fired up and quickly a couple of tastings of their Virgilius top-end Viognier appeared on our table. It did not disappoint. Tasting their mid-range offering next to the Virgilius resulted in not wanting to drink the mid-range wine! So complex and opulent. Had to buy one to take home.

https://www.yalumba.com/wine-tasting

I also enjoyed their mid-range Chardy (nice light chardy but still with a bit of character), and the Grenache was also excellent – once again a lighter modern style that ticks all the boxes. She felt the need to join us up to their obligation free wine club that gives 10% discount with no strings attached. She also gave us a no-spam guarantee and actually said that the management prefer a “soft sell” approach. So refreshing! We left with a Virgilus ($45), a Grenache ($25), a Shiraz-Cab ($25) and a Chardy ($25). I’ve since found the Grenache (2021 – yesss!) at Licker-Land on special for $20, so I grabbed a handful of those. These are very decent wines at these prices even if they don’t quite make the “Under $20” mark.

I did listen to her spiel though, and was super pleased to find that Yalumba is actually still “family owned”. I nearly fell off my chair. After starting in 1853 it’s still in the same family. If only this happened more often. We’ll definitely be going back to taste their top end stuff. And do another wander around the grounds.

PL

Kumeu River Update – 2022 Chardonnays

 

‘The 2022 releases from Kumeu River are fantastic.’ Matthew Dukes

I’ve been banging the drum for Kumeu River for several years, as you know. New Zealand had 3 near perfect vintages in a row: 2019, 2020 and 2021. By contrast, 2022 was a difficult year for some regions in the wake of Cyclone Dovi and the rain it brought with it.

The cyclone sailed past Auckland, according to Michael Brajkovich, and Kumeu River had another good vintage. I bought a lot of the 2022 Kumeu Village Chardonnay, which is the best I can remember. I also bought some 2022 Estate chardy, and found it richer and riper than Bob Campbell at the Real Review did.

Matthew Dukes agrees with Bob, and says: ‘While the 2022 Estate Chardonnay is usually a forward-drinking style that brings top-class Chardy to the table at an affordable price, you must put your brakes on with this vintage. In 2022, the Estate Chardonnay maintains its keen price, and it demands a further year of slumber before you unscrew the top! It is by far and away the finest Estate Chardonnay I have tasted from this perennially appealing property.  In fact, I wrote the words ‘extraordinary gravitas’ about this oft-innocent wine.’

Image source: Real Review

Sounds like I need to go and get my tasting gear tuned up. About the Kumeu Village, Dukes says: ‘If you want to drink a 2022 right now, slip down the ladder one notch to the 2022 Village Chardonnay. This wine is joyous, open and welcoming.’

I love the distinctive style of Kumeu Chardonnay, the pristine fruit, the depth of flavour and texture (malolactic fermentation is encouraged rather than avoided), seamless oak integration, and very fair pricing given the quality of the wines.

Dukes’ top Chardonnay from Kumeu in 2022 is ‘the sublime Hunting Hill, which shows effortlessly classy fruit, unending beauty and superb control. It is the most forward of the bunch because of its silkiness and openness, and I doubt it will shut down. I have a feeling that it will do something that very few Chardonnays ever manage – to start its life fully open and maintain this full blossom of perfume and flavour until it fades in perhaps fifteen years.’

Of the Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2022, the dearest and hardest wine to get hold of, Dukes says: ‘It is blunt, structured, four-square and belligerent, and it will perhaps take a decade for this wine to reach its apogee. There is no doubt that 2022 Maté’s will be part of endless 2022 Chardonnay line-ups (alongside star Burgundies) in years to come.’

The Hunting Hill and the Mate’s chardies are way above our self-imposed limit, but white Burgundies of equal calibre cost several times more. Edinburgh Cellars in Adelaide still have some Kumeu Village chardy left at $22.50 for a 6-pack.

A glass of Red, some Dark Chocolate, and a Good Story

 

The World at War

As the year 2023 draws to a close, the world is at war in so many places. Our world is also more deeply divided than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Not just in the USA, where opposing forces seem to occupy different planets, but also in Europe where populist politicians are fanning the old flames of hatred.

Refugees from many war zones are the hapless subjects too often, and always seem to make ready scapegoats. Rational, civil discourse has become a rare experience. Instead we get insults, rants and diatribes, wedges pushed into soft underbellies where fear doubt and uncertainty live, missiles from hefty armories hurled across the trenches of deep divisions.

Civil Discussion – Innocent Victim

Brian M., one of our long term subscribers summed it up this way:

‘Civil discussion was an early victim of global warming. Later victims were LGBTQ+, The Voice, The Middle East and others.

These subjects can no longer be discussed rationally among friends, without polarity, emotion, umbrage, and even anger endangering the friendships.

So, important matters are simply not raised, among people who like and respect each other. We retreat to trivia and small talk.

A few public voices fist it out in the media, and politicians vacillate, but we stay quiet.

This is not how it should be.

If something can’t be discussed or criticised, it can’t be valued.’

I think it’s going to take a lot of hard work to restore civil debate as the norm.

Wine as a Retreat

A few subscribers have politely suggested that I should stick to the subject of wine and food. We used to have civil discussions over scrumptious dinners and seductive wines. These days we discuss the wine and food, because it’s safer. And travel and other stuff that’s harmless.

I write about wine and food most of the time but this website is a free speech zone. We launched Muscles & Marbles late in 2023, a resource for boomers who want to stay fit and health; boomers who want to stay out of hospitals and nursing homes.

It’s a place where we share the latest research on health, and blow up many of the entrenched medical myths that have turned this once great sporting nation into one of the world’s fattest and sickest.

Here’s a brief but poignant example of the vital research we share: ‘Can Too Much Information Harm Patients?’ an excerpt from Scientific American, written by cardiologist Eric Topol.

And here’s a post on the dangers and benefits of drinking red wine: Red Wine: Cluster Bomb or Fountain of Youth?

Stories as a Retreat

Great novels can be a great comfort, but our personal likes and dislikes come into play here. Good stories with universal appeal are hard to find. Tracey found several: ‘Horse’ by Geraldine Brooks, whose husband died while she was writing that book.

‘Horwitz’s sudden death three years ago,’ writes Susan Wyndham in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘opened an abyss from which Brooks had to crawl to finish ‘Horse’, a novel infused with love, loss and shared history.’

Tracey also loved ‘All the Light we cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr. A very big story in very small print put me off despite the quality of the writing and the Pulitzer Prize. Needs plenty of time and a love of detail to appreciate.

I loved Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, one of the most original stories I’ve read in many years. What a wonderful imagination this writer has!

Back to Basics

The good news is that we still find lots of great wines between $10 and $20, and on either side of that narrow range.

There was the Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2022 for $21. Sadly it’s all gone, and the 2023 is a much leaner style of wine.

The Dog Ridge Butterfingers Chardonnay 2022 is still available for $21. It only took 6 months for the rich, ripe fruit to come to rise to the top of this little gem.

A late discovery is the Deep Woods Chardonnay 2022 from Margaret River that’s just $15 at 1st Choice and Vintage Cellars. Rich and ripe with good depth and fine texture. Absolute bargain.

The Rosily Semillon / Sauvignon Blanc 2023 was a stand-out at $23 (from Winesquare)

The 2022 Rieslings from Clare were among the best I’ve seen in 50 years of my love affair with Riesling.

The Robert Oatley Signature range, still $17 at Our Cellar if you’re quick. They’re all great value, with the GSM and Shiraz leading the charge.

 Jim Barry ‘Barry & Sons’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 was the red bargain of the year for me at $17 (1st Choice), alongside the Hidden Label Coonawarra Cabernets 2020 and 2019 from Kemenys, for the same money (Leconfield Cabernets in a plain wrapper)

2021 Grenache reds from Yalumba and Peter Lehmann (both around $20) showed 2 things: what a great vintage 2021 was in South Australia, and what a dumb idea the South Australian vine-pull scheme of the 1980s was (with low-yielding old Grenache vines the biggest victims).

Further down the price scale we found bargain such as Deep Woods Ebony Cabernet Shiraz 2020 for $11 at 1st Choice, and the Hidden Label Frankland River Tempranillo 2021 for $13 at Kemenys.

That’s enough for now

May 2024 bring more peace and more enlightenment to the world around us.

Best Bubbles For the Festive Season 2023

 

As we do every year, we carve an easy path through the jungle of bubbles on offer, and sort out the good from the mediocre.

It’s just a few weeks to Christmas, so we should be sorting out the wines we’ll need and want for the break. It’s best done ahead of time, before the good wines and the bargains disappear. Before we pick suitable wines for the festivities, we need to know what foods are likely to grace the table or the barbeque or the picnic. Or all 3.
In our multi-cultural country, I assume that foods will be diverse and Christmas turkeys in the minority. Seafood seems to have moved to the top of many shopping lists over recent years, and there’ll be colourful salads from all corners of the globe.
We have no idea what the weather is going to do, since we won’t see reliable forecasts until a few days before the feast. It will pay to be prepared, so that we can react quickly. The best plan is the put together a variety of wines to suit different tastes and circumstances.
Matching champagne with food is less difficult than you might think, once we accept ‘contrast matching’. Sure, the finest bubbles go well with delicate seafood, but the acidity of sparkling whites cuts through the richness of many dishes including Asian favourites. And sparkling rosé can be good with pink meats such as duck or lamb.
It may be a good idea to lean toward the lighter styles of wine, given that we’ll most likely end up drinking more than usual over the holidays. Anyhow, I’ve put together a list with emphasis on variety, and added some special wines for the festive season.

Some Holliday Reading: Is Champagne really better than the best Aussie bubbles?  Our winemakers have been busting a gut for decades to produce a bubbly that could challenge the French icons. Have they succeeded?

More Holiday Reading: A Compact Guide to the World of Champagne It’s a world that’s far away from the humble wines we tend to focus on, but there are special occasions when we buy champagne.

Holiday Tucker: Mediterranean Baked Chicken Dinner, courtesy of Recipe Tin Eats.

BEST VALUE SPARKLING WINES

Wolf Blass Red Label Chardonnay Pinot Noir Premium Cuvee NV – $7 in a twin pack at 1st Choice A clever blend that is surprisingly drinkable; crisp, lively, soft and well balanced. This was bubbles champ Tyson Stelzer’s Sparkling Wine of the Year under $20 in recent years. Check his review at the link. I don’t think it’s quite that good, but at this price you can splash it around with gay abandon. 89 points.

Codorniu Clasico 1872 Cava – $8 at DM’s (member offer). An impressive Spanish take on a cheap bubbly, from a maker that was established 5 centuries ago.

Fleur De Lys Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV – $10 at DM’s. Haven’t tried this Wwine for a while, but the punters love it, and reckon it’s better than Freixinet from Spain, another value option.

Villa Conchi Brut Selection Cava – $15 at DM’s. The Crement de Loire brands DM’s used to sell for $15 are now $20 or more, but the Spaniards are more reasonable. This is a sleeper, fresh and crisp and stylish.

Santa Margherita Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene – $16 at Dan M’s (member special – today) A great  Prosecco for the money, and I have no idea why they’re cutting the price. It’s perfectly balanced and not too sweet at 9 grams of sugar. Great mousse, fresh & zippy, perfect spritz for summer lunches. 93 points.

Jacob’s Creek Prosecco Spritz – $17 at Our Cellar. Prosecco infused with blood orange, botanicals and a twist of bitters. These additions sure lift the flavour and add interest, while the package makes a statement of its own. It’s a very smart blend that would please large crowds and irregular wine drinkers. 92 points

Petaluma Croser Sparkling Nv – $18 at Winedirect. 6 bottles minimum; the usual strong-arm tactics at this sight. Lots of reviews form James H here. It’s rich and full-flavoured, and goes well with food. 93 points.

Cave de Lugne Cremant Blanc de Blancs NV – $19 at 1st Choice. Made by a long-established co-op in Burgundy. Cremant styles have fewer bubbles. 100% Chardonnay. Hints of lemon and flowers on the nose, crisp, creamy and round, biscuity characters add interest. 92 points.

Brown Brothers Premier Cuvee NV – $20 at WSD. It’s made from King Valley grapes these days, but the style hasn’t changed much. It’s always been an understated bubbly, a harmonious blend with no rough edges, the kind of wine that doesn’t make a splash but by the second glass it makes you think: hey, this is a pretty decent bubbly. 94 points.

Sidewood Estate Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV – $20 at MyCellars, where the freight is free for subscribers (BWU20). Plenty of bling adorning this bubbly, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fine bead, some citrus notes on the nose and a whiff of warm bread. Lively on the palate, and textural from the malolactic fermentation plus time spent on tirage lees. Fine acid line to the finish. 94 points.

Taltarni Sparkling Brut 2017 – $21 at WSD. A 6-year-old vintage bubbly that’s spent 3 years on lees at this price is unheard of. I haven’t tried this vintage but past vintages have been complex wines, elegant and crisp, with a creamy texture from malolactic fermentation.

Bouvet Saphir Brut 2020 – $24 at Nicks. Cremant de Loire made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Outside of Champagne, Bouvet is the most awarded Sparkling Wine House in France. After years of ownership by Taittinger, the Monmousseau family bought back the farm. Check Nick’s’ review at the link. 94 points.

Pink & Red

Mezzacorona Mezza di Rose NV$19 at Vintage Cellars. La Dolce Vita in a Bottle – truly seductive. I can see this being a big hit at weddings, and at Christmas lunches on a hot day . From the foothills of the Dolomites in northern Italy.  93 points. 

Ninth Island Sparkling Rosé NV – $21 at DM’s (member offer). You’d have to spend a lot more to find a better bottle of pink bubbles. Huon Hooke agrees: ‘Pale, beautiful salmon-pink hue; the aromas fresh and attractive with strawberry and red-fruit scents. The palate is rich and fruity, with balanced sweetness and a trace of grip. Icing sugar; almond icing. Lovely wine with poise and grace.’

Seppelt Original Sparkling Shiraz NV – $16 at Dan M’s (member offer). Plums, cherries, Christmas spices and pepper in a vibrant, creamy envelope. 94 Points. No serious competition. at this price.

The Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz – $17 at 1st Choice. Mc:aren Vale Shiraz at its best. Sumptuous, seductive, irresistible, helped by a touch of sweetness. Christmas pudding in a bottle. 94 points

OVER $25

Pirie Sparkling NV – $28 at MyCellars where the freight is free for subscribers on any quantity (promo code BWU20). This has long been a favourite of ours, and it’sin such a classy package. Check the raves at the link.

Georg Jensen Hallmark Cuvee NV – $28 at First Choice. Gorgeous, elegant bottle with a GJ designed reusable metal stopper that sits on a crown seal – great gift idea. The wine is made by Heemskerk in Tassie, and is cool-climate elegant, fresh and crisp with a twist of grapefruit, but it’s not about the wine here. 94 points.
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Chandon Vintage Blanc De Blancs 2016 – $35 at WSD. This wine is in a distinctly better class than the standard NV, and worth the extra money. Largely estate-grown fruit from Whitlands, Strathbogie, and the Upper Yarra. 42 months on lees adds substance; cool climate chardonnay with grapefruit overtones is the main theme here, played with precision. 95 points.

Cloudy Bay Pelorus – $38 at WSD. Bob Campbell tells us that this label is now part of the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group,  and adds that Cloudy Bay’s stable-mates include Moët & Chandon, Krug  and Veuve Clicquot. It’s a safe bet to assume that Marlborough-based Cloudy Bay gets some technical help from Champagne producers in the group. The sophistication of this wine certainly suggests it.’
Oh really? Hopefully not from Moet, makers of oceans of Bubbles Ordinaire. The quality is there, though, that’s why I’ve championed this bubbly for a decade. This remains a very good glass of bubbles, and about the last of the top Kiwis now that the Deutz Marlborough wines have disappeared from our shores. 95 points

Charles de Cazanove Tradition Brut NV – $38 at 1st Choice. This is a bargain if you like the softer style of champagne. It surprised me when a friend gave me a bottle. Bob Campbell agrees: ‘Light, aromatic, floral Champagne, with subtle bread and brioche characters. Attractive wine with an ethereal texture and a fine thread of mouth-watering acidity. An appealing Champagne offering value at this price. 94 points.’ 

Nino Franco ‘Rustico’ Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG – $40 at ilikewine. From Veneto, which is home to Valpolicella and Soave, comes a powerful Prosecco. It opened all zippy and fresh, but filled out over two days. There’s a fine balance between pears, honeysuckle and lemons on one hand and almond meal and herbs & spices on the other. The texture and tight finish add a touch of authority. Really enjoyablewine, and easily paired with finger foods. 96 points. BUY.  

Jacquart NV Brut Mosaïque – $60 at Cloudwine, or $50 at Winestar in a 3-pack. Some champagnes are shy, fragile creatures, built like fashion models. Others are heavy with oak and flexed muscles. This is one of those champagnes that hits all the right notes, from the first sip to the last. It’s pitch-perfect in a way that reminds me of Boccherini’s minuet, because its mellow notes will please large crowds. It’s rich, soft and generous, dry but not lean, and a joy to drink. It’s big (13%) yet doesn’t lack finesse, and it would make a great match with the right foods. 95 points.

Devaux Cuvee D Brut NV – $75 at Kemenys. This is a new one for me, but Huon Hooke loves it: ‘Straw and toasty aged characters; meringue and cream-slathered pavlova-base. Fluffy texture; soft as a pillow and rounded, filling the upper reaches of the mouth. Very rich. Concentration and power. Has plenty of liqueur which adds to its immediate charm, and broadens its market appeal. Still, lovely balance, style and character. 96 points.’

Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut NV – $84 at Kemenys. One of the best NVs around, and a personal favourite, but now selling for $100 most places. It was less than $80 not long ago.
Huon Hooke says it’s the wine he’s most likely to buy when looking for a good NV. Bob Campbell says: ‘Absolutely delicious wine with roasted apple, brioche and nutty flavours. Beautifully integrated and wonderfully harmonious wine with an intriguing array of subtle flavours supported by perfect acidity. 95 points.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV – $95 at Nicks. This is the champagne I’d buy if I had a $100 budget. It has depth of flavour and layers of complexity that you don’t often see until you get higher up the price scale. No wonder this wine is known as the poor man’s Krug. 97 points.

INTERESTING STUFF

Deep Dive: Searching for the Best Sparkling in Tasmania, by Young Gun of Wine

Cheat Sheet for champagne jargon, by yours truly.  Fancy words to bamboozle your friends and impress your enemies with over the holiday break

2023 YGOW Awards Feature: Sparkling has Come of Age. A bit of fascinating history, and some brand new bubbles

The Rough Guide to Cellaring Wine in a Hot Climate – A Survival Guide for Apartment Dwellers

 

You love fine wine, but you don’t love drinking 2-year old reds. So you want to start collecting some of the best wines until they mellow enough to enjoy. What you don’t have is an underground cellar. And you don’t have access to a double brick garage that you don’t need for your car. You don’t even have a house – you live in a second-floor apartment. Global warming isn’t helping either.

The obvious next step is to hire a vault at Kennards or Cellarit or the Wine Ark, where the temperature and humidity are perfect, and the only lights are LEDs.Perfect. Just one problem: 2 little boys have muscled into your lives, and they’re ripping big chunks out of your budget. So is your mortgage, which has grown even faster than the kids. So the perfect storage option may have to wait for a time.

You’ve read what the experts say: a constant temperature is essential, ideally between 14 – 18 degrees. That’s nonsense as you’ll find out. Yes, there are ways to store wine in your apartment, without serious risk of spoilage. Read on.

Wine Cabinets

These combine high cost of storage with reliance on – and the cost of – electricity to maintain a constant temperature. The 170 bottle Vintec cabinet pictured costs about $4000, so the cost per bottle is about $24 plus electricity. This gives you temperature-controlled storage for 14 dozen bottles of wine. By the time you add 1 or 2 more of these, cost will be an issue, along with space. And if you live in an area that suffers black-outs in summer, this is not a no-risk option.

The advice that wine needs to be stored at a constant temperature all year round turns out to be nonsense, as I’ve outlined in this post: Cellaring Wine in a Hot Climate – Over 4 Decades of Hard-Won Wisdom. Far more important is a buffer against sudden changes in temperature such as a cold southerly blasting through the house after a hot spell. The most important thing is making sure that the temperature changes are gradual from day to day and season to season.

That means looking for suitable storage places. The obvious ones to avoid are kitchens and laundries with appliances that put out heat. When I lived in a second floor apartment in Mosman, I used a huge cupboard in the hallway in the centre of the place for wine storage. More wine went under the beds in the second bedroom. I kept the wine in cardboard boxes, and stored almost 50 dozen that way.

Ticking the Right Boxes

In an apartment it makes sense to use the coolest room. You can use cheap foam or other insulation or a heavy blind to cover any windows, and you can store your wine in solid boxes that provide surprisingly effective insulation. With most wines now bottled under screwcaps, humidity is no longer a concern for wine storage but can still affect your labels, so bear that in mind. Screwcaps also mean that you no longer need to store bottles lying on their sides, which gives you more storage options.

In the last few years, wine companies have taken to shipping wine in boxes that hold 6 bottles. As a result, most wineries and wine merchants now ship 6-pack boxes, and the empty ones are stacked up near the checkouts at retailers like Dan M’s and 1st Choice. There are crappy boxes and there are luxury boxes, so you need to be picky with the ones you use. Here are 3 of the best:

boxesThe top prize goes to the Casella box on the left / below. The thick cardboard is clearly designed for serious insulation during shipping. The downside is that this makes the box much bigger than others, so it will take up more storage space.

Second prize goes to the Grant Burge box (middle), a luxurious red package designed for their upmarket wines. This is a strong box made of quality cardboard, and it’s a standard size except for the length designed for those extra tall bottles. That means it also fits Riesling bottles as you can see. Very nice.

The third box is the standard 6-pack box with those soft cardboard inserts for bottles. They’re quite effective too, but vary in quality so you need to be picky. Go for the sturdy, thick ones. The boxes also come in different sizes, of course.

Wine Vaults

For a lock-up that you manage yourself at Kennards, the cost is $127 a month for a 25 case Mini Cellar. And it’s just under $400 a month for a 100 case ‘Jumbo Cellar’. That’s $1500 and $4800 per annum respectively, which is a big chunk out of your wine budget; and the facility is nowhere near as convenient as having the wine you want at hand.

Managed facilities, where the warehouse people look after your wine, catalogue it and accept deliveries from your wine merchant are much dearer again but still don’t address the tyranny of distance. Perhaps the best option is to hire a small vault for your most precious wines, and keep the rest at home.

Final thoughts

For most of us, storing wine involves compromises but I trust that this piece has added some practical footnotes to the rules for cellaring wine, which experts tend to hand down like God did the ten commandments. Clearly, if you live in Brisbane or Perth and further north, you may need more than well-insulated cardboard boxes. In really hot areas, you might want to use a combination of arrangements ranging from air-conditioning to storing some of your wine at a friend’s house or a temperature-controlled lock-up.

Whatever combination you choose, do the numbers carefully. If you’re collecting Grange, the storage cost per bottle is insignificant. If you’re collecting $20 wines, it’s a very different value proposition.

Kim

Best Chardonnays in Australia 2023 – September Update

 

This is Part 5 of a series we started 3 years ago, and update every 6 months. Part 6 is the latest update – April 2024

For a broader background, you can read Part 4 HERE, Part 3 HERE, Part 2 HERE, and Part 1 HERE.

It’s a great list now, and I don’t know of any other list that features frequently updated reviews of Chardonnays at the best prices

SHORT INTRO

The peachy, buttery chardies of old seem to be making a comeback, which is promising. We’ve always liked the rich old style chardies, the ones the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement turned its back on, with all the young Turk winemakers producing grapefruit cocktails with struck match overtones, and barely reaching 13% alcohol. Malolactic fermentation, which gives chardies their creamy texture, is out or minimal, crunchy acid and grapefruit are in. What’s wrong with having a choice of both styles, and one in between?

Why is there a debate at all, when there’s a market for different styles. Wine snobs telling us what we should like? Sure, some of the cheap chardies from the turn of the millennium were caricatures of the real thing, but the swing to lean and mean went over the top and punters got really confused. That’s how Sauvignon Blanc become a popular refuge for them.

Australia is a big country, with room for every style of wine, so let’s take full advantage of that. I’ve had Tyrrell’s chardies in recent years that were trying really hard to look like cool climate wines. Even the old Scarborough label went that way in recent years … why don’t our winemakers use the natural assets of our vast terroir, and get their heads around the big market for old style chardies? You wouldn’t believe how many requests I get from my subscribers for good wines of this style.

So we’ve included a few mow in this update, but be warned: they’re a mixed bag.

Fat Bastard Chardonnay 2019 – $14 at Nicks. A winner with the punters for sure – it’s the best-selling chardy at Nicks for the last 5 years, they tell us. Not surprising since the charms are pretty obvious here, too much so for me, and the caramel oak is laid on too thick, but who am I to blow against the wind? A bit sweet for my liking too, so be warned: not everything that’s popular is good. 93 points from the guys at Nicks. 88 from me.

Deep Woods Estate Chardonnay 2022 – $16 at Vintage Cellars. Stone fruits and grilled nuts, a soft rendition of Margaret River chardy from a winery that‘s built quite a reputation for its chardies. It’s one of those wines that sneaks up on you, softly, softly – you look at the empty glass and wonder where it went. Good value. 93 points.

Robert Mondavi Buttery Chardonnay 2021 – $18 at WSD. It’s good to see that some wineries have listened to the people and decided to produce this style loved by so many of us. This example is a touch obvious in the execution, mind you. Blunt even. The butter is spread a bit too thick, as is the vanilla custard, and the oak reminds me of a 4 x 2.

OK, I’m being picky here – the wine costs $20, and the elements will most likely integrate some more with another year or two in the cellar. In the meantime, make sure to drink it with rich food such as baked mac and cheese or Chicken Stroganoff. 91+ points.

Mondavi Bourban Barrel Aged Chardonnay 2021 – $19 at WSD. Buttery and peachy with some toasty vanilla oak. A touch more subtle than the Buttery version, but still rich and ripe, peachy and full-bodied. Hints of butterscotch and toasty vanillin oak. The creamy texture adds to the wine’s appeal. Drink over the next 2-3 years. 93 points.

Wickhams Road Gippsland Chardonnay 2022   – $19 at WSD. A much more subtle style of chardy. It’s a little riper and richer than usual after a warm vintage, even a touch creamy, but still Chablis in style. 93 points.

Petaluma Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2022 – $20 at Wine Sellers Direct. Modern style, clean, fresh and energetic. White stone fruits and a squirt of grapefruit dominate, with oak taking a back seat. Soft and silky in the mouth; good length and fine balance, no struck match nonsense. Drink over the next couple of years. 93 points. 

Pedestal Margaret River Chardonnay 2022 – $20 at Nicks.  One of Larry Cherubino’s many labels. It shows the finesse Larry brings to all his wines, along with stone fruits, gentle oak and hints of struck matches. Medium-bodied but full flavoured, with great line and length. 94 points.

Dog Ridge Butterfingers Chardonnay 2021 – $20 at Our Cellar. This wine doesn’t fulfill the promise on its label, which talks about a big, bold Chardonnay style. And the reviews I checked suggest a peachy, oaky wine dripping with butter; the reality is quite different.

Butter and oak are quite subdued, and it is the lovely fruit that’s doing most of the talking – white peaches and apricots, a touch of vanilla from the oak, good mid-palate weight, medium-bodied (14%), fresh and crisp, supported by a clean line of acid. 94+ points. Good drinking now, but should fill out a little more over a year or two.

Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2022 -$23 at Different Drop. A pristine, fresh, energetic chardy form this great winery, up there with the Estate in terms of quality, at half the price. Seriously. classy, stylish and elegant, it glides across the tongue with a gentle touch, offering white peaches and cashews. Oak takes a backseat. You get a lot of polish for your money here, and perfect pitch. Brilliant style, reminded me of good Mornington Peninsula chardies and Chablis. Now showing the slightest hints of maturity, but it’ll be good for another year or so. 94 Points.

Beechworth Wine Estates Chardonnay 2021 – $25 at WSD.  Chardies from this area tend to be expensive, a trend led by Giaconda. This one shares the babbling brook squeaky cleanness and minerality at a more appealing price point. 94 points.

Oakridge Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2022 – $25 at Nicks. Some struck match funk but not overdone, some citrus notes keeping the peaches in check, and roasted nuts in the background. Good depth of flavour here, and good length leading to a dry finish. 94 points. Stylish chardy for the asking price.

Isabel Estate Chardonnay 2021 – $25 – $30 at DM’s (a regular member special). Buying the winery was a smart move by Dan Murphy’s – these are quality chardies at attractive prices. They tend to start life with fairly obvious oak (which integrates over time), but this vintage has produced a more fruit-forward style, rich, ripe and seductive. 95 points.

Creamery Chardonnay 2020 – $25 at Our CellarMade by O’Neill Vintners, who make ripe Chardonnays from grapes grown in California – Monterey, Paso Robles and Clarksburg. It’s 100% barrel fermented, 100% malolactic fermentation, and spends seven months in American and French oak. It’s good, rich drinking now,without going OTT, and will fill out with another year or so; I wouldn’t keep it much beyond that. 94 points.

Rosily Margaret River Chardonnay 2022 – $27 at Winesquare. 2022 was a warm, dry vintage, and the wine reflects that with richer and riper fruit, with oak to match. A lovely rich, round mouthful. 94+ points.

Kooyong Clonale Chardonnay – $29 at Auscellardoor or $28 at Jim’s. This was a hot favourite a few years back when it sold for less than $20. The tightly-wound, energetic and elegant style has not changed a lot since, but the price sure has. 95 points

Garagiste Le Stagiaire Chardonnay 2022 – $30 at Nicks. Barnaby Flanders is a pinot noir and chardonnay tragic, they tell us. He travelled the world and fell in love with the wines of Burgundy. In 2006 he founded Garagiste Wines on the Mornington Peninsula, where he makes small batch premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is Garagiste’s value leader. The fruit was  whole-bunch pressed directly to 500-litre puncheons and spent 8 months on lees to build richness. The style is fine-boned and pure, fresh and zesty, fruit-driven with citrus overtones. Oak doesn’t play and obvious role. 93 points.

Neudorf Tiritiri Chardonnay 2020 – $30 at Winesquare. From Nelson on the south island of NZ, from a top vintage.  A faint whiff of struck matches leads to an elegant chardy of some complexity. It spent 10 months on lees with monthly battonage (stirring), then went through malolactic fermentation. Peaches, ripe apples, a squirt of grapefruit and a pinch of gravel dust. Chalky texture and a fine line of acid complete the picture. Subtle and elegant. Delicious chardy, 3 years old but has more in the tank. 94+ points.

Craggy Range Kidnapper’s Chardonnay 2021 – $30 at Our Cellar. Named the No. 1 winery in New Zealand by the Real Review in 2023. Bob Campbell’s review led me to expect a Kiwi version of Chablis, but instead I found a compact, round, smooth chardy serving nectarines and melons that lacks a fine line of acid guiding it toward its conclusion. It fell a bit short as a result. 93 points.

Scorpo Aubaine Chardonnay 2022 – $31 at The Vine Press. Aubaine is an historic Burgundian synonym for chardonnay and means amongst other things, good fortune. This a great intro to classy Mornington Penisula Chardonnay. White peaches and melons do the talking, backed by nutty oak and a touch of struck match. Good depth of flavour, and ready to drink. 94 points.

Scotchmans Hill Chardonnay Bellarine Peninsula 2021 – $32.50 at Winesquare. Haven’t tried this vintage but these guys have a great track record for chardies. Here’s is JH’s take: ‘Clones P58, I10V1, I10V3, I10V5, 76 and 95; whole-bunch pressed to barrel, wild-yeast fermentation, lees stirred monthly, matured in new and used French barriques for 12 months. A mouth-filling, rich and creamy palate is striking, but does allow grapefruit to make a limited appearance on the complex, satisfying finish. 95 points, Special Value.’

Tarrawarra Estate South Block Chardonnay 2021 – $33 at Nick’s. A departure from the usual Dresden China style this vintage. Nick’s review at the link is spot on. 96 points.

Merricks Estate Chardonnay 2021 – $34 at Summer Hill Wine. This wine from the Mornington Peninsula is made from 2 batches picked 10 days apart. Both went through the malolactic, and the result is a wine that offers white peaches and cashews and a rich, creamy palate yet retains its natural cool climate freshness. Purity and precision here, classic Mornington Peninsula chardy. 96 points.

Dappled Appellation Chardonnay 2022$35 at Nicks. Shaun Crinion burst on the scene a couple of years ago, as they say – he had been pretty quiet before James Halliday discovered him and named his small operation the top new winery of the year. The story is that he went surfing in California about 20 years ago, ran out of money and ended up working for his uncle who was a winemaker over there. He caught the bug and ended up travelling the world, working in various wineries.

Shaun’s 2019 Chardonnay was a perfect example of modern Yarra Valley Chardonnay, a masterpiece of energy and tension; he didn’t make a lot of wine in 2020, and it was gone in a flash. The 2021 was a little too uptight for my liking, but the 2022 is a riper, richer customer. The white peach fruit is gorgeous, and the oak lavish, and the wine has instant appeal. What is missing is the energy and tension that made the 2019 so exciting. 94 points.   

Montalto Pennon Hill Chardonnay 2022 – $33.50 at Wine Square. A blend of fruit from Montalto’s Tuerong and Red Hill sites, whole bunch pressed to French oak barriques and puncheons (23% new), wild fermented and stored on lees for 9 months. It went through full malolactic fermentation. White peaches and nectarines backed by cashews from the gentle oak. More intensity and mid-palate depth then I remember from past examples; the creamy texture leads to a long, fine acid finish. A class act. 95 points.

Evans & Tate Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 – $35 at the winery (Fogarty Wine Group), or $31 if you become a member. I don’t know this wine, which has won 10 gold medals at Australian shows to date. Tony Jordan calls it ‘a deceptively epic wine—deceptive in that it is around cheap for quality Chardonnay, and yet provides a drinking experience far beyond its price point. This is complex, textural and concentrated, with layers of exotic spice, grilled peach and preserved lemon, all of it laced together with briney acidity. It is awesome.’

After that review, I expected a higher point score than 94.

Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay 2021 – $37 at MyCellars, where the freight is free for subscribers to Best Wines on any quantity (promo code BWU20) . Made from Tumbarumba grapes grown at 700 m above sea level by Alex McKay who prides himself on the ‘purity of regional expression and varietal definition’ of his wines. He set up Collector Wines back in 2005 and has built quite a reputation for his Chardonays. Check the story here.

This is cool climate chardy of great intensity, offering stone fruits and grapefruit, maybe a couple of struck matches too many, but the flintiness adds complexity. Oak does not intrude. Great example of the style. 95 points.

Freycinet Chardonnay 2020 – $40 at Winestar. We have to have a Tassie chardy in the line-up. I’ve seen stunning Rieslings from this winery but not their Chardonnays. Huon Hooke’s review starts with ‘a bitter orange-peel, lemon pith, cumquat and nougat range of aromas and flavours. It’s quite unusual but attractive, the palate intense and full, rounded and ample, with a distinct trace of bitterness that helps cleanse the follow-through. The tannins will help it stand up to flavoursome food. Long carry. A generous style of chardonnay, and really classy. 13.5%. 96 Points.

Santolin Gladysdale Chardonnay 2019 – $40 at Nicks. Matured in French oak (30% new) on lees for 10 months. A textbook Yarra Valley Chardonnay made in tiny quantities. Touch of burnt match here, not overdone, white stone fruits and polished oak at the centre, the creamy texture stands out, the wine crackles with energy, and strikes the balance between fruit and oak to perfection. 4 years old and still fresh, a lovely wine. 96 points. 

Dog Point Marlborough Chardonnay 2020 – $42 at Summer Hill Wine. ‘Dog Point owns New Zealand’s largest organic vineyard,’ Bob Campbell tells us. ‘It has a proven record of producing good wines in challenging vintages and superlative wines in favourable years. 2020 was such a year.’

I haven’t tried this vintage so I’ll let Bob continue: ‘Intense, mouth-watering chardonnay with lime, pineapple, oyster shell/mineral, hazelnut and subtle spicy oak flavours. A delicious high-energy wine in a rather Chablis-esque style, with purity and power. 96 points.

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2020 – $42 at Winesquare. For once, the judges git it right. International Wine Challenge 2022 – 3 Trophies, including New Zealand’s first International Chardonnay Trophy (97 points). What a great chardy, touch of gunflint, rich and ripe peachy fruit backed by some nutty oak, followed by a creamy palate, all fully integrated in a medium-bodied package of perfect pitch. 97 points.

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2021 – $43 at Kemenys. This wine didn’t grab me like the 2020 did, but Gary Walsh at The Wine Front gives it a great rap: ‘So graceful and composed, and lovely to drink. White peach, pink grapefruit, almond and spiced biscuit, subtle mint/cucumber and floral perfume. It’s glossy and silky in texture, but bright and fresh, with a twist of lemon zest and green olive, a subtle flinty texture, and a long cool finish. Light and breezy too, delicate even, though not without flavour and intensity. 94 points.’ I expected a higher score after that amount of poetry.

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2022 – $45 at World Wine. Tom Carson has built a great reputation for his Chardonnays and Pinots Noir. I haven’t tried this vintage, but Jane Faukner from the Wine Companion has and says ‘this is an exceptional wine. A perfect amalgam of stone fruit and citrus, zest and spice, savoury oak and cedar, mouth-watering acidity and creamy lees. A delicious wine. Get it while you can. 96 Points & Special Value Star.

Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2022 – $50 at MyCellars where the freight is free for subscribers. The M3 is textbook modern Aus chardy. It almost crackles with electricity, there’s so much intensity. Power and finesse sit side by side, with a hint of citrus and a touch of cream in the texture; a faint whiff of struck matches as well. Everything fits neatly together already but will be better with a couple more years under its belt. 95+ points. The price keep srising so it’s no longer the same value it once was.

Domaine Naturaliste Artus Chardonnay 2021 – $52 at Summer Hill Wine. This chardy made by Bruce Dukes at Margaret River manages to unite diverse characters into an exciting wine. There’s the opulence and creamy texture that malolactic fermentation produces, backed by spicy, toasty oak. Yet it doesn’t lack a certain finesse, a touch of mineral elegance, and a fine line of acid keep it all neat and tidy. 96+ points. Will improve for a couple of years at least.

David O’Leary & Nick Walker – 100 Years of Winemaking

 

Barbarians and Real Champs

David O’Leary is most likely the best winemaker in Australia you’ve never heard of. He has worked with many great winemakers such as Brian Barry, Mick Knappstein, John Vickery, Bryan Dolan, Jeff Merrill, Brian Croser, Tony Jordan, Chris Hatcher, Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer who won all those Jimmy Watson trophies for his master.

At the turn of the millennium, David and Nick Walker joined forces and set up their own wine company – O’Leary Walker.

They had been good friends ever since they met at Roseworthy in the mid-seventies.  Between them, David tells me, they have 93 vitages under their belts.

Both worked for several big wine companies, winning some 300 gold medals and 60 trophies for them. It was time to stand out on their own.

The Clare Valley is famous for its Rieslings, which overshadow the great reds made in the area. At my age, I’m reluctant to buy green bananas, let along reds that will hit their drinking sweet spot a decade from now. I made an exception when I tasted a red last year that showed just how underrated Clare reds have been: O’Leary Walker Polish Hill River Armagh Shiraz 2018.

2018 was a warm, low yielding vintage that produced rich, ripe reds of great power.  The fruit came from Polish Hill River and Armagh just north of Clare, and David took full advantage of its quality, storing the wine in French oak (25% new) for 2 years. The result is a perfect Clare red that sold for pennies – $20 a bottle.

That’s the genius of David O’Leary: making stunning reds we can afford. Penfolds would charge $100 for a wine of this caliber. It scored 97 points with several reviewers, which is a close to perfect score.

A Wild Time

When I talked with David, he mentioned that he’d been working nightshift during the last few weeks. Years ago, winemakers learnt that the fruit was in better condition when harvested in the cool of the night, but it had to be crushed and processed straight away – therefore the nightshift.

‘Don’t you get tired of working nightshift?’ I asked him, ‘and don’t you have young guys on your team to do that?’

‘Yes we do,’ he answered, ‘but they’re still learning so Nick and I are there to support them.’ He chuckled. ‘Anyway, I quite enjoy nightshift. Had some lunch today, then a quick snooze, and I’m ready to go again.’

David must be on the wrong side of sixty, so you’ve got to admire his energy, and his enthusiasm. He lived through a tumultuous time in Australia’s wine industry: a time when corporate Apex predators ruled the land, gobbling up everything in their way, and sometimes each other.

The story begins with Walter Reynell & Sons falling into the smoke-stained hands of Rothmans of Pall Mall in the 1970s.

In this decade, David O’Leary started work at the Stanley Wine Company, as a lab assistant to Brian Barry. Barry had come from the Riverland co-op Berri-Renmano, where he had raised the quality of the wines to stellar levels. While working with Brian Barry and Mick Knappstein at Stanley, David fell in love with Clare Valley Rieslings, but it was to take many years before the Clare Valley became his home.

The Big Time

David went on to work for Petaluma, where Tony Jordan had set up a contract winemaking service. David did short stints at Heemskerk in Tasmania, then at Lindemans in Coonawarra. Riesling Meister John Vickery had been sent there in 1980 to take charge of the reds – the Rouge Homme range and the Coonawarra trio – the St George twins and Pyrus, the Bordeaux blend.

1982 was David’s practice year for his graduation from Roseworthy Agricultural College. Vickery was famous for his obsession with cleanliness in the winery, and David tells the story of a Miller Drainer he was told to clean. ‘When John inspected it,’ David recalls, ‘he wasn’t happy because he found a couple of pips that I’d missed.’

John Vickery was just one of many great winemakers David O’Leary learnt from. He joined Chateau Reynella just before Hardy’s bought the winery in 1982 – Thomas Hardy had worked there 130 years earlier.

Over the following years, David worked his way up to chief red winemaker, while Hardy’s grew into the largest wine company down under. It owned long established brands such as Tintara, Leasingham and Houghton, and was busy planting new vineyards from Padthaway to Canberra.

Tomorrow The World

This was the time when Australian wine exports boomed, and when the Brits and the Yanks learnt to love the ‘sunshine in a bottle’ wines from down under. These wines never made any money for their makers, but they put Australia on the map.

David worked both ends of the quality spectrum, making Eileen Hardy Shiraz and Reynella Cabernet at the top end, and some high volume reds at the bottom end. I suggested that he was one of the last great blenders, and he said: ‘at Hardy’s we had a huge choice of fruit from different regions, and from new vineyards coming on stream, and we used open fermenters and small oak – you couldn’t go wrong!’

David is nothing if not self effacing, I discovered, always giving others credit for his achievements. Chris Shanahan was surprised by the quality of the Nottage Hill Cabernet, ‘a product of the great Padthaway vineyard combined with O’Leary’s genius and enhanced by the open fermenters and oak barrels available only because he also makes the likes of Eileen Hardy and the Chateau Reynella reds.’

By the end of the eighties, David was at the top of his game, and became chief winemaker at Hardy’s. He said, ‘They were the biggest wine company at the time, but their biggest sellers were white wines – Siegersdorf Riesling, Old Castle Riesling, Hardy collection Chardonnay and more.

‘The reds weren’t doing as well,’ David added, ‘but winning the Jimmy Watson trophy in 1988 changed that. It was big win for Hardy’s, and they had the sales and marketing people to take advantage of it, people like David Woods who took sales to another level.’

By the start of the new millennium, BRL Hardy was making one in every 5 bottles of wine down under. Back in the nineties, David was named ‘international red winemaker of the year’ by the International Wine Challenge (IWC).

Sturm Und Drang

Selling Aussie wines oversees was an exciting adventure, but soon some of our movers and shakers fell for the idea of buying a chateau or two in France. Len Evans was at the forefront of this trend, and the late Jim Hardy followed, collecting vineyards in Tuscany, Sicily, France and Chile. North America was to be next but the debts began to pile up and put a stop to Hardy’s hubris.

‘The deregulation of our banking system in the 1980s led to a period of speculative madness by bankers and borrowers,’ industry veteran David Farmer wrote, ‘… a few poor business decisions by the Hardy’s board heralded the end …’

Hardy’s was a wine company with 125 year history, and now it needed a partner to bail it out. The huge Berri-Renmano co-op (nickname: the oil refinery) was the successful suitor, so a shotgun marriage followed. ‘Blue bloods trying to be nice to farmers from the Murray,’ David Farmer wrote, ‘and how humiliating this must have been for the sailing hero Jim Hardy.’

The new entity was called BRL Hardy, and David O’Leary became senior winemaker for the group. He kept his head down and made lots more great reds at Hardy’s Tintara winery in McLaren Vale, despite the post-merger upheaval. More here from Chris Shanahan.

Briefly he also became one of our many flying winemakers, making wine for Hardy’s in France and California. David was philosophical about the outfall from the merger. ‘It’s sad to see good people pushed out of companies,’ he said, ‘good people who’ve worked for them all their lives. We saw it at Penfolds too, in the late nineties, lots of good people laid off.’

David also made the point that you never left a good job in those days, but in 1994 he turned his back on Hardy’s and joined Mildara Blass. Once again, David harbours no ill feelings, and just talked about all the great people he had worked with at Hardy’s: ‘Geoff Weaver, Tim James, Tom Newton, Wayne Jackson, Brian Dolan, Mark Tummel and of course Sir James Hardy and all the Hardys.’

Constellation Brands bought BRL Hardy’s a few years later for $1.3 billion, followed by Southcorp paying $1.5 billion for Rosemount. Aussie wine had been fully corporatised.

Black Opal

Mildara Blass was run by Ray King, one of the few CEOs who generated handsome profits for shareholders of an Aussie wine company at that time. King’s focus was on producing good reds at sharp prices, and David had proven that he was as good as they come in that genre.

Ray King had acquired a bunch of wineries over the years that included Wolf Blass, Maglieri, Yellowglen, Rothbury Estate, Saltram, Bailey’s, Ingoldby and St Huberts. Years earlier, Wolf Blass had bought the big, beautiful Quelltaler property in the Clare Valley from Cognac maker Remy Martin and renamed it Eaglehawk, and later on Black Opal.

King changed the name to Annie’s Lane, and the new focus was on a range of $15 wines. David O’Leary was the guiding light once again, and I remember how good the reds and Rieslings were for the money in the late nineties.

‘Annie’s Lane was a terrific experience,’ says David. ‘After 14 years with Hardy’s, I met and worked with great people from the Barossa to the Riverland. Ray King was on top of his game, Mike Press was chief winemaker and had talented people in the Group like Chris Hatcher and John Glaetzer, You could see why Wolf Blass was a juggernaut with these guys directing the winemaking.’

David O’Leary still relished the chance to make some great whites, and Annie’s Lane was a place where many great Rieslings had come from. ‘I would always check with Nick Walker on making Riesling,’ David stressed, ‘as he was part of the group and ran the Krondorf winery pretty much since we graduated from Roseworthy.

Nick said David should talk to Chris Hatcher, so he did. ‘During vintage I would annoy Chris and Wendy Stuckey on how they went about making Riesling,’ David recalled, and one of his Annie Lane Rieslings soon won a gold medal at the Adelaide show – he was making Rieslings under 4 different labels at Annie’s Lane.

Chris Hatcher accepting yet another Best Winemakerr Award.

David’s new talent with Riesling didn‘t go unnoticed. ‘As I passed Chris Hatcher at work one day,’ David recalls, ‘he said “did you soak the label off a Wolf Blass Riesling?” ‘I was lucky to work with Chris,’ he concedes. Hatcher has won over 200 gold medals and trophies.

Good Bye Barbarians

In 1998, David was dispatched to Coonawarra to run Mildara’s operation there after Gavin Hogg resigned. A year later David O’Leary resigned and joined forces with Nick Walker in their new venture  – O’Leary Walker Wines. ‘Everyone told us we were mad,’ David recalled, ‘to give up our well-paid jobs and go out on our own.’

One thing the two weren’t short of was experience: Together, they had worked in the wine industry for over half a century. Nick’s father Norm Walker once made sparkling wine for Romalo and Seaview. His father Hurtle worked with Frenchman Leon Mazure, making sparkling wine at Auldana and Romalo. In memory of his dad, Nick Walker has been making a ‘Hurtle’ Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay.

Nick spent over 14 years with Mildara Blass making wine for Yellowglen, Yarra Ridge, Baileys and St Huberts labels. He had cut his winemaking teeth at Krondorf in the early 1980s, where he made Eden Valley Rieslings that won a ton of bling on the show circuit.

3 generations of the Walker family

Grant Burge bought the Krondorf winery in 1978, sold it to Mildara Blass in the eighties, bought it back in the nineties and sold it to Accolade in 1999. He bought the winery for a third time in 2022, from Accolade Wines after they closed it down – a perfect example of the madness that is the wine business down under.

‘We had planned to set up shop in the Adelaide Hills,’ David told me, ‘but the council only approved a dozen licences and we missed out.’ David grew up in the Hills, and his family owns several vineyards there, but he and Nick ended up in the Clare Valley where they leased the mothballed Quelltaler winery for $50,000 a year.

That was a blessing in the first few years, but then the owners kept raising the rent, so David and Nick decided to build their own winery which was completed in 2010. They didn’t plant a vineyard in Clare since they knew the best growers in the valley to buy fruit from. They made wines from the traditional varieties – Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet. The model was to make small batch, high quality wines from the best sites in South Australia.

The Hills are Alive

In the nineties, David planted lots of vines at Oakbank in the Adelaide Hills, some on the original ‘Wyebo’ property that his grandfather bought in 1912. The varieties they planted here were Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec and Shiraz..

That meant David and Nick had 2 styles of wines for sale: the traditional Clare styles, and the more modern, cool climate Adelaide Hills styles.

In 2015 they bought the old Johnston family brewery and cordial factory beside the Oakbank racecourse, and turned it into a cellar door and restaurant.

‘These days you need to offer tourists a lot more than just wine,’ David explains. ‘They want a more complete experience, and you want them to come back for more.’ That’s why their winery in the Clare Valley employs a full-time chef today.

Business was flourishing until Covid reared its ugly head. We all know about the damage the pandemic did to restaurants and coffee shops, but we didn’t hear about the damage the virus did to wineries that relied on supplying restaurants or on their cellar door trade. Covid even impacted on their exports.

‘Covid was very tough and I feel for a lot of businesses especially in Victoria,’ David recalls. ‘Our Sales were mainly to on premise restaurants and independent retail, which was closed down. Our sales domestically were down 75%, which was really tough.’

Early in 2021, they had to close their cellar door at Oakbank in the Hills, and sell the historic brewery site. ‘The only good thing Covid did,’ David summed up, ‘was make us really have a critical look at our business and how we can improve the running across the board.’

Export wasn’t a high priority until now, and O’Leary Walker was among 10 South Australian wineries selected in the Wine Australia USA Market Entry Program in 2020. Nick Walker’s son Jack has been learning the ropes in the winery for several years now, so perhaps the need for David to work nightshifts will reduce.

Footnote

This was a big story, covering the working lives of two winemakers, and I needed a lot of help with the details. David O’Leary was always happy to answer question by email or phone, was always helpful and showed endless patience.

As I said earlier, he was more than generous in his praise for the many people he worked with. That includes Wolf Blass, the great self promoter – David expressed nothing but admiration for Blass’s achievements. When you search for Wolf’s interview with Richard Fidler on ABC radio in 2011, this is what the entry in the search results says: ‘Wolf Blass has played a major role in transforming Australia into one of the world’s most respected winemaking countries.’

According to Wolf, Australia was the vinous equivalent of Terra Nullius. Everyone drank beer, he said. The red wines we made were awful. He told Richard about his many achievements, about how smart a winemaker he was, and about his marketing genius.

He rarely talked about anyone else. Forget Max Schubert, Maurice O’Shea, Jack Mann, Ron Haselgrove, Roger Warren, Colin Preece or John Vickery. When you listen to Wolf in his radio interviews, these guys simply didn’t exist.

Yes, the German Genius came to this backward land and civilised it all by himself. More here: Wolf Blass Wunderkind?