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My Love Affair with Chardonnay

It’s well known that I have long had a love affair with Chardonnay, it’s certainly my favourite grape varietal and one that is renowned in my Margaret River home. For over twenty years it’s been a journey of discovery, tweaking and tinkering with styles to produce wines that are truly remarkable and would rival any Chardonnay produced elsewhere in the world. Let me tell you my Chardonnay story…

The early years

I have been surrounded by Chardonnay since I came to winemaking in Margaret River, when I joined my parents in their venture in 1983. At that time we didn’t have Chardonnay planted, but certainly the likes of other local producers such as Moss Wood, Cullen, Pierro, and of course Leeuwin Estate, were building the region’s reputation. My interest in wine, and finding out as much as I could, meant Chardonnay was a significant part of of my early years in the industry.

In 1983 I also commenced my winemaking studies through what is now Charles Sturt University. It was here that I was introduced to the breadth of Australian, and world Chardonnay. A fascinating contrast of how one varietal could taste so different depending on the site, winemaking style and location of its source. We did end up planting Chardonnay in 1986 in my parents’ venture, but, alas, sold the property before we ever got to make a specific Chardonnay wine.

A vintage in 1988 at Tarrawara Estate in the Yarra Valley really showed me just how different this wine was, from a winemaking point of view, especially using techniques like whole bunch pressing, turbid grape juices, barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and extended time in barrel, on lees. These, of course, are all pretty standard practices now, but at the time much was being experimented with.

Margaret River Chardonnay

My move to Voyager Estate in 1991 really allowed me to put some of these practices in place, with regard to developing my own winemaking style. These practices were, of course, tied in with understanding the vineyard sites. The personality of Chardonnay is inextricably tied to the vineyard site, more so than the winemaking practises employed. So getting to know the vineyards, and the particular parcels very much have an impact on the end wines.

Some early show success at Voyager Estate (winning best Chardonnay at the then Sheraton Wine Awards for the 1993 Chardonnay) made me think that I was at least doing something correctly and I persevered with honing my craft, always wanting to know more. It was the move to my role as Winemaker at Devil’s Lair in 2000 which really showed me the diversity of vineyard site and the importance of particular clone selection with Chardonnay, especially the Gin Gin, and Dijon clones…. Totally decisions for the viticulturists to ponder over but it makes you realise the diversity of flavours you have to play with – the Chardonnay stuff can be more complex than it appears at face value.

After my stint at Devil’s Lair, with much show success to the wines, I made the move to nearby wine brand Stella Bella. It was here with the first Stella Bella Chardonnay wines which really allowed me to express my own Chardonnay beliefs, and it resulted in us winning a couple of big awards with the 2007 Chardonnay (Best Chardonnay at the Hong Kong International Wine Show), and 2008 (Best Chardonnay at the London International Wine Show). A nice pat on the back and some reassurance that I was doing things right!

In 2013 when Flowstone Wines was born, Chardonnay was always going to be a focus and I’ve been handsomely rewarded with wines that are tiny in quantity but very much reflect the sites from where the grapes are grown, and made in a style I truly believe in.

What does the future hold?

Chardonnay has gone through its own styles and fashions, from the very rich and opulent, to the very lean and restrained. If there is one thing I can say, fashion and I have never been close…I have always made Chardonnay in styles that I enjoy…and not followed the trends.

To me, Chardonnay is a wine of texture, complexity and subtleties. There is great length of flavour as the different attributes meld from one to another, and the palate grows, but never gets too rich. It needs to reflect where the vineyard is, the clone, how it is grown, and how it is made.

Margaret River naturally processes wines of full and rich flavours. We are blessed. Chardonnay from here should show flavours of grapefruit, pears, stonefruit, with soft minerality and acid. Of course, Margaret River is quite a big region, and these attributes will vary across it, from richer fuller style from Yallingup and Wilyabrup, to more restrained expressions from Forest Grove and Karridale. Given that my vineyard is in Forest Grove, and the leased Flowstone vineyard is in Karridale, you would appreciate that this is my preference.

What about clone selection?

The clone makes a bigger difference than you think it would. Of course, Margaret River Chardonnay is famous for the Gin Gin (or Mendoza) clone, which delivers bunches with lots of full size, and small berries (hen and chicken). These small berries can really add concentration to the flavours. This ties in with Margaret Rivers reputation for pure, focussed, and powerful Chardonnay wines.

The Dijon (Burgundian) clones do not have this hen and chicken berry, so the resultant wines aren’t as concentrated and powerful, but still have lovely restraint and texture, and are a little more open knit. When I tell you that I have planted my Chardonnay vineyards with Dijon clones 95 and 96, this would obviously indicate that I lean towards this particular style.

My Chardonnay Winemaking Philosophy

My winemaking techniques have not changed much over the last 20 years. The grapes are hand picked, whole bunch pressed, settled overnight without enzyme, and turbid juice racked directly to barrel. All the barrels are French oak barriques, with a certain percentage new oak, depending on which wine it is. Fermentation is started immediately, with the addition of cultured yeasts. I usually use 3 different ones, and these are the same ones I have used for some time now…we get on well together. Malo lactic fermentation occurs after fermentation, and all the wine partakes. The wine then spends about a year in these barrels, on lees, with occasional yeast lees stirring (the Queen of the Earth Chardonnay stays in barrel for 18 months). Following this, the wine is taken from barrel, blended together, fined, settled, and filtered….and then off to bottle.

Most of my focus nowadays is on the growing of the vines, and getting the best from the vineyards that I can, rather than winemaking. My winemaking is very basic letting the vineyards speak for themselves.

I am a big fan of White Burgundy, and have probably spent more money on it than I should have in my lifetime. I have also visited the spiritual home of Chardonnay in Burgundy several times, and had some great tours and tastings around the vineyards and wineries. I still love drinking great White Burgundy. It is a significant part of my Chardonnay understanding.

I can tell you, you get a remarkable sense of achievement when you plan a vineyard (layout, clones etc), plant it, develop it, eventually harvest some grapes, make the wine on the same property, bottle it in the winery through your small gravity filler, and then label it all by hand. The first time it leaves our place, is when it is on its way to you the customer. This is most certainly the case for the Queen of the Earth Chardonnay…all 4 barrels of it.

I love Chardonnay. It is my favourite white wine variety, and I am not embarrassed to say it. I do hope that you’ll have a taste and let me know what you think.

Try Flowstone Chardonnay

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