There’s no denying Tyson Stelzer’s work ethic. Just hours after arriving home from Paris, he hosted the Sense of Taste tasting panel … nothing like tasting 41 chardonnays to stave off jetlag!
Once again Sense of Taste managers and staff gathered to listen and learn as Tyson, an internationally acclaimed wine critic, led us through an afternoon of chardonnay tasting.
A complicated wine variety and one, I confess, I’ve never particularly loved.
But now I think it’s because I haven’t found my style of chardonnay. And I’m not alone. SoT managers say chardonnay can be hard for the average customer if they don’t know what they’re looking for.
It’s a variety with very distinct styles. Are you a fan of a fleshy, ripe, stone-driven chardonnay, or a crisp, zesty, acid-driven citrus style? Then throw in a strong, reductive variety, with its characteristics of gun smoke and struck flint, for a completely different and polarising taste experience all together.
As I mentioned earlier, we tasted 41 chardonnays and they were separated into six flights of six and one flight of five, according to price bracket and region.
Our first flight was $20 and under chardonnays, and there was a real contrast of styles. Most had a fair bit of residual sweetness and oak. But consensus was nothing “drastic’’ in this category. Mentioned was the 19 Crimes Hard Chardonnay 2021, which was very sweet with strong vanilla/butterscotch undertones.
The 2019 Californian Fat Bastard Chardonnay ($19) is a riper and fleshier style, but the winner was the Hunter Valley De iuliis 2021 Chardonnay ($20), a more classic chardonnay, with no residual sweetness or oak, and well made for the price.
Flight two, chardonnays in the $20-$22 bracket, showed it does pay to spend a few extra dollars, with a lot more style and balance in these six wines.
Tyson explained to us the process of reduction, the slight yeast stress winemakers engineer to give the wine characteristics of gun smoke, candle and struck flint.
We saw a little bit of this in this category, particularly with the Wynns Chardonnay 2021 (Coonawarra, $21), Angove Family Crest Chardonnay 2021 (Adelaide Hills, $22) and - the winner in this flight - Allandale Chardonnay 2021 (Hunter Valley, $21).
Tyson was impressed to see some clever winemaking, namely the technique of reduction, at this price level. He was also surprised two Hunter Valley wines took out the first two flights as the region is not renowned for its chardonnay.
Moving on to flight three, Victorian chardonnay over $25. Here we sampled three chardonnays from the Yarra Valley – which arguably produces the best chardonnay in Victoria – and the Mornington Peninsula.
One state, two regions and two very distinct styles. The Yarra produces more elegant and fresh chardonnays with citrus acidity, while chardonnays from the Mornington Peninsula are slightly more maritime and richer in style.
Big things were expected from the Yarra’s Giant Steps Chardonnay 2021 ($39) and Coldstream Hills Chardonnay 2021 ($40) and they didn’t disappoint. Tyson says the 2021 vintage was particularly fresh, cooler and livelier.
Coldstream Hills got the winning vote, but special mention to the Mandala Chardonnay 2020 ($25), which was nicely balanced. The Mornington Peninsula wines we tried were Maressa Chardonnay 2020 ($28), Kooyong Clonale Chardonnay 2020 ($34) and Stonier Chardonnay 2020 ($35).
Flight four was Adelaide Hills chardonnays over $25. There was quite a big variation in style and price, $27-$51, in this category. Adelaide Hills has a reputation for being the best region in South Australia for chardonnay and is one of the top regions in Australia for growing this variety.
The Simon Tolley Perfectus Chardonnay 2019 ($50) was most popular, with the Orlando Lyndale Chardonnay 2019 ($51) a close second. We’re starting to see correlation between price and quality. None of the wine in this bracket smelt or tasted oaky, there was a classier assimilation of oak and some texture in this range.
It was at this point Tyson talked to us about the process of malolactic fermentation. Grapes grown in cooler climates develop high levels of malic acid – a tart, crunchy green apple flavour. Malolactic fermentation is when winemakers convert the tense, malic acid to a creamy, buttery lactic acid which adds softness and texture.
Some wine grown in warmer regions may undergo partial malolactic fermentation, while some wineries don’t want to soften the acid, so don’t use the process at all.
Flight five was Tasmanian and Western Australian chardonnays over $22. Two very distinct styles again here. Tasmania produces the most acid-driven, tense and elegant chardonnay in the country, while Western Australian chardonnays are richer and more fruit intense.
Tyson allowed us to pick a winner from each region here. The well-priced Devil’s Corner Chardonnay 2021 ($23) was the winner from Tasmania, with nice tropical fruit flavours and acidity. The nicely balanced Brookland Valley Estate Chardonnay 2021 ($40) was the most popular offering from the west.
But the wine that really got us talking and polarised the team was the Tasmanian Lost Farm Chardonnay 2020 ($33). It’s one you’ll either love or hate, a strong reductive chardonnay, very flinty and distinctive.
Our next flight was international chardonnays and others over $25. Some very different styles here. Another example of a super flinty, reductive style with the Dog Point Chardonnay 2019 from Marlborough ($51), an entry level William Fevre Petit Chablis 2020 (France, $37) and a sweet, fleshy, tropical, super ripe Bogle Chardonnay 2020 ($35) from California, which Tyson dubbed a good example of “an old school Australian chardonnay’’.
Voting was split in this category, due to the variety of styles, but the narrow winner was the Mountadam Estate High Eden Chardonnay 2018 ($35) from the oldest chardonnay vineyard in the Eden Valley.
Tyson did make special mention of the Lake Breeze Reserve Chardonnay 2020 from Langhorne Creek ($25), for its cool use of texture, complexity and structure. Quite sophisticated for its price point.
Now for the big guns in the last flight, premium chardonnays over $51.
At this level, Tyson says we should be looking for texture, elegance, structure, longevity and length. All the wines in this flight deliver, with Penfolds’ Yattarna Chardonnay 2020 - elegant, subtle and effortless, ($190) - just pipping stablemate Penfolds Reserve Bin 20A Chardonnay 2020 ($130) – the benchmark in Australia for reductive style.
Penfolds obviously has a reputation for its reds, but Tyson says in recent years he has been buying more of their whites than reds, and the two mentioned above are two of his favourites.
In this bracket, we also tried the Petaluma Yellow Label Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills, $55), Plantagenet Wyjup Chardonnay 2019 (Western Australia, $75), Domain Jean Collet Chablis 2020 (France, $80) and the Petaluma Tiers Chardonnay 2019 (Adelaide Hills, $140). None would disappoint.
The good news for customers is some of the characteristics Tyson mentioned with these premium chardonnays were evident in other wines we tasted, for often a third of the price.
Next time you’re in a Sense of Taste store, looking for a chardonnay, take the time to have a chat with one of our managers and discuss what style you’re looking for, or what you’ve liked in the past. They’re only happy to assist.