Chardonnay is the big deal when it comes to white wine. It’s the most planted white variety in Australia, and the world at large.
It’s responsible for the finest quality wines out of highly prized regions here, in France and the US, while also the backbone of consistent and satisfying everyday drinking in value bottle and cask.
It’s the great chardonnays that really make wine lovers’ hearts flutter.
The best of them come from cooler regions. Enter the Adelaide Hills, where the fruit has had time to ripen slowly and evenly, achieving full flavour while retaining it vital acidity, the key factor in the wines being fresh and exciting to taste.
The region is at the centre of a new generation of Australian chardonnays. The variety has now moved on from an earlier style when rich, over-ripe and over-oaky wines were favoured but eventually lost their attraction as our collective palates became more tuned to refreshment, subtlety, and more sophisticated expressions.
The popular transition to more vibrant and complex white wines, desired by both consumers and winemakers, has coincided with a parallel passion to grow and create modern, complex chardonnay in the Adelaide Hills.
And even within the region, chardonnay’s renowned versatility produces many nuanced variations, different fruit flavour spectrums, textural lines and single vineyard creations.
A wide range of aspects, often sloping and steep, as well as soil variations and complex micro-climates across the region encourage the wide choice of styles. As do the winemakers behind them, all striving to put their chardonnays on the Adelaide Hills map.
That’s the thing. Adelaide Hills chardonnay can be your tour guide through the region, from the Piccadilly Valley to Lenswood. Through the Onkaparinga Valley and the villages of Hahndorf, Oakbank, Woodside and Lobethal. Further north to Paracombe and Mt Torrens. South to Mt Barker, Macclesfield and Meadows.
Most cellar doors will have their take on the great white of the Hills. Each wine will be as unique as the landscape they come from.
In its sparkling form, known as Blanc de Blancs, you can cruise from Deviation Road winery at Longwood to Sidewood Estate in Hahndorf all the way to Mt Lofty Vineyard in Lenswood. Theirs and many more Hills sparkling wines are turning heads against the best out of places like Tasmania as well as their French home of Champagne.
The varied elevations and orientations in the Hills give winemakers across the region a huge range of microclimates and resulting different base wines to work with, according to Deviation Road’s lauded sparkling maker Kate Laurie.
“I am a definite believer in chardonnay from the hills being absolutely perfect for sparkling wine, as well as table,” Kate says. “The intensity of flavour we achieve at low alcohol levels and high natural acidity are just perfect.”
While many wines are single vineyard expressions, others can tap into several districts to combine the best elements of each.
Shaw + Smith’s famed M3 Chardonnay taps into three areas, Piccadilly, Lobethal and Lenswood to gather a balance of delicate aromas, a spine of acidity and a power-drive of Chardonnay fruit flavours.
“The beauty of Hills chardonnay is you get this character that embodies the power of chardonnay, and the mid-palate weight, but you don’t lose the acidity, the structure and the scaffolding,” says Shaw + Smith chief winemaker Adam Wadewitz. “That’s what we’re chasing.”
Michael Downer from Murdoch Hill Wines in Oakbank also creates a trio of chardonnays from several sites.
“There are nuances from the different sub-regions, and it’s a variety that can consistently work across the whole length and breadth of the region,’ Michael says. “That’s the reason why it is the flagship variety of the Adelaide Hills.”
“It has the ability here to get an incredible drive of fruit. It retains its natural acidity with the cool climate, its elevation and cold nights and high diurnal shifts, and we have South Australia’s sunshine as well.
“It’s a combination of all those that contributes to the region being so successful,” Michael says.
All those climatic elements are what attracted modern era Adelaide Hills wine pioneer Brian Croser to the region in the late 1970s. After making chardonnay in many places, from NSW to SA districts such as Coonawarra, Clare, and McLaren Vale as well as in Oregon and California in the US, he chose the Piccadilly Valley because it was the coolest and wettest sub region of South Australia to grow and make fine chardonnay, tapping into the universal belief that the best of them anywhere in the word require a cool site.
Brian Croser planted the Tiers Vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley in 1979, and after more than 40 years’ experience there, he and his winemaking team at the Tapanappa winery at the southern reaches of the Valley continually craft delicious, elite chardonnay.
“All of the Adelaide Hills wine region is highly climatically suited to growing good to great Chardonnay with the warmer locations producing richer, fruit sweet, fig and honey examples while the cooler regions (Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood) produce finer, intense stone fruit and higher acid wines,” Brian details.
“Given the choice to grow Chardonnay in any other location after 43 years here, I would not stray from the Tiers Vineyard and the surrounding Piccadilly Valley vineyards,” he says.
It’s all about the unique environment of the Hills that makes chardonnay its major wine star, not just in the state terms but globally.
The iconic Barossa-based Henschke winemaking family have had the opportunity over the years to compare Eden Valley chardonnay with their now preferred Lenswood sourced fruit.
“We saw a definite change from riper peachy characters to a more serious minerality from the Hills,” Prue Henschke notes.
“Here we are getting into a more subtle and more ‘mineral’ wine, which comes from growing the same vine clones in a different environment, higher altitude with cooler nights and higher rainfall.
“There is a more savoury note in the wine, turning away from the old-style Australian big, ‘fat’ chardonnays. They are leaner and more subtle. And more international.”