Australian Chardonnay is enjoying a strong renaissance and better international recognition than ever before. At the recent Langton’s Margaret River Wine Show I was asked to make a small speech at the trophy-giving ceremony.
Because it was happening at the same time as the Chardonnay Symposium in the Yarra Valley, I made the mischievous comment that “Victorians think they make the best chardonnay in the country, but we know that Margaret River chardonnay is the nation’s finest”.
I am sure that some people will wish to send me a bag of wasps or have me hung, drawn and quartered, but actually there is some truth in that statement.
It was not that long ago that Langton’s had a policy of not selling Australian chardonnay more than five years old. The problem stemmed from new auction goers who gravitated to buying aged chardonnay and found the wines overdeveloped or oxidised. We decided that we would only sell aged chardonnays that were listed in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, even before it was bottled under screw cap (think the glorious 1987 vintage), has had a stellar auction career and continues to lead the charge. With the exemption of the exquisite Giaconda in the foothills of the Australian Alps, the ultra-fine chardonnay scene is dominated by Margaret River producers. This is validated by success on the Australian wine show circuit, the secondary wine market and Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
Recently I tasted through some of the region’s top chardonnay: Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Pierro, Cullen, Moss Wood, Cloudburst, Howard Park, Deep Woods, Xanadu, Lenton Brae and Vasse Felix.
The styles vary but they have common distinguishing marks based on kindred vine stock material. The Gingin clone, first planted in Margaret River around 1976, was propagated and shared around with other nascent producers.
Leeuwin Estate’s Tricia and Denis Horgan should be given particular credit for their contribution, because it is a profound legacy. The impact of the Gingin clone has been a magical ingredient of the region’s success.
The crumbly geology of the Cape Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge, the incredible tension created by the Indian and Southern Oceans combined with the lackadaisical carefree nature of the Gingin clone (expressed by its tendency to give winemakers bunches of mixed-sized berries), is happenstance of extraordinary significance. This translates to wines that naturally possess pure grapefruit tropical fruit aromatics, al-dente textures and fine cutting acidity.
The structural framework, common to all, gives the Margaret River chardonnay remarkable vinosity, texture and longevity. The 2004 Leeuwin Estate Art Series, 2006 Vasse Felix and 2004 & 2006 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnays, all under screw cap, showed richness and complexity, yet remarkable freshness and line.
An array of Brookland Valley Chardonnays (2018, 2013 and 2008) won the Provenance Award at the Margaret River Wine Show illustrating the brilliant performance of the Gingin clone at the more modest premium level. At the Adelaide Wine Show the exemplary Deep Woods, Flametree, Brookland Valley, Fermoy and Stella Bella snapped up top honours.
The Gingin clone was a result of a collaboration between Professor Harry Olmo of UC Davis and Bill Jamieson of WA’s Department of Agriculture. Olmo sourced chardonnay designated FPS1 (Foundation Plant Services 1) from UC Davis’s 1930s-planted Armstrong Vineyard and transplanted it to a new location at Davis.
According to various sources this old vine material’s provenance can be tracked from Wente Estate via 1908 plantings of Theodore Gier’s Pleasanton Vineyard in the Livermore Valley. It is thought this material is further derived from budwood imported from Meursault in 1882 by Charles Wetmore, President of the California State Viticultural Commission.
Olmo sent the clone to Jamieson who planted and propagated it at Gingin, north of Perth. It was supplied to Leeuwin Estate, Moss Wood and Cullen in 1976. There are compelling similarities between the fulsome and richly flavoured wines of Meursault and Margaret River.
It’s interesting to note that Brian Croser directly imported similar material for his Adelaide Hills Tiers Vineyard, which celebrated 40 years in 2019.
But what I love about this story, is the spirit of collaboration, technical exchange and ambition behind Margaret River chardonnay. Long may it live.