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Monday July 15, 2002

Chardonnay - The New Sultana?

Has chardonnay become the 'new sultana'? For decades sultana has provided considerable bulk and little flavour for the Australian wine industry. Packed in bag-in-box with a little added sweetness, sultana assumed the role of an alcoholic balm for the populace - a beer substitute if you like - albeit at three times the alcohol strength.

Twenty years ago, during a significant growth phase for casks, chardonnay fruit was extremely hard to come by. Even in 1992, chardonnay represented 9% of wine grapes grown, and 'multi-purpose' varieties (sultana, muscat gordo blanco and Waltham cross) were at 24%. In 2002 the figures were chardonnay 15%, multi-purpose 8%. Does that tell you something?

Given the bountiful quantity of chardonnay, it's obvious that much of it will be destined for 'workhorse' duty. That being the case, for chardonnay to sell at price points well under $20.00, the grapes have to be cropped at "commercial" levels, and the use of oak in the form of quality French barriques is out of the question.

Most of the chardonnay made in Australia is made from grapes which are deficient in flavour. For the same reasons as sweetness was deemed essential for wimpy sultana, so it is for skeletal chardonnay - not to mention 'oak' in its chippy, planky, powder or liquid forms. It's little wonder that some diabolical potions are produced. Add to the list of Australia's most unwanted chardonnays fermented in third rate or hand-me-down barrels and put through malolactic whether they need it or not, often acquiring unpalatable buttery flavours and associated fatness.

Winemakers who start with inadequate fruit can do little to retrieve the situation. Their only recourse is to add flavour by whatever means. Much of the insipid fruit is coming from very young vineyards planted in the boom of the nineties. We suspect that even though young vines are part of the dilute flavour problem, overcropping is just as evil a villain. It's all about bottom line, not intensity of fruit.

We enjoy good chardonnay and recommend several in this issue but, as we've said before, you can buy plenty of honest, excellent riesling and semillon for the price of many an artificially propped-up chardonnay. We strongly suggest you consider the choices.