A New Zeitgeist: Australian Chardonnay / Vasse Felix Heytesbury
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A New Zeitgeist: Australian Chardonnay / Vasse Felix Heytesbury

Since passing the Master of Wine exam I am often asked what I drink at home. Partly as provocation and yet, with utter sincerity, I answer ‘Australian Chardonnay’.

My current sabbatical in Australia has illuminated intriguing wines, largely from cooler climes. These include new and exciting styles, together with forcefully regional and traditional wines – hidden, to date, under the bushel of critically acclaimed South Australian wines. These SA wines have largely been behemoths from warm to hot regions. Together with fruity, frivolous and ultimately, industrial wines at low price-points, this dynamic has forced the Australian wine industry into a bipolar commercial paradigm. This has demanded brutal self-analysis from the country’s wine hegemony. However, a dynamic repackaging of the country’s vinous voice to echo the high quality of her ‘other’ wines, is well under way. While this renaissance may well take a while, particularly for consumer acceptance in Australia’s top export markets, it is riveting to taste these wines at the hearth.

While some commentators refer to these wines as the ‘New Australia’, noted in previous blogs, it is not so new after all. Rather, these wines are cooler regional expressions that, at their zenith, are site-inflected wines of real gravitas. These wines have, to date, largely been overlooked.

In contrast to the small producers’ wines discussed to date, in this posting I will focus on a larger operation in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, Vasse Felix. Vasse Felix is making scintillating Chardonnays which, together with Bindi and Curly Flat from Macedon and Giaconda from Beechworth in Victoria; Hoddles Creek, Wantirna, Yerring Station and Punch Road in the Yarra Valley; and Bloodwood, from the granitic and basalt swirl of Orange in NSW, together with many others; represent a new zeitgeist. Indeed, apart from white Burgundy, I believe top Australian Chardonnay to be the finest expression of the grape in the world.

Some tasting notes:

2008 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay shows natural yeast funk and nuttiness on the nose, reverberating on a tight yet, not at all, anorexic palate. Hints of nectarine and cashew bring complexity but it is the tightly furled meld of juicy acidity and intensity that give this wine line, length and energy; all at 13%. Bravo!

2009 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay boasts extremely delicate aromas-little to do with fruit apart from a hint of white peach if one has to prescribe something to this wine’s nose. While the alcohol here is 13.5%, still modest and incredibly restrained in the context of the New World and, for that matter, no less or more than most top white Burgundy; the wine is wound and tangy-perhaps a little too zingy and unrelaxed for my liking.

2010 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay conversely, offers nothing aromatically but for a hint of unresolved flintiness and an evanescent coolness. Taut and bristling with intent, this wine makes me salivate, drawing me in for another glass and another as I envision this wine’s future after, perhaps, another decade in bottle when it starts to unwind. Yet even now, texturally, this wine is intoxicating.