Sarah Ahmed’s report on the 33rd International Chardonnay Tasting

Cullen 33rd International Chardonnay Tasting & Tetsuya lunch

Vanya Cullen’s father Kevin (after whom the Chardonnay is now named) launched this annual international benchmarking blind tasting in 1985.

In the past, the line up has featured more international wines and just the one Cullen Chardonnay.  However, these days, in common with a fair few peers, Cullen is less interested in drawing comparisons with Burgundy than teasing out the differences between different Chardonnay sites in her region.  Additionally, through Cullen’s Kevin John Legacy Series, exploring another dimension – the impact of the rhythms of the cosmos on site.

To that end, this year’s line up of 20 Chardonnays featured 15 single vineyard Margaret River wines, including three rare as hen’s teeth Cullen Wines Legacy Series Chardonnays. With terroir front and centre, the other Chardonnays – from Beechworth, Tasmania, New Zealand and Burgundy – also came from single vineyards.

Here’s the line up as shown:

Lenton Brae Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Grace Farm Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Heydon Estate Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Voyager Estate Tom Price Chardonnay 2014 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River, Australia)

Flametree SRS Chardonnay 2014 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River, Australia)

Domaine Bernard Moreau Chassagne Montrachet La Maltroie 1er Cru 2014 (Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy, France)

Cullen Wines Kevin John Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Moss Wood Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Fraser Gallop Parterre Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Grace Farm Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Heydon Estate Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Tolpuddle Estate Chardonnay (Coal River Valley, Tasmania, Australia)

McHenry Hohnen Calgdarup Brook Chardonnay 2014 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River, Australia)

Woodlands Chloe Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Cullen Wines Kevin John Fruit Barrel, Legacy Series Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Cullen Wines Kevin John Flower Barrel, Legacy Series Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand)

Xanadu Stevens Road Chardonnay 2014 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River, Australia)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2014 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River, Australia)

Giaconda Chardonnay 2014 (Beechworth, Victoria, Australia)

Patrick Piuze ‘Le Preuses’ Chablis Grand Cru 2014 (Les Preuses, Chablis, Burgundy, France)

Domaine Bernard Moreau Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2014 (Chevalier Montrachet, Burgundy, France)

Cullen Wines Kevin John MOSH Legacy Series Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River, Australia)

On any view, it was an impressive, deeply pleasurable line up of wines, with high quality the common thread.  Compared to when I started out in wine in 2000, even 10 years later, when I attended Wine Australia’s week-long Landmark Tutorials, Australian Chardonnay has become so much more nuanced, with texture and savoury, mineral layers – sometimes attributable to terroir, sometimes attributable to the human touch.

The Landmark Tutorial was based in the Yarra Valley, which was a key player in the shift towards tauter and terroir-specific Chardonnays.  Earlier picking, fruit sourcing from the cooler, Upper Yarra and much more measured use of oak and batonnage and malo (if any) here (and in Mornington Peninsula), introduced a new style of tighter bandwidth, sometimes austere wines.  A much remarked upon pendulum swing which, at its extreme, sacrificed Australia’s signature purity and intensity of fruit.

Ageing Chardonnay reductively on lees without batonnage produces the tightly wound, struck match aromatics and flinty palate so beloved of top Burgundy producers, such as Leflaive, Coche Dury and Roulot.  An artefact which, at its high-water mark, can dominate a wine as much as lashings of malo-driven butter and cream or new oak driven toast and vanilla.  Or pure, unadulterated sunshine in a glass ripe fruit.

Cliff Royle of Flametree Estate is a fan and it enabled me to spot Flametree’s top SRS cuvee, where he deploys this technique to the max.  It won’t be for everyone (and Royle makes classic more fruit-driven styles of Chardonnay too), however I felt that this wine still displayed an acid thrust, backbone, pure core of fruit and dried pear resonance which spoke of Margaret River’s Wallcliffe region and the Gin Gin clone.

Giaconda Chardonnay also featured pronounced struck match notes.  More prominent on the nose than the palate, they integrated on a rounder, weightier but superbly balanced palate (less angular than the SRS), showcasing Beechworth’s warmer, inland, continental climate.  Conversely, whilst the SRS had pacy acidity, the Tolpuddle went into whiplash territory – beyond racy!  My notes refer to savoury reductive notes for this wine too though, once I knew its identity, I wondered if those flavours are more terroir-driven.  The Tolpuddle always puts me in mind of Alsace Riesling, with its whestone/volcanic, round not flinty minerality.

Peppered with references to tight citric backbone, grapefruit, rock melon and dried pear, my notes indicate that the Gin Gin clone’s structure and fruit clarity was much in evidence, as one would expect with such a high quota of Margaret River wines.  However, as at the Australia Day Tastings which I presented for the Margaret Wine Industry Association (reported here), the diversity of style amongst the local wines was impressive.  From the classic poise of the Leeuwin Estate to the vividly etched Xanadu, the fruit power of Cullen to the funk of Flametree SRS, with everything in between.  Lots to like here with some great value to be had (McHenry Hohnen, Fraser Gallop) and new discoveries for me (Heydon Estate and Grace Farm).

Sometimes, a different (more open knit) fruit spectrum, crushed oyster shell/milky oyster or more involved (wild yeast) textural notes erroneously took me to France – the Lenton Brae (yellow plum, crushed oyster shell and almond paste), Voyager Estate (oyster shell, saline notes, glycerol) and Woodlands Chloe (cheesy/oyster milk) being cases in point.  I’m not sure about the Woodlands, but the Voyager and Lenton Brae both feature Burgundy clones which tend to produce savoury accents and a more open knit palate than the Gin Gin clone.  The Moss Wood stood apart for its oak – not a sledgehammer by any means, but part of the complex layering of this wine, which gave it a different structure.

The Cullen Legacy Series’ wines were major outliers in terms of both appearance (deeper yellow), flavour concentration/profile and bandwidth. A vertical tasting at Cullen the next day confirmed what I already know about the Kevin John Chardonnay’s fruit clarity/power and ageworthiness.   With the influence of lunar phases (fruit and flower days) squarely in the mix, both for the harvest of the grapes and the oak for the barrels, these Chardonnays definitely went into another dimension.

They showed homeopathic levels of concentration and intensity to the fruit (quince, not pear, dried, not fresh fruit) and oak spice notes.  Though the alcohol levels are not high, they felt bolder (a sense of distilled flavours?) and chewier (more dry extract?) too.  I wondered about the impact of the oak, including tightness of grain of the biodynamic barrels, given the different oak spice profile and deeper hue of the wines.  That these wines are unfined and unfiltered doubtless plays a role in their colour and texture too.

Cullen Wines Kevin John Fruit Barrel Legacy Series Chardonnay was shown next to the Flower Barrel Chardonnay 2014.  The fruit for both, incidentally, was picked on 5 & 6 February – fruit days.  I found the former terrifically concentrated, with creamy breadth and savoury chew, chamomile lift and concentrated vanilla and butterscotch oak.   One might have said dense, but then it takes flight on a confoundingly ethereal, lifted finish.  The Flower Barrel, on the other hand, has produced a wine with like quince/dried pear flavours and spicy vanillin oak but, with pulsing acidity; bubbling along, a simmering palate is more open-textured.  Both are deep, very long and involving.  Impressive.

Cullen Wines Kevin John MOSH was the last wine of the tasting, coming after the Domaine Bernard Moreau Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2014.  Both wines had terrific palate presence.  However, whilst the Burgundy built slowly and steadily in the mouth, wearing its power lightly (and ultimately keeping its powder dry), the MOSH’s connection with its Legacy Series siblings was immediately obvious.  It is similarly impactful from the off but, with Moon Opposite Saturn (MOSH), the fruit dial is up a notch.  Seemingly fresher, fleshier and more perfumed, with rock melon, pear and dried pear, laced with lifted chamomile and spice.     Chewy and involving like its siblings – almost a wildness about it – MOSH contrasts starkly with the ultra-poised Grand Cru Burgundy. MOSH was harvested on 2nd February – a flower day (as was the oak).  This was a couple of days earlier than the fruit day harvested pair, which weigh in at 13.6% abv versus MOSH’s 13.2% abv.

Going back to Burgundy, for the Patrick Piuze ‘Le Preuses’ Chablis Grand Cru 2014 and Domaine Bernard Moreau Chassagne Montrachet La Maltroie 1er Cru 2014, my notes mention oyster shell/milky oyster notes which, together with their restrained fruit, pointed me to their origin.  As did the lack of fruit descriptives.  Where, generally, the Australian wines’ acidity seemed punchier, more vividly etched, the higher acid of the three Burgundies – the Chablis – had javelin-like acidity, fine and long.  Quite different.  As it should be.

Still drawing big brush strokes but, from New Zealand’s Otago, the Felton Road Chardonnay seemed to sit somewhere between the Margaret River wines and the French wines, with more dialled back, touch woolly, rounder grapefruit, a hint of earth, crisp acidity and skinny latte notes.  Un-pushed.

All in all, this was a great celebration of Chardonnay’s diversity – by country, region, site or makers’ mark. Even grape and oak harvest dates.  After the big reveal, our thoughts turned to lunch in the marquee by the Chardonnay block.  Under the auspices of Gourmet Escape since last year, access to top chefs has made this event more of a drawcard for international visitors.  This year Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya, Sydney, oversaw the menu, collaborating with Cullen’s two hats’ chef Iain Robertson (who created a delicious Busselton octopus starter).

Sticking with Western Australia’s ‘west is best’ produce, Tetsuya served Dhufish for my main.  As succulent and meaty as I remember, this is a fine white fish, up there with halibut.  The abalone accentuated the ocean and introduced a touch of umami/iodine – a note commonly found in Diana Madeline (it was matched with the 2011 from magnum).

I have to say the dessert course and bold wine match blew me away – Tetsuya’s chocolate cake and Cullen Preservative Free Malbec,  I could have licked the plate!

Published on The Wine Detective. Read the full article here: https://thewinedetective.co.uk/blog/gourmet-escape-margaret-river-fine-wining-dining-par-excellence

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