Bloody Chardonnay. What a mess we made of it over the last 30 years. Too much planted in the wrong places by the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.
A fair bit of it washed off our shores like floodwater, but we still had to drink too many oceans of it that wouldn’t fit in the other ocean.
Spoiled it for everybody in a big way.
Then you have an outfit like the Holmes à Court family’s Vasse Felix in Margaret River. Since Tom Cullity’s first vintage – a disaster – there in 1971, this grand estate has gradually taken a royal role in Australian wine history. Among the crowns hanging in its lobby are many from recent Chardonnays.
Come take a walk around the smells and flavours of a royal court. Paul Holmes à Court is now the sole owner.
Vasse Felix Heytesbury Margaret River Chardonnay 2015
($80; 13% alcohol; screw cap)
Right in there with the best of the Penfolds Chardonnays, this posh brute has lavish oak steeping the wine with sultry mace and ginger. Like the Penfolds best, it also has that nose-prickling whiff of cordite and carbide. Only after that did my hooter begin to delve and appreciate the intensity and finesse of the fruit, which to start with is like fresh cantaloupe (Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis) or muskmelon (var. reticulatus) with prosciutto fat.
Aromatically, it’s both those melons with the reticulatus peel, and buttery pear rather than the peachy stone fruits many critics seem to seek in Chardonnay.
Wherever it takes you, you go happily aware of this being a very special adventure. It feels rich.
Buttery pear, like the Anjou, is the foundation of this high-bred flavour. All those other layers of finery, regalia and armour sit comfortably on its ample flesh. At first it’s overwhelming, and brings the imposter syndrome trigger that can guilt you up with inadequacies when you unexpectedly find yourself walking with great Kings. Then you realise this one’s got a royal sense of humour that’s dry and disarming and you settle and think to hell with gender-specific protocols this sure is a boy this drink, let’s drink.
Harry at the jousting. It’s a horse thing.
Which makes me look for spatchcock stewed whole in wine with tarragon, shallots, potato and capers. For which we’ll need the hunting peregrine on the label.
Bread and butter, too, please. Bugger the jousting.
Vasse Felix Margaret River Chardonnay 2015
($37; 13% alcohol; screw cap)
Okay. Pare some of the regalia away from the above and reload the pistols. Simpler, perhaps extra brusque and macho, this smells more like a whole battalion than a stylish individual. It’s bristling for a bit of bruising. Lean, hungry, scary, fit, fearless. Sharp. Tzing tzing.
After that edgy aroma, the wine performs a similar trick to its liege above once you actually get drinking. In the sense that the level of healthy flesh on its muscle is surprising after such acrid personal fragrance somehow led you to expect somebody really skinny. It’s generous and hearty, but not royal. Which makes it easier to understand and crack jokes with. With? Well, within reason. You wouldn’t want to cross the line.
One whole day after opening, this prickly bloke stuff settles, leaving that buttery pear to soothe the finish right out, so if you want to take some of the edge off it, bung it in a jug.
Bucatini all’Amatriciana, please. And we’ll ka-chink with extra heart for the folks of Amatrice, who are still trying to get their village back together after that monster quake took too many of them.
Vasse Felix Filius Margaret River Chardonnay 2015
($28; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap)
While the $37 wine seemed a little like a demoted version of the $80 Heytesbury, with respect, this Filius is a fresh starter, all buzzy and eager with the vim of the aspirant.
It still has a little of that macho sweatiness – there, I’ve said it – around its busiest bits, but it’s more about getting the job done to become somebody, rather than be somebody who says “this is my job here thanks for your money”.
So the gunsmoke, the pears, the ginger, all that bouquet stuff’s here in a crisply-starched-and-ironed surcoat that polishes my palate clean with anticipation and makes me hungry as granite.
Keening for what? Barbecued scallops with onion and chilli thanks, a good scoop of spinach caramelised with pine nuts and diced mozzarella stirred in. And don’t forget the bread and butter.
Don’t do it on a hot day – these are cool weather wines – but get some mates, put in $25 each, buy these and try them in this same descending price order. It’s better than the movies. And it’ll help erase any nagging doubts you had about Chardonnay.
If you want to compare these blokey wines to something more gently elegant and tender, get a set of the newies from Oakridge in the Yarra. In a sense these Vasse Felix wines (made by Virginia Willcock) are big characterful whites for the drinker of big reds, while the Oakridge stable made by David Bicknell projects more silky finer flavours for the elegant Pinot fiend. There, I’ve said that, too.
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