So many wines. So many words to explain the mysteries within.

If there’s one variety, however, whose language can be a pathway to understanding many of those intricacies, it’s Chardonnay.

Its evolution in style in Australia alone can tell us so much: from the days of being rich and buttery, blown out with over-ripe fruit and clumsy oak treatment, to more contemporary, fresher, brighter, pure expressions where the flavour profile tends towards citrus and white stone fruits with neatly balanced acidity and well-tempered fermentation and maturation in fine French oak barrels…

Whoa – hold on already. Too much information, too soon? What in the blazes does all that mean?

In short: if you learn a little of the language of Chardonnay, you are well on the way to understanding a lot more about a far wider spectrum of wine varieties and styles. Here are 10 words or phrases that can start the conversation.

The grapes

Regional characters: Cool climate to warm. Fruit in cooler-climate regions will typically take longer to ripen, allowing flavours and palate characters to be more even and seamless. Chardonnay grapes tend to ripen in a spectrum that accentuates more citrus to apple to white stone fruit, while warmer areas will bring to the fore a range of melon and yellow stone fruit to tropical characters, but when overripe become stewed and almost caramel-like. We see similar climatic differences in a range of specific aromas and flavours of other varieties, such as brighter red berry notes versus darker blackberry characters in Shiraz.

Single Vineyard: Many producers will seek out a single vineyard to focus on that site’s expression of the variety. This is deemed by many pundits to be the truest way to define a wine’s distinctive personality. It may take many vintages of the same vines on the same plot of land to begin to see how this will unfold – it’s the key to understanding that most mysterious of winemakery phrases: that a wine should or does taste of its place.

Terroir: And that, then, is what terroir is all about. Grapes from a particular site, or a single block or vineyard, show the characters of that place, from the geology and soils structures below, to the altitude, the topography and the fine details of the weather and seasons right there in that spot. The total environment, in other words. Which can result in specific aromas, or a flavour note that only appears in that wine from that place.

The winemaking

And then we head into the winery, where many winemaking techniques employed to direct Chardonnay to be the best example of itself are also key to shaping so many other varieties into modern-day beauties.

Chardonnay, in some ways, was the canary in the coal mine when it came to rethinking the ‘big is beautiful’ mindset that had been the mantra of much of the Australian wine domain through the late 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century. As the largest-volume white grape crush in the country, it also led the way for other varieties, reds included, in dialling down the muscle for a more toned and drinkable style.

Berries: You’ll hear the terms whole bunch, whole berries, crushed fruit, skin contact, carbonic maceration and so on if you go even a little ways down into the winemaking rabbit hole. Winemakers choose different techniques as they begin their ferments that will enhance more energetic aromas, fruitiness or elegant and delicate wines.

Wild fermentation: Fermentation is essentially the conversion of fruit sugars to alcohol, kickstarted by many with the inoculation of dried yeast supplements. However, one of the biggest trends in smaller-scale winemaking in the past decade has been to allow the harvested fruit to begin its journey to wine with yeasts present in the vineyard and winery, which are thought to offer more individual complexity and character. If you want to drill down further into this debate, you’ll get plenty for and against arguments depending on the individual winery circumstances.

Lees: After the grape sugars have been converted to alcohol, the spent yeast cells are often left at the bottom of tanks and barrels, sometimes stirred around by winemakers, and as they break down they can add to the aromas and complexities of a wine. The resulting characters in Chardonnay can be creaminess, or bready, biscuity and even almond or cashew-like notes. Eventually, the mud-like sediment is filtered or separated to create a clear wine, though cloudy styles are also increasingly accepted now.

Oak: Sometimes fermentation occurs in barrels, either new or old, and depending on the style of wine desired by a winemaker, maturation occurs for a period of time in mostly French oak barrels of varying sizes. The smaller and newer the oak, the more impact results. The fascinating thing is that each barrel, depending on size, toasting levels of the oak staves from light to darker, and the age of the oak involved, creates a totally individual ferment or maturation result. Winemakers then assess each to decide on their finished mix, offering many potential variations in complexity before the final blend is complete.

Malolactic fermentation: In cooler regions like the Hills, grapes can contain levels of malic acid that can make wines taste more acidic than some winemakers wish. You will hear references to a secondary fermentation called malolactic fermentation or MLF, which converts the malic acid to lactic acid and softens a wines tartness. Not all parcels, or barrels may be put through the process, again to give a winemaker options when making up a final blend.

Funky: Strange but true, this word will occasionally pop up in cellar door conversations when you come across a Chardonnay that has taken on some sensory characters that have derived from occasional ferment and yeast reactions. If you get a first impression that there is perhaps a cheesy note, or maybe a charcuterie or bacon like aroma, or even a flinty note, don’t be outraged. If you see wordsmiths referring to terms like these, they’re not necessarily in la la land, either. A little bit of funk might be exactly what the winemaker was after, and can be happily accepted – as long as your Chardonnay doesn’t taste like a bacon and cheese burger!

Texture: If you hear or see a reference to Chardonnay having a silky or velvety texture, take the moment to dial into your feelings – your mouth-feelings, that is. Much of what has been mentioned here help build the complexity of a wine like Chardonnay – and many other varieties as well. Complexity is not just layering of flavours and aromas, but also the mouthfeel, which can range from tingling acidity to full on creaminess. Winemakers can create their choice of textures in choosing when to harvest the fruit, how long they leave the crushed or fermenting grapes with their skins, how long to leave a wine with its yeast lees (see above) and whether to filter and fine before bottling.

So, wines ain’t just wines in the end. There’s an entire language around that glass of Chardonnay you’ll have with your next roast chicken. Understanding just a few of the keywords will get you closer to knowing why you like what you like.

To begin learning the local language of Chardonnay, head to the Hills during May for a range of varietally focused events and tastings as part of the region’s Chardonnay May celebrations. Check for the full program.


Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2021

Adelaide Hills / 13.4% / $110

This comes from a vintage in the Piccadilly Valley that Tapanappa winemaker Brian Croser describes as “near-perfect”.  It’s a supreme ambassador of the variety and region, wafting at first with freshly cut grapefruit, a little orchard blossom then flowing straight into the same delicious set of flavours, with a pithiness in its core of citrus characters that provides a textural layer in the palate and a seemingly limitless purity and length. Everything here sits in a finely sculpted place, subtle, sophisticated and world class.

Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2021

Adelaide Hills / 13% / $55

Sourced from three vineyards in Piccadilly, Lobethal, and S+S’s estate blocks in Lenswood, this is a clear and precise example of Hills Chardonnay from start to finish. White stone fruits, a subtle backdrop of French oak spice, and a creamy cashew-like yeast bun vibe are the top notes with a fresh and bright under layer of fruit acidity at its finest balance setting. All these elements entwine judiciously mid-palate in a complete harmonic expression of variety and region.

Pike & Joyce “The Kay” Reserve Chardonnay 2019

Adelaide Hills / 13% / $65

From the high hills of the official sub-region of Lenswood, this producer’s Reserve-style Chardonnay styling takes us into the territory of secondary wine characters, where winemaking becomes a critical factor in the expression of the variety. Oak, barrel ferment and maturation are the first impressions, adding a flintiness and cedary spice sense over and above the fruit notes, which offer a roasted lemon and peach flavour spectrum. The combination is rich and complex, and a good lesson in the barrel-wrought style.

Hesketh Lobethal Chardonnay 2021

Adelaide Hills / 12.5% / $34

This comes from a Hesketh range titled “Sub-Regional Treasures” which highlights specific districts with a wider regional view. Here Lobethal is the spot, the popular village surrounded by several well-respected vineyards. Is there a defined district character here? What we do see is a quite typical Hills white peachy note with a cashew-like creaminess in the palate, flavour and texture, as well as a subtle backdrop of oak spice. A good all-rounder. Available now at a cellar door within the new Grunthal venue at the Verdun roundabout as you exit the SE Freeway towards Hahndorf.

Wirra Wirra The 12th Man Chardonnay 2021

Adelaide Hills / 12.5% / $35

Though based in and associated mostly with its McLaren Vale red portfolio, Wirra Wirra – like many in the district – brings in plenty of fruit from the neighbouring Adelaide Hills region for its whites. This, from vineyards in Lenswood, Piccadilly and Lobethal, shows why. The wine is vibrant and filled with positive energy, delicious sub-tropical fruit salad flavours with a lively lime-like tang. While 30% new French oak is factored into the winemaking, those barrels sit right back out of the way so their real impact is more about texture and mouth-feel, finely mineralled and chalky with excellent balance and finish. Most appealing.

Cooke Brothers Chardonnay 2020

Adelaide Hills / 13% / $35

Another example of how Hills Chardonnay spreads its desirability around. Ben Cooke is based at a Port Elliot cellar door and winery shared with partner Charlotte Hardy (Charlotte Dalton Wines) while tapping into select vineyards he knows and loves in several SA regions. Hence Chardonnay and the Deanery Vineyard outside Balhannah. This wine ticks many of the modern stylistic boxes: wild fermented, full malolactic fermentation, a year in French oak puncheons (a mid-large format barrel), 50% new. The joy here is the single site capture: a grassy note, then tangy apple and lime, with mouthwatering texture underlying.  Very expressive of both site and intentional winemaking focus.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.