Meet the winemaker

Australian winemakers on chardonnay

By Halliday Promotion

Four masters of Australian chardonnay discuss exactly what they love about the grape, and how they produce the very best examples from their regions.

Chardonnay is known as the winemaker's grape due to its ability to flourish in any climate and be made in a variety of styles. In Australia, chardonnay once had a reputation for wines that were big, buttery, and oaky, but modern examples are much more restrained. 

Yering Station's Brendan Hawker, Winmark Wines' Karin Adcock and John Belsham, Flowstone's Stuart Pym and Cullen Wines' Vanya Cullen tell us how they make this great grape their own.

Brendan Hawker

Brendan Hawker – Yering Station, Yarra Valley VIC
H. What do you love about chardonnay? 
BH. I was first introduced to premium, contemporary Australian chardonnay when I started at Yering Station in 2008. I fell in love with how complex great chardonnay can be. Pretty florals, powerful fruit and oak spice. Rich and textural, yet fine and mineral with beautiful, focused acidity. Site selection, harvest maturity and winemaking all have such dramatic impact on final style, so fine tuning our techniques and blends are incredibly challenging and rewarding.

There is a style of chardonnay for all preferences. The pendulum swings through the full style spectrum, whether you like an austere, chalky and precise wine or something more old school – rich, buttery and oaky – you can find it all. I also think wine lovers appreciate drinking a white wine that has a more defined tannin structure, compared to aromatic whites. Chardonnay really is the red wine of whites.

H. How do you approach the winemaking process, and how has it evolved or changed?
BH. We keep our varying parcels of chardonnay separate all the way through the winemaking and maturation process. As all our sites are different in aspect, soil and clone it gives us a great range of diverse wines to make the most balanced and complex blends from. Each parcel is farmed and harvested to best express individual terroir. Timing of pruning, canopy management, harvest maturity, hand or machine picking, new oak percentage and cooperage mix are all variables we adjust to the suit that specific parcel.

Our process has evolved to maximise vineyard expression. We are picking earlier, using more wild yeast fermentation and less new oak. We are also allowing our chardonnay juices to oxidise prior to ferment, which helps eliminate oxidisable phenolics in the finished wine. This results in brilliant and stable colour, lower SO2 use and removes the necessity of fining the wine prior to bottling.

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Karin from Winmark pruning

Karin Adcock and John Belsham – Winmark Wines, Hunter Valley NSW
H. What do you love about chardonnay?
KA. I love chardonnay and the expressions of the vineyard it produces. At Winmark, we only produce chardonnay, and yet each of our styles are so distinctive. Our newest release, the Icon 72, is possibly the most exciting experience I've had producing chardonnay. Conditions must be perfect to produce small batch chardonnay. Each vintage will honour the history of the property and the very first Penfolds clone vines that were planted in 1972 (which we now know as Block 4). As custodians of the vineyard, it's very important to me that we pay homage to our history.

JB. I love that chardonnay performs wonderfully in so many varied regions and climates. As a winemaker this enables me to capture character as it is expressed by a particular site. For the same reason I love the versatility of chardonnay, I think consumers appreciate how it can demonstrate quality across such diverse origins all the while reflecting a sense of place.

H. How do you approach the winemaking process, and how has it evolved or changed?
KA. Since we took over the vineyard in 2016 we have closely monitored each variety and block to understand their potential and challenges. We have such incredible history at Winmark. Our Icon 72 heralds our move to produce this chardonnay exclusively, using the premium fruit from Block 4. This first release honours the 50th anniversary of these vines – this small batch chardonnay will only be produced in outstanding years, available in limited supply.

JB. Growing the correct fruit on the particular site and harvesting at optimum maturity is the single most important component in chardonnay winemaking. And pressing gently is key, as is choosing the correct oak for fermentation. I've been making chardonnay for 40 years, during that time my most significant learning is that less is more. Good chardonnay from the right site can become great if allowed to express itself over time.

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Stuart Pym

Stuart Pym – Flowstone Wines, Margaret River WA 
H. What do you love about chardonnay?
SP. The 2022 vintage marks my 32nd consecutive vintage making Margaret River chardonnay. It would be fair to say that I have enjoyed every vintage. Margaret River is fortunate that it grows wines of rich and substantial fruit presence. As a result, the Flowstone Chardonnay has a lovely palate weight and substance, beautiful textural complexity, and a refined elegance. This is exactly the style of chardonnay I love, and love making.

Chardonnay is grown around the world, and the variety reflects each region beautifully, which means there's wonderful diversity in the wines for chardy lovers. Discovering all these expressions, and determining which styles you lean toward, is one of the most engaging wine journeys to be had.

H. How do you approach the winemaking process, and how has it evolved or changed?
SP. Making complex and engaging chardonnay does give the winemaker plenty of options. For me, it starts with the vineyard site, the clones and how the vines are grown. The fermentation in 30% new French oak adds lovely complexities and textures, but it's there to support the beautiful fruit characters that reflect the vineyard. 

My winemaking hasn’t evolved too much over the last 30 odd years, but my appreciation of how the wine style can be determined in the vineyard has certainly grown. Being in control of this vineyard gives me the ability to determine the style of this wine, with the subsequent oak use and winemaking adding to this, but I'm certainly not a control freak with the winemaking, and my leaning is to the more classic styles. Twelve months in barrel, and two years in bottle, does allow the wine to come together and be harmonious and engaging when the wine is released.

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Vanya Cullen

Vanya Cullen – Cullen Wines, Margaret River WA
H. What do you love about chardonnay?
VC. The love of chardonnay comes from the influence of Kevin John Cullen. He was a firm believer that Wilyabrup could produce chardonnay that would rival some of France’s best, and in 1986 he held our first benchmark tasting, putting Margaret River chardonnay against the finest examples from France, and around the world. Now in its 37th year, our International Chardonnay Tasting is an annual event celebrating this powerful and wonderful variety.

Chardonnay has personality. It can be fine and elegant, bold and lustful, refined and mysterious. It’s an exciting variety that tempts wine drinkers to continue exploring. Every region produces unique characteristics, and each winery has individual style and distinction. There really is a chardonnay for everyone.

H. How do you approach the winemaking process, and how has it evolved or changed?
VC. We hand-harvest on fruit and flower days, guided by the moon. We sort them at the table, but prior to that we taste the grapes each day during harvest to see exactly when they’re ready. We do a little bit of whole bunch amphora fermentation, while the pressed juice is placed into a concrete egg and biodynamic ‘flower day’ barrels. Fermentation is natural, using indigenous yeasts and no additions – letting the land’s song sing loudly through the wine.

Our chardonnay vines were plated in 1976 and are of the Wente clone, a low yielding chardonnay from Mâcon in Burgundy. Our biggest evolution started in 1998 when the change to total organic viticulture was made. Mum and I both intuitively felt this was the right direction for our vineyard, then in 2004 we become fully certified biodynamic. As a result, our wines show enhanced expression of fruit, minerality, and integration of flavours. They have higher natural acidity, and a pure expression of terroir.

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Learn more about chardonnay in our essential guide.
This article was produced by Halliday Wine Companion in partnership with the featured wineries.
Top image credit: Cullen Wines.