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Margaret River Chardonnay: A Look at the Clones!

In a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Living section Huon Hooke had nothing but praise for Australia’s new generation of chardonnay: “For the past decade, I believe, Australia is second only to Burgundy in chardonnay. We have pared back the fat, oaky, buttercup-yellow, oily, alcoholic chardonnays of yesteryear and we’re making finer, more balanced, more drinkable and age-worthy wines than ever before.” (Cool, calm and respected by Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald 12 June 2012)

The article highlighted the best of the top tier chardonnays, which included great labels from the Margaret River like the 2009 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, the 2010 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay, the 2010 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay, the 2010 Xanadu Reserve Chardonnay, the 2009 Voyager Estate Project 95 Chardonnay and the 2009 Devil’s Lair 9th Chamber Chardonnay.

One aspect of the article that I found really interesting was Hooke’s discussion of how winemakers in the Margaret River have started to experiment with different chardonnay grape clones. In wine criticism you read a lot about terroir and winemaking techniques but not a lot about clones. Their importance, however, can’t be discounted. Particular clones can have a very significant influence on the character of the wine, and some clones become closely identified with specific regions because they work particularly well with the soil types and climatic conditions.

The Gingin clone, for example, is the chardonnay clone most associated with the Margaret River. It was first imported by Houghton Winery in 1957 and is also referred to as the Mendoza clone although its origins are unclear. In the warm, maritime climate of the Margaret River, the low yielding Gingin clone endows the wine with complex citrus and tropical fruit flavours and a supple texture. Coupled with the low yields, the high skin to juice ratio of the grapes gives the wines great depth and concentration of flavours.

Curiously, the clone is affected by a phenomenon called “hen and chicken”. As you can see in the above photo, tiny, less ripe “chicken” grapes are mixed in with perfectly ripe golden “hen” berries. These little pea-sized chicken grapes provide the wine with natural acidity. (When the clone is planted in cooler areas, like Victoria’s Yarra Valley for example, the chickens outnumber the hens and the wines have even more acidity.)

Hooke notes that one of the drawbacks of the Gingin clone is that the grapes must be picked only when they are fully ripe. Consequently they have a higher baume, which leads to higher alcohol levels in the wines. Some wineries, like Voyager Estate and Devil’s Lair for example, are using other clones to create finer, more restrained wine styles with lower alcohol levels.

Interestingly, Fraser Gallop has moved in the other direction for the 2010 vintage of its acclaimed Parterre Chardonnay. The winery made the decision to pull out all of its Burgundy clones and only use the Gingin clone, arguing that the Gingin “has consistently out-performed the Burgundy clones, mainly because of its higher acidity, later ripening and and greater intensity of flavour which comes from the hen and chicken berries.” It’s creating more finely structured wines with less alcohol and higher acidity by harvesting the grapes at lower baumes – a strategy it believes also helps to restrain the phenolic nature of the Gingin clone.

Ah, the complex and fascinating art of wine making!

Merrill Witt, Editor

 

Photo Credit: Woodlands Winery, Margaret River

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