Wine making is as much a philosophical endeavour as any, probably more than most; for liquids capture the life-force, the essential Prana or Chi, as well as the essence of intention. Therefore, the glass contains not only the wine, but the winemaker’s intent and to a certain extent, his or her integrity or spirit of adventure. If the winemaker is overly cautious, it shows up in the finished product. Timidity translates into boring wine. Over-ambition might show up as excess tannins. Sloppy wine-making shows up as sloppy wine. Wine made in a formulaic manner—as if following an instruction book—renders a stillborn beverage.
Of course, there’s the soil. It plays The fundamental, defining role, as great wines are always expressions of the land and the winemaker is simply the vineyard’s steward, caretaker and vassal. Wine is a liquid sample of the ground on which the vines are planted. In wine with a high degree of minerality, one can almost taste the furrows in the striations deep beneath the soil, this, the legacy of tectonic shifts through millennia. Of course, the circle is not complete until the grapes are mashed and juiced, for it is the fruit that assuages, nurtures and imparts a corporal dimension to the wine.
The winemaker provides the spirit.
This is where things stray into the realm of alchemy. Ask some of the worlds greatest winemaker’s how they make wine and you’re apt to hear something along the lines of a cryptic, “well…we just pick ‘em when they’re ready, make sure it doesn’t get too hot in there… put ‘em in wood for a while and bottle it.”
Which brings me to the Chardonnay in question.
Hoddles Creek 1er Yarra Valley Chardonnay is a pale yellow straw colored wine of integrity, intelligence, noble aspirations and possessing a graceful, nervy quality sometimes referred to as “breeding”. Simply put, it’s a classy wine. It also pulses with what I think of as, ‘the golden vein’, that intrinsic, oily-buttery-vanillin characteristic found in Chardonnays of substance. This quality coupled with mineral components can provide a corpulence that is palpably dense, in some cases approximating the weighty mouthfeel of honey on the tongue. That lode is a kind of heartbeat and it is what sets thoroughbred Chardonnays like this one apart from its lesser brethren.
Because not all Chardonnays are created equal. Take the aforementioned wines of Chablis, for instance. They are 100% Chardonnay (at one time the grape was known as “Beaunois” in those parts, for it had been taken there from vineyards around Beaune) but they offer a completely different flavour profile than that of more southerly white Burgundies. The great wines of Chablis have a certain stoic, stony majesty about them. (Think Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon…the women with their angular, sculptural faces.) While the high-glycerol “fatness” of mature white burgundies could be evocative of say Rubens, or a Madonna by Raphael, their honeyed flavours providing a kind of flesh and sensuousness. Yet, they too have mystery and reserve, a story to tell. (Even if Ruben’s Venus at a Mirror might have been the product of er, overripe fruit.)
According to the winery-supplied notes, the 1er Yarra Chardonnay is made from a single, east-facing block; picked at more mature levels of ripeness than the standard label. It shows a “citrus drive with abundant melon and stone fruit characters”. The finer shadings of those specific tasting notes are arguable, but regardless, Hoddles Creek has clearly set out to make a wine of depth and distinction, informed by a handcrafted sensibility.
In countries where centuries of wine making have taken place (like, France), the vineyards dictate the name of the wines. In essence, the name of the wine refers to the growing area, village, or vineyard from which it hails. The more specific the designation, the better the wine, in theory and generally, in practice. The New World does not have a 200-year+ history in wines produced from specific place-names, Thus, we have no ‘Cru’ designations, no “First” or “Great Growths”—sub-classifications really. A Chablis 1er Cru is simply the product of a smaller–and superior—growing area within the vineyards classified as Chablis. However, the 1er cru tag was earned over decades and decades of continuously producing finer wines.
I can only surmise that Hoddles Creek is attempting to recapture some of this Old World narrative with their ‘1er Yarra Valley’ designation and label design. In addition, why not? This is a wine for laying down and waiting, a wine that ostensibly befits the tradition of Grand Cru (“Great Growth”) or 1er Cru (“First Growth”) status, standing apart from Hoddles Creek Estate Chardonnay as it does. If measured greatness is the stated goal, this wine comes tantalizingly close.
That said, the bottle I sampled ended with tannic “sour notes” —courtesy of the time spent in wood—on the finish. The next day, the tannins were unrepentant, still clamouring for attention. Its a despairing set of tannic notes, for they brought the wine’s innocent brilliance and sinuous curve of its fruit to a halt; like quiet celebrations put to a sudden end by the joy police—civility invaded upon by anarchic, subversive elements. Over-oaked? Possibly. However, this wine is not fully formed. It could blossom further and no doubt will. Whether it develops the body necessary to mitigate the wood present in the narrative remains an open question.
As a side note, the Hoddles Creek Estate 1er Yarra Valley wine recently received a 97-point “score” by a local wine writer. Its cousin, the 2010 Hoddles Creek Estate Chardonnay received 92 points from the same writer. Two completely different expressions of the same varietal served up and rated, assigned a “score” separating them by a mere 5 points (!) in an absurd value system that panders to consumers and serves only to distort perceptions.
Do not be fooled. The Estate Chardonnay is a very good wine, round, made to please without being inconsequential. With a couple of year’s time, it could even become a great wine. Nevertheless, it lives on a different planet, and therefore, a completely different conversation should be taking place. Regardless how both turn out, however, these wines are different creatures now and will remain even more so in the future—far more different than the 5-point spread could ever account for. This score would be a bit like someone deciding to rate the planet Venus at 97 points and Mars at 92, explaining that, “well, they’re not that far apart”.
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Mineral water may have a mineral component, but with vines it becomes the life blood running through the veins of the plant, for the liquid from the ground is that which feeds the grape. (This can happen rather quickly: a sudden rainstorm on ready-to-pick grapes can ruin a harvest in a few short hours.) As a general rule, vines produce grapes of much better character when the plants’ roots have had to “struggle”, digging deep within the soil to find water–the very water that will be teeming with mineral components from its underground quarters. It’s these mineral components that inform the grape and impart the wine with its unique imprimatur; the core tenet of the notion of terroir, the very basis for all the DOC and DOCG laws. In France, vineyard irrigation is prohibited* precisely to preserve the character of the wines grown on different soil types—especially those known as Growths.
*A winemaker friend’s perspective: “In general, it is illegal to irrigate vineyards in France, but as you know, any political system is rigged in favour of those who have some power. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they’ve been able to get “special exemptions” for the last several years to irrigate, and my presumption is that has happened elsewhere as well. Other small growers just do it on the sly sometimes and hope they’re not denounced by their neighbours.”
Hoddles Creek Estate
Victoria 3139 AUSTRALIA
Winemaker Franco D’Anna
+61 3 5967 4692