There are times when I take the good old phrase from Monty Python – “and now for something completely different” – to heart and abandon not just France but Europe and the Old World entirely, and send my palate to the New World. Actually, the parts of the New World mostly found in my cellar are Australia and New Zealand, and some of those bottles were pulled out for a recent tasting of Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay put together by two of us.
Last autumn Erik (blogging as Winepunker, but only in Swedish) and I put together a tasting of white Burgundy grand cru, and we quickly agreed to include a good New World Chardonnay in that tasting. We ended up choosing a Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay from Erik’s cellar, but while checking out the alternatives available, I mentioned that I had five vintages of Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay in my cellar. This is a wine from Margaret River in Western Australia, and it’s considered as one of the very best white wines from Australia. Erik then pointed out that he could get his hands on two more vintages, and suddenly we had enough bottles for a good vertical, and that’s how this tasting came about. I must say that it turned out to be a very good one.
Art Series Chardonnay is one of only three white wines listed next to the fourteen red wines at the highest level (“Exceptional”) of Langton’s classification of Australian wines. The other two white wines at this level are Giaconda Estate Chardonnay (one of Erik’s big favourites) and Grosset Polish Hill Riesling, the subject of a tasting I held a little over two years ago. The Langton classification is revised every five years, the latest was published in 2010, and only wines that have been available for at least ten years are included.
In general many Australian Chardonnays have gone through a stylistic change in the direction of more freshness and less obvious or overdone oak. This change started already quite a number of years ago, already during the 1990s for some pioneers, and we expected to see some of this change reflected in the lineup of Art Series vintages. The shift in style has also led to somewhat cooler regions (at least by Australian standards) coming into focus as the sources of the best white wines. Margaret River is such an area.
This tasting was also interesting since it was a tasting of a high end wine using screw caps. Wine producers across the globe – see and learn! Erik had found out that they introduced screw caps from 2002, but those bottles I had bought in Belgium (at least earlier a market considered less receptive to alternative closures, being partially a francophone country) were sealed with natural cork until the 2004 vintage, with 2005 the first screw capped vintage.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2008
Light yellow. Nose with strong citrus notes, ripe yellow fruit, some smoke, a hit of honey, hints of flowers, elegant. Palate with citrus, powerful concentration, high acidity, some spice, long aftertaste with mineral and good balance.
Rather young, quite good. 93 p
0 best and 1 worst vote from the participants.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2006
Light yellow. Nose with smoky notes and citrus, ripe yellow fruit, some flowers, mineral, a hint of herbal notes. Less citrus-dominated nose than the 2008. Palate with citrus, a lot of limes and grapefruit, quite concentrated, definitely high acidity, fresh aftertaste with mineral.
Young, very fresh, could develop more. Cooler impression than the 2008, but a great palate! 93+ p.
0 best and 1 worst vote from the participants.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2005
Light yellow. Nose with ripe citrus and other yellow fruit, some tropical fruit, honey, slightly smoky, some flowers, mineral. Deep fruit notes and a large nose with some notes of maturity. Palate with citrus, powerful concentration, good acidity, some spice and a hint of bitterness, long and grapefruit-dominated aftertaste.
Big nose, fresh and quite a lot of “punch” on the palate, but the palate is not quite of the same class as the 2006 and 2008. Could develop. 93 p.
2 best and 0 worst votes.
Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux Chardonnay 2005
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.
Pale yellow. Nose with citrus, slightly herbal, apple, discrete flowery notes, some green notes. The nose sets it apart from the rest. Palate with citrus, mineral, some green notes, high acidity, fresh aftertaste with a cool impression.
Very cool and firm, the oak is not evident, elegant. Rather young, 90 p.
0 best and 6 worst votes, including mine. Voted the worst wine of the tasting. We were surprised that it came across as so different and so much more tart, since this is a highly regarded Chardonnay that usually shows well.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2004
Bright yellow. Nose with plenty of citrus including zest, some honey, slightly flowery, some spice, slightly develped. Deep notes and an impressive nose. The palate is quite concentrated, and shows honey, citrus, minty mineral notes, high acidity, and a long aftertaste with fresgness, mint and mineral.
Deep fruit, delicious notes of maturity, a big wine. 94 p.
4 best and 1 worst votes, including my best vote. Second best wine of the tasting according to the votes.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2001
Bright yellow, slightly deeper colour. Nose with citrus including zest, ripe yellow fruit, some winter apples, some honet, a hint of nuts. Palate with yellow apple, winter apples, honey, mineral and mint, rather high acidity, some bitterness and a slightly metallic note.
Quite concentrated, but I’m slightly disturbed by the bitter note. Probably the most developed wine of this lineup. 91 p.
0 best and 2 worst votes.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2000
Bright yellow. The nose is slightly smoky, shows ripe yellow fruit, some citrus, honey, spice, some flower, some nuts, with development in evidence. The palate has powerful citrus notes, some honey, mineral and mint, good acidity, and a long minerally aftertaste.
Good development, but also has freshness. 93 p.
4 best and 0 worst votes. Voted the best wine of the tasting.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 1999
Bright yellow, slightly paler than 2001 and 2000. Nose with ripe citrus, some honey, flowers, mineral, some oak and some smoky notes, discrete development. The nose is younger than that of the 2000 and 2001. The palate shows powerful citrus notes, honey, very light bitterness, good acidity and a long aftertaste with mineral and mint.
Good development, shows freshness (and only very little bitterness). 93 p.
1 best and 0 worst votes.
The oak was only noticeable as a smoky note in the youngest wines. The nose varied quite a bit depending on the degree of development and also indicated some vintage variation. The wines were most similar in their long aftertaste, where we could find mineral notes, mint and freshness.
It was possible to detect that the oldest wines, 1999-2001, probably were made in a slightly heavier style with more obvious oak, but in this stage of their development the oak is well integrated. It was quite obvious that these wines improve some with cellaring, but I don’t see much point in exaggerate the length of cellaring. 5-10 years of age seems like a good time to drink them, possibly I could guess at 5-15 years for vintages with screw cap. It is obvious that they develop also under Stelvin closure (screw caps), but development will most likely be slower. 2004 under natural cork was darker and definitely felt more developed than the 2005.
In my opinion, the price of Art Series Chardonnay is quite reasonable for what’s in the bottle. No, it may not be an “everday Chardonnay” for those on a shoestring budget, but in my part of the world it costs approximately the same as an average white premier cru from Côte de Beaune, or perhaps half of what the cheaper among the white grand cru wines tends to cost. Stylistically they differ somewhat from top Burgundies, and rely more on citrus notes and are less perfumed. There is plenty of mineral in them, but they are perhaps not quite as mineral-dominated in the attack as many top Burgundies are, and I can imagine that they peak slightly earlier in their development. What I would like to stress is that there is definitely no clumsiness or lack of elegance in these wines, in case there is anyone who believes that New World Chardonnay is still like that at the top level. It could be said that they don’t have the complexity or that little extra something that would be the hallmark of a truly great white Burgundy, but for such a bottle you had better be prepared to pay at least four times of the price of the Art Series Chardonnay. Ultimately, my impression is not that Leeuwin has tried to make a Burgundy copy. Rather, they have been content to learn from top Burgundies, and used that as a starting point to produce a truly great Australian Chardonnay, that doesn’t pretend to be antyhig else than a truly great Australian Chardonnay. Cheers, mates!
Swedish version of the post here.