LEN EVANS was a legendary wine taster of Welsh ancestry who became a major force behind the massive growth of the Australian wine industry.
As an influential wine judge, he told it straight and in a style that caused one of his obituary writers in 2006 to describe him as “too direct ever to be a diplomat”. Even 15 years ago (ten years before the global chardonnay ennui), Evans was condemning the Oz predilection for the blousy, over-oaked chardonnays he famously nicknamed Dolly Partons.
Those who took his judgments seriously made adaptations that put them ahead of the curve when declining sales proved Evans to be right. Nowadays, wines such as theirs caused one respected UK buyer to say, only last month, that Australia is now the country sending him the most interesting chardonnay.
One man who recalls that frantic reinvention process from the days before he joined his current company is Neil Hadley MW, now export manager for Taylors (known by the Wakefield name in the UK and US, to avoid confusion with the unconnected port shippers). However, as Hadley readily accepts, Wakefield wines have long been well ahead of the herd as evidenced by 2011 Wakefield Eighty Acres Chardonnay, an unoaked version with an attractive creamy texture and lemon undercurrents that develop tropical fruit and spice flavours and is ideally suited, for example, to salmon. I also enjoyed two Wakefield rieslings. The 2011 Wakefield Jaraman Riesling sources extra fruit from outside the main estates and delivers a light, lemon-based style with very well-balanced acidity, while the signature offering, 2010 Wakefield St Andrews Riesling, has fuller flavours with rich lime fruit and excellent concluding minerality.
Among the reds, I was hugely impressed by the fantastic run of Wakefield St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon from 2001-2004. Their different rates of development mean the most recent of these is probably the best for current drinking. All three have rich, intense blackcurrant fruit but the 2004 has greater emphasis on black cherry than the others and less tannin. For any of those classic cabernets (£25-£30), enquire at Raeburn Fine Wines. At less money, but a step down the hierarchy, come the rich, plum, mint and chocolate flavours of a much underestimated variety in the 2009 Wakefield Estate Merlot (£8.79, Majestic).
Another winemaker who makes exceptionally good, modern-style chardonnay is David Bicknell,. from Oakridge in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. He is exceptionally proud of his Scottish connections – both his parents were originally from Edinburgh – and now that his wines are available from on-trade specialist Matthew Clark, you can expect to see them in Scottish restaurants soon. His 2010 Over the Shoulder Chardonnay is the entry-point version but delivers impressive creamy, lemon and vanilla flavours with a strong sense of minerality. Bicknell is committed to a style that reflects the characteristics of the plot on which it was grown but little else. Given the Yarra Valley’s suitability for pinot and chardonnay, that means adopting essentially Burgundian techniques.
Even his 2011 Oakridge Limited Release Fumé, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, is largely produced in the same way as his chardonnay, Hand-picked bunches are pressed whole, barrel-fermented, left on the lees and aged for six months in French oak. The result is a polished and distinctive wine with smooth, lemon and lime flavours and excellent balance. I also enjoyed 2006 Oakridge Shiraz, with its intense, warm bramble flavours bound together with good acidity and a spicy finish. All three represent accomplished wine, made with pride and shaped by a practical yet scientific mind.
With Australia Day a couple of weeks away, this is a good time to pay tribute to producers who are spearheading change and keeping alight the torch Len Evans lit a decade and a half ago.
2010 Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay Limari Valley, Chile, 13.5 per cent
Zingy and crisp chardonnay from the northern (but high-altitude) Limari region that is light in texture yet brimful of greengage and green apple flavours, with a whiff of vanilla from the small proportion aged in oak. £5.99 (down from £7.49 until 29 January), Morrisons
2010 Blackburn & James Shiraz Lodi California, 13.5 per cent
Relatively gentle and soft shiraz – perhaps because there is a sizeable lump of merlot – but excellent rich and smooth flavours of dark fruit with hints of raspberry. £5.99 (down from £8.99 until 24 January), Waitrose