Australian Chardonnay – the good and the bad

Australian Chardonnay

Australia makes a lot of Chardonnay. And while most of it is bulk wine, think Yellow Tail, there are several growing regions where the climate is cool enough to produce higher quality whites. A handcrafted Australian Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, Yarra Valley or Tumbarumba can be clean, crisp and mineral driven. These are white wines that might be made in a Burgundian style and retail for $35-200.

Though handcrafted wines are often produced by small family owned wineries, there are several large Australian producers making top Chardonnay as well. One of these is Penfolds. Their Chardonnay Bin 311 sells for $40 and is a blend of fruit from Tasmania, Tumbarumba and the Adelaide Hills. Penfolds also has a higher priced Chardonnay, Bin 144, that sells for $150 and can hold its own against some of the best Chardonnays in the world. It’s an elegant white wine with lemon, white-peach and hints of oak.

A high end bottle of Chardonnay wine from the Adelaide Hills Australia by Penfolds

In Australia’s mid tier price range, the Chardonnay retails for $15-35. You might get a wine that’s buttery and rich, or fruit and mineral driven. The difference comes down to where in Australia the grapes were grown and the style of the individual winemaker or producer. These wines are often a great value and will likely come from the same regions as the higher priced Chardonnay.

Australia Wine Tip: Penfolds names all of their wines according to the “bin” where they originally stored the wine.

Chardonnay is a wine that can be made in different styles

Chardonnay can be crisp and fruit-forward or more buttery and rich. The difference often comes down to whether or not the wine has undergone zero, partial or 100% malolactic fermentation. This is a process in which the sharper acids in white wine are changed to lactic acid, which is softer and more round, with a richer texture. Chardonnay can also be unoaked or oak aged in neutral or new oak barrels.

There are different styles of Australian Chardonnay including this buttery rich wine that has seen malolactic fermentation

3 Styles of Australian Chardonnay

  1. High acid, crisp, lean, and mineral driven Chardonnay with citrus fruit flavors. This wine can have partial malolactic or no malolactic fermentation and can be oaked or unoaked. You can describe its style as more reserved.
  2. Rich, full-bodied and buttery Chardonnay. This wine can be complex and have full or partial malolactic fermentation.
  3. Commercial and bulk produced wine. This wine tastes like a regular white wine with some Chardonnay characteristics. It can be dry to medium-dry.

Where in Australia do they make Chardonnay?

In the southwest, near the city of Perth, you’ll find the Margaret River and Pemberton areas where the wine is mineral driven and has great stone-fruit flavors, like peach and nectarine. On the other side of the country at about the same parallel are the Adelaide Hills where the vineyards benefit from higher altitudes and a marine climate that’s cool and best suited for Chardonnay grapes.

Further south and to the east is the Yarra Valley, a region outside of Melbourne. The wines here are citrus driven with great acidity and fruit like melon and white-peach. Outside of Victoria is an area called Tumbarumba, and some of the most distinctive Australian Chardonnays come from Tasmania, an island in the south. If you want to try an Australian Chardonnay in the mid price range you can also look for a wine from the Upper Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Orange, or Hilltop regions.

The Chardonnay grape

Chardonnay is a white wine grape that originally comes from the Burgundy region in France. It likes cooler climates so it can ripen more slowly and develop its sugars and acidity in tandem. The Chardonnay grape is light to medium gold in color and can give flavors of citrus, stone-fruit and melon. It’s often said the higher the elevation of the vineyard, and the closer to the sea, the better the Chardonnay will be because temperatures are likely to be cooler.

History of wine production in Australia

They’ve been making wine down under since the 1820s, but most Australian production was sweet, fortified wine up until the 1960s. Chardonnay took hold in the 1980s when Australian winemakers and producers began planting more grapes for dry white table wines. Today, the country produces over 130 million cases of dry table wine a year.

Penfold’s makes some of Australia’s top Chardonnay including this wine from the Adelaide Hills region

Choosing a top Chardonnay

Mid price range and higher-end Australian Chardonnay is not always easy to find in the United States. This is because most retailers carry primarily commercial level white wines from Australia. You may need to request that your local wine shop order some in.

Here are some producers you can ask for:

  • Robert Oatley. Robert Oatley makes bright Chardonnay with white-peach notes. The wines tend to be gently oaked.
  • Shaw + Smith. Shaw + Smith make top quality both oaked and unoaked wines.
  • Leeuwin. From the Margaret River, Leeuwin makes a lower price Chardonnay for $44. Their top price wines retail for around $125.
  • Penfolds. Penfolds is known for their Shiraz, in particular Grange Shiraz which is considered one of the top wines in the world. They also make Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and red wine blends.

There are a lot of smaller producers not listed here, so if you like Australian Chardonnay do your research and see which wines are available in your area. Either that, or it may be time to book your next wine tasting vacation!

Lower price commercial Chardonnay like Yellow tail is wine that’s a blend of grapes grown in different regions

How about Yellow Tail?

Yellow Tail, along with other commercial producers like Little Penguin, Lindeman’s and Jacob’s Creek buy their fruit from different growers in southern Australia. Their wines are a blend of grapes from various regions and are made to be more uniform and consistent in taste from vintage to vintage. The reason these wines are so low in price is they’re not handmade and the grapes don’t come from the best places to grow Chardonnay e.g. Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, Yarra Valley. They’re also large scale production wines which are exported around the world to meet a lower price market demand.

Food pairings for Australian Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a white wine that’s more versatile than many people think. Because of the various styles in which it can be made, you can pair this wine with a wide variety of foods, from roasted chicken to veal dishes, and all types of seafood. You might serve a mid-priced Australian Chardonnay with appetizers to welcome guests at a dinner party or open a higher-end bottle for a special dinner.

Wine regions in Australia where they make the best Chardonnay are mostly in the South and include the Yarra Valley, Margaret River, and Adelaide Hills

More on Australian wine growing regions

Australia is one of the world’s hottest places and most of the country is not suitable for growing grapes for wine. The areas that do produce wine are mainly in the south where there’s cooler weather.

These are some of the best regions for Australian Chardonnay:

Margaret River

The Margaret River in Western Australia State is a coastal wine growing region. The soils in Margaret River vary and can be sandy with gravel over clay or granite. They grow Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc here, as well as red wine grapes like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. The region benefits from Antarctic currents which bring cooler air to this part of the country.

Adelaide Hills

This area started out as a fruit growing region but was then planted with more vines in the 1970s. The high hills catch good ocean breezes and the soil is sandy with some limestone. The Adelaide Hills are known for their white wine production, including Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They also make some elegant Pinot Noirs.

Tumbarumba

Tumbarumba in New South Wales is a higher altitude area that’s close to the ocean. They have a lot of granite in the soil here and they’re known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also grow grapes for sparkling wine.

Tasmania

Tasmania is the coolest state in Australia but because of strong winds only certain areas are suitable for growing grapes. They have a lot of clay and gravelly soils, along with sandstone. Their Chardonnay tends to be highly aromatic and high acid. They also make wines like Pinot Noir and Riesling here.

Why you should try Riesling from Australia

Not everyone’s a fan of Chardonnay, and if you like Riesling, Australia now produces some of the driest, most mineral driven and dynamic Riesling in the world. Most Riesling comes from either the Eden Valley or Clare Valley and is very reasonably priced, ranging from $15-40.

They make Sauvignon Blanc too

Australian Sauvignon Blanc is typically a crisp and dry white wine. It doesn’t have the tropical fruit and gooseberry that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is known for.

Red wines from Australia

Shiraz

This is the Australian name for Syrah, a grape that originated in France. It’s also the signature red wine of Australia. Some of the best Australian Shiraz comes from the Barossa Valley where the wines are rich with full berry-flavors and spice. Because it was one of the first grapes to be planted in Australia, they have a lot of old vines that are now producing some unique and intense red wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon

This is a grape that likes warm temperatures and it follows that it’s done well in some parts of the country. There’s a big variance in soil types in Australia’s Cab vineyards though, so expect different styles. Of note, because of the eucalyptus trees in the region you can sometimes find hints of mint and eucalyptus in the wines. Look for a bottle from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra or Margaret River.

Red wine blends

Australia makes some delicious Cabernet-Shiraz blends. They also have a GSM blend that’s Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre. This is a full-bodied wine that’s similar to a red wine from the southern Rhône region of France.

  • Grape or wine profile
author

Freddy is a retired wine professional and wine educator who was Vice President of the sixth largest wine importer and wholesaler in the United States for over 40 years. He currently works as a wine consultant and collaborates with his daughter to write articles that help people learn about wine.

Brian Keeping
Reviewer

Brian Keeping

Brian is an avid wine enthusiast and wine educator who has spent 45+ years in the fine wine industry. From 1975 to 1994 he was part owner and sales director of Silenus Wines and from 1994 to 2021 served as Fine Wine Director at Carolina Wines & Spirits.

Write a Comment

  • Tony Lupton
    Tony Lupton

    An Aussie perspective. I’d add Evans & Yate, Taylors, and Hardys to the list of reliable houses (although I don’t know how available they will be outside of Australia) Evans & Tate’s Butterball is a superb fully malolactic chardonnay that will work beautifully with any strongly-flavoured white meat dishes.

    I’d also add the Hunter Valley to the list of good Cab Sav regions

    • Meredith Cicerchia
      Meredith Cicerchia

      Thanks for that input Tony! Your perspective is very much appreciated given you’re on the ground and have access to much more than we do in the US and UK. That’s the main issue here. It’s hard to find some of these Chardonnays outside of Australia (and yes, Hunter Valley does make some good Cabs :).)

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