Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have an excessive access to California North Coast wine. And, while I’m not exactly complaining, I am admitting that this has, in some ways, stunted my international wine perspective. So studying for the WSET, in which you’re expected to know a lot of detail about different winemaking regions throughout the world can be a bit daunting. And there are two country’s that intimidate me the most. France: its history, its reputation, it’s frickin’ variety of different wine laws. Australia: It’s huge. So when I received the following practice question I had a bit of a heart attack. But then I realized that there’s an opportunity here, an opportunity to tackle two fears at once.
During service a customer asks you to recommend an Australian alternative for his two favorite French wines. Recommend alternative wines that have a similar style, quality, and price. You must account for the factors in the vineyard and winery which make your choices appropriate. Also explain any important differences in the wine.
Let’s tackle this a step at a time shall we?
The first wine they ask about is a Meursault Premier Cru.
Ok, Meursault. The first thing you need to know to answer this question is that Meursault is located in Burgundy. Burgundy, in general, has a continental climate that ranges from cool continental in the north (as in, Chablis) to moderate continental in the south (as in, Maconnais or even, if you want to count it, Beaujolais). Then we have to ask ourselves, where is Mersault on this wine map and in this weather spectrum?
Côte d’Or is considered the “heart” of Burgundy, producing some of the best wines from the varieties the region, as a whole, is best known for: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. TERROIR FACT: The Massif Central runs alongside the western edge of the Côte d’Or, which creates east and south-east facing hillsides—ideal locations for vineyard planting. It also shields those vines from cold winds coming from the west.
The Côte d’Or is segmented into two regions: Côte de Nuits (in the north) and Côte de Beaune (in the south). FUN FACT: All the red grand crus (except one), are produced in the Côte de Nuit; all the white grand crus, except for one, come from the Côte de Beaune. (More on the hierarchy of Burgundian appellations later).
Since we know that fun fact, let’s do a little deeper dive:
From north to south, the key villages of the Côte de Nuits are Gevry-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne Romanee, and Nuits Saint-Georges.
On the Côte de Beaune, the most important villages are Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
Hello! So, we’ve gotten this far: Meursault is a village in the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy. FUN FACT: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet are the three villages with the highest reputation for white wines. And since we’re in Burgundy, we know that white wine means…Chardonnay. (I told you I was taking this a step at a time.)
CHARDONNAY FACT: Chardonnay accounts for nearly half the total vineyard area in Burgundy.
As you can imagine, the style of Chardonnay is going to shift from north to south, given the range of the climate. When we think Chablis, we often think cool, steely, minerally—although, side note, some of those coming from premier or grand crus sites will have a bit more development, riper flavors, and winemakers may even take the time to oak age a certain percentage of the wine, which will give a rounder texture and additional subtle flavors. But I digress…
We’re talking about the Côte de Beaune, which is a bit warmer, more “moderate” continental than “cool” continental, which means that grapes have a better chance of developing those sugars, riper fruit flavors (we’re thinking stone fruits instead of citrus or green fruits) and, as such, they can handle a bit of barrel fermentation, barrel aging, MLF and/or lees aging without overwhelming the grapes’ innate characteristics. (Of course, I must add, that exact winemaking styles will always depend on the producer.)
There’s one more element that we need to discuss and that is the fact that the wine specifically states premier cru. PREMIER CRUS FACT: Without getting too far into the weeds here, the hierarchy of Burgundian Appellations, from low to high, goes thusly:
- Regional appellations—Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc are the most generic appellations; they can come from anywhere in Burgundy and are usually made from Pinot Noir (Rouge) or Chardonnay (Blanc).
- There are a few regional appellations that cover more restricted areas. This includes: Bourgogne Haute Cote de Nuit, Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune and Bourgogne Cote Chalonnais as well as Macon in the Maconnais for red wine and Macon Villages in Maconnais for the white wines.
- Commune Appellations—Usually just the name of the commune will appear on the label (such as Chablis or Gevry-Chambertin). If the wine comes from a single vineyard that is not a premier or grand crus, that vineyard name may also appear on the label. Also, just FYI and to be even more confusing, the term village is used interchangeably with commune. (Wicked.)
- Single Vineyard Appellations: Premiers Crus and Grands Crus—Above village appellations are the premier cru and then the grand cru at top spot. These are vineyards that have consistently made high-quality wines and FUN FACT: They are usually owned by more than one person/entity. Wines must state premier crus and, again, if it comes from a single vineyard it will state it on the label, but producers can blend different premier crus sites from the same village to make their wine, in which case the village and premier cru will be on the label. Grand cru, on the other hand, are recognized by the fact that only the vineyard appears on the label (as well as the term grand cru).
Alright, I got a little weedy there, but knowing that our client is specifically looking for something comparable to a premier cru is an important component to this question. If they had named an appellation wine, in our case they would have stated Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, this would have indicated a slightly different style of wine (and obviously price point, which is another component to answering this question). FUN FACT: Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune regional appellation vineyards are planted to the west and at a higher altitude. Higher altitude means cooler climate. Western exposure means exposure to those cold winds coming from the west. And what do we know about cool climate? Less ripening, less body, less concentration.
Alright, so we’ve identified what it is our client likes, the style he’s looking to mimic in Australia. So now we have to hop on a 24 hour plane ride to the other side of the planet…
As mentioned above, Australia is huge—so there is a massive variety of climates and soils found throughout the country. In general, because of Australia’s latitude, most of the winegrape growing regions are considered warm or hot climate regions. However, proximity to the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean or the Murray River system can help moderate those conditions, as can planting at altitude. So, there’s actually a broad range of grapes that can be grown and styles of wines that can be produced.
So, I think the best way to figure out Australia as a wine producing country is by breaking it up into its states. Each state produces wine, and depending on whether vines are located along the coast, inland, on hills, etc., one can achieve a better grasp of what wines are produced where and in what style. Might sound obvious, but I told you: One step at a time.
For the benefit of this question, I’m not going to go through each state or wine region individually, but focus in on the region(s) that best answer this question.
FUN FACT: Chardonnay is actually the most widely planted white wine grape in all of Australia. So, our client is in luck. At its most basic, Australian Chardonnay is often a blend of fruit from different regions, produced in an unoaked style. Not what our fancy client is looking for. Someone who is looking for high-quality Chardonnay is going to want to turn their focus to the cool and moderate climates that can grow a fully-ripened Chardonnay that still maintains its natural acidity. It would need to be hearty enough, as well, to handle a bit of oak, MLF, and/or lees aging to develop the complexity our client desires in his wine.
For that, I’m going to turn to Victoria and the wine producing regions of Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Geelong.
Victoria has some of the coolest vineyard locations in Australia. The more coastal locations (within proximity to Melbourne, which if you’ve ever been is quite chilly, indeed) benefit from ocean breezes, perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—which come together to produce sparkling wine in some vintages. A bit further inland, we find the Great Dividing Range. Here, high altitude sites also provide cool vineyard locations where, again, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (as well as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) can grow successfully. SIDE NOTE: Vineyards located toward the base of those slopes are more ideally suited for the later ripening varieties Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but still produce a fresher, leaner style than those same grapes grown in the warmer or hotter regions of the country.
Yarra Valley, Victoria is cool to moderate maritime and also has a variety of altitudes on which vines can be planted. While the specialty here is actually Pinot Noir, Chardonnay can also be grown successfully. Although, admittedly, it will not have the weight or body from warmer regions. So, while this would be a suitable wine to offer your client, it may not be perfect.
Mornington Peninsula, Victoria is also located along the coast and maintains a cool to moderate maritime climate. Here, vintage variation is a concern, with some cool, wet, and windy weather during flowering that can affect the resulting harvest. But the best years have an extended growing season, meaning those Chardonnay grapes can develop delicate fruit flavors (citrus, pear, apple) as well as maintain their natural high acidities, which winemakers tend to soften with malolactic fermentation (MLF). This, I would argue, would be a better Chardonnay to offer your client, although, admittedly, still not perfect.
Geelong, Victoria has similar climatic conditions as Mornington Peninsula. But here, perhaps because it is more westward, or perhaps because the region is pushed more inland than Mornington, Chardonnay quality tends to be more complex, more concentrated, and the wines more full-bodied. So, this may be the most suitable Chardonnay from Victoria to serve your client.
I’m also going to make the case for Margaret River, located in Western Australia. This coastal region has a warm maritime climate and it is here that Chardonnay is able to develop riper stone-fruit aromas while still maintaining a a high level of acidity. Thus, producers can utilize the whole spectrum of winemaking, including barrel aging, MLF and lees aging to add depth and complexity and, I’m going to add, age-ability as well. If it were me and this were my client, this is the wine I’d serve.
I know there are a few folks out there who would want to make the argument for Tasmania as well. Yes, you can’t forget about Tas as a legit wine producing region in Australia. But although Tasmania has a cool maritime climate that is kept cool by the westerly winds off of the Southern Ocean, I’m going to argue that these Chardonnays are a bit more light-bodied, crisp, with citrus and green fruit notes—more akin to those we’d find in the cool-cool climate Chablis. In fact, FUN FACT: Tasmania is very well known for producing the base wines for much of AU’s sparkling wines (which as we discussed in a previous post, need to be light-bodied and low-alcohol.)
So, how’d I do? Is there another answer you’d like to add? Also, I realize that the question asks about two wines and we’ve only just talked about the one. So, stay tuned for Part 2 when we compare Australian wine with…Bordeaux!
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