Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay (2011)

The Murray Darling is Australia’s second largest wine region. 1,300 growers harness 23,000 hectares of vineyard to produce 400,000 tonnes of grapes annually – a harvest that can represent up to a quarter of Australia’s entire wine production. Relatively flat, fertile land that is largely free of disease and pests experiences a hot continental climate that sees large yields of grapes, thereby making the Murray Darling a perfect region for bulk wine production. And produce in bulk, the growers of the Murray Darling have! Around 130,000 tonnes of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are harvested each year, along with 100,000 tonnes of Chardonnay (thereby making the Murray Darling the largest producing region for Chardonnay anywhere in Australia).

Despite carrying a reputation for bulk wine production, the Murray Darling has seen the number of (high) quality wines grown within its borders increase in recent years. And the key to the success of these high quality wines has been in differentiating between subtly different vineyard sites. In a region that is largely flat and dominated by the Murray and Darling Rivers, soil type and drainage is key in producing top quality wines. In poorly drained sites, water retention causes vines to thrive a little too much, causing vast quantities of dilutely flavoured grapes to be produced. In well drained sites (the difference can be as little as one or two degrees of slope) enough water is drained away so that fewer but more intensely flavoured grapes can be produced.

One person who knows the vineyards of the Murray Darling well is Elizabeth Richardson. Born in Perth, Western Australia, Liz has seen her career in wine take her around the world. Having completed a degree in Viticulture & Oenology at Curtin University, Liz’s first vintage was at the West Cape Howe Winery (Western Australia). Further experience followed in the Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley and Tasmania, before travelling through South America in 2004. On her return, Liz spent three years as an assistant winemaker back in Western Australia before yet another foreign trip, this time to Italy.

On her return in 2009, a fulltime winemaker’s post awaited her in Murray Darling. Since 2004, Liz has racked up an impressive number of gold medals and other awards, and according to the UK importer for this “Houseboat” Chardonnay has a contact book of grape growers in the Murray Darling that is second to none. In producing wines under the “The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling” label in the n├ęgociant style (where she buys other growers’ grapes to produce her own wines, rather than growing them herself), this knowledge of the Murray Darling is vital in order to secure the best grapes.

Believing in an “old world” approach to winemaking, Liz adopts an approach of minimal interference during vinification. For this “Houseboat” Chardonnay this approach means that the wine is vinifed in stainless steel for 7-10 days, prior to a minimal stirring through of the “lees” left over from the process. This “Houseboat” Chardonnay is then matured in stainless steel, with some portions of the wine seeing “French and American oak alternatives” (oak chips or staves submerged in the wine) added.

Looking at the bottle of this Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay, it is slightly different to much Australian Chardonnay in that it is bottled in a high-shouldered bottle rather than a more typical low-shouldered bottle shape. Much of the front of the bottle is covered by a large white label. This Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay is sealed with a screw cap.

In the glass, this Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay is clear and lemon coloured. With slightly too much lemony richness to be considered pale, there are also tinges of a gooseberry green hue that appear. Alcohol is moderate at 13% abv, which is less than some Australian Chardonnay (that can reach as much as 14.5% abv) although is more than some Chardonnay produced in the Murray Darling (that can have as little as 12.5% abv).

On swirling, restrained tropical fruit aromas are released from this Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay. Notes of grapefruit lead, although there is also a fresher aroma of green apple that flits around the margins of the bouquet.

Once in the mouth, this Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay reveals itself to be dry and light-to-medium-bodied. Restrained notes of tropical grapefruit and pineapple are smoothly textured across the length of the palate, with a moderate level of acidity assisting. A hint of nuttiness, presumably enabled by the “oak alternatives” adds an unusual note to the mid-palate and finish of this wine. Relatively short in the mouth, at times this “Houseboat” Chardonnay seems a little unbalanced and at others is just unusual with sour pineapple over prevalent into the finish.

In conclusion, this The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay is an unusual style of Chardonnay and will surely be an acquired taste. Tropical fruit notes of pineapple and grapefruit are usual in warm climate Chardonnay, although a comparatively light body is not. This lack of weight in the mid-palate sees these tropical fruit notes overwhelm the flavours contributed by the applied “oak alternatives” that would normally balance out the overt fruit with a smoothing vanilla nuttiness and additional weight (one must think that if real oak barrels had been used for maturation, a wine of better balance would have resulted).

A lesser wine than the other two white wine offerings in the “The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling” range – both the “The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc” and “Crooked Mick” Viognier are substantially more accomplished wines. The “Crooked Mick” Viognier is particularly accomplished, desirable and reasonably priced.
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The Spee’Wah of the Murray Darling “Houseboat” Chardonnay (2011)

Score: 73/100 – An unusually composed style of Chardonnay

Value for Money: 4/10 – This The Spee'Wah of the Murray Darling "Houseboat" Chardonnay is expensive (at £8.25 per bottle) for this score.
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