Hunter Valley chardonnay exists in the shadow of the region’s semillon but it remains a force in its own right, according to Meerea Park Wines managing director Garth Eather.
Founded by brothers Garth and Rhys Eather, Meerea Park this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of its first vintage, 1991, at which stage the company produced exclusively chardonnay from its own Meerea Park vineyard in Bulga.
“Rhys convinced Dad to convert our table grape vineyard onto chardonnay, and there was a ready market,” Garth Eather told Drinks Adventures.
“At one stage we had 40 acres of chardonnay, and it was quite good quality.
“Back in the 1990s it was chardonnay, chardonnay, chardonnay. There were only 500 or 600 wineries in Australia in those days, and if you made wine, you sold it.”
The Eathers sold the Meerea Park vineyard in 1995, but retained the brand name.
“Rhys, being the typical Hunter winemaker, saw that the future in the Hunter was in semillon and shiraz,” Garth Eather says.
Meerea Park diversified into semillon and shiraz, but remained equally committed to chardonnay, even as the variety fell out of fashion.
Eather says it is little surprise that consumers embraced sauvignon blanc at the expense of chardonnay, which became increasingly “blousy, over-oaked and buttery” in the 1990s.
“But now, chardonnay is back. Really good Aussie chardonnay in the style that it’s being made now, is delectable,” he says.
“It’s currently one of the most popular and easy to sell varieties. We haven’t got one bottle of chardonnay to sell at the moment, we’re waiting for the 2021s to come through.”
Hunter chardonnay ‘underrated’
Chardonnay, semillon and shiraz enjoy equal billing as top level wines in Meerea Park’s Alexander Munro range, named for the Eathers’ ancestor; a Scottish convict who arrived in 1831 and planted the Bebeah vineyard in Singleton in 1860.
“To be credited as a top Hunter producer you need to do a very good semillon and a very good shiraz,” Eather says.
“But I believe chardonnay sits not far behind semillon in the Hunter. I don’t think there’s a red variety here that comes close to shiraz, and I don’t think there’s a white variety that comes close to chardonnay.”
Eather argues Hunter chardonnay hasn’t had the attention it deserves due to the tendency of the region to “rest on its laurels”.
“The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine producing region, and I think in years gone by there’s been a lot of complacency,” he says.
“I think other regions have had to fight harder to get people to take notice of them.”
He says chardonnay’s heritage is unrivalled in the Hunter, which is home of the first commercial chardonnay released in Australia, Tyrrell’s Vat 47 (debuted in 1971).
The quality of Hunter chardonnay was underlined when the Silkman Reserve Chardonnay won the James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge in 2015, adds Eather, who points out that it is also the flagship variety at renowned Hunter wineries such as Scarborough and Lakes Folly.
“Hunter chardonnay is ready to drink early on,” he says.
“Look at Margaret River and you’ve normally got citrusy, grapefruit characters, while Hunter is more in the stone fruit and melon spectrum.
“That as a young wine is beautiful to drink. The cooler climates need more time to get to that stage.”
At a recent media lunch to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Meerea Park demonstrated the quality of its 2019 Alexander Munro Chardonnay by serving it alongside others from fellow Hunter winery Lakes Folly, Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate, Tolpuddle in Tasmania and a Domain Blain Gagnard Batard Montrachet from Burgundy, which retails at $600.
The 2021 Meera Park chardonnays will be released in October 2021.