David Pike reports this week on one of his favourite events, the Cullen chardonnay tasting.

THE Cullen chardonnay tasting is the year’s highlight for many lovers of the variety. With 20 top-notch chardonnays on offer it is a marvellous event that transfixes the audience. Swirling, sniffing and, on the odd occasion, spitting out of the world-class chardonnays takes place each October in the winery at Cullen. It is a tasting that shows the amazing diversity and class of the noble chardonnay variety.

This year the tasting focused on the 1998 vintage from around the world. Few of the great chardonnay producing regions around the globe would have described the 1998 vintage as ideal, however. Margaret River was hit with a couple of bouts of rain at inopportune times, with February and March not the best time to be watering the vines. The Burgundy region struggled with frost problems for most of the year and then, just when they thought it is safe, down came the rain in the weeks just before the vintage was beginning. Only a break in the conditions with some warm weather enabled the French to salvage some smart wines from the vintage. The Americans had a dreadful start to the season with frost and massive rainfalls, however someone seemed to be looking down upon the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, which were blessed with ideal conditions. In turn, winemakers in these regions produced a vintage of sublime quality. The Kiwis put together some very good wines in what was described by many as glorious conditions, while the Italians avoided late rains and ended up with wines of fabulous quality.

Our friends in the east had a mixed bag. Padthaway had an excellent time, as did Drumborg and Beechworth. The Adelaide Hills was fair to middling and the guys in the Hunter Valley would have been happier if there had been less precipitation

With all that in mind I refreshed my palate from the Friday night and embraced the first bracket of chardonnays. The first wine was the Yarra Burn Bastard Hill (17.5), a wine that has been cleaning up in the shows around Australia. It was a delight and a great opening to the tasting. I wasn’t fussed with the other wines in the bracket but for the Lenton Brae (17.5), which is drinking well now if you still have any in your cellar.

The first wine in the second bracket – the Te Mata Estate – was quite remarkable, with what I felt was an inordinate amount of VA (volatile acidity). I struggled to award too many points because of that. The Devil’s Lair (18.5) looked quite smart, as did the Yattana (17.5) and the Mondavi (17.5+). The last wine of the bracket was the Kistler from Sonoma in California, which I could safely say was not my favourite of the tasting.

In stark contrast, and one of my highlights of the tasting, was the Etienne Sauzet (19). This was a delicious, explosive wine with a tight, refined palate. A simply stunning wine. The Cullen offering was yet again a shinning light for Margaret River (18). Jean Marc Boillot (18.5) had me humming part of that Beaðtles tune “I think its getting better all the time”. As I delighted over the Leeuwin (19) I realised I have never previously really been overly excited about this wine but on this occasion thought it looked stunning. I happened to be standing next to its maker, Bob Cartwright, who agreed that it looked very good.

“It has been a peculiar wine as, on its own it hasn’t performed well.

“On several occasions the ‘98 has looked a very smart wine when put up against wines like in today’s lineup,” he said.

Finishing with the very good Blain-Gagnard (18.5) was a fitting way to conclude the tasting and worth savouring until the middle of October next year, at which time the awesome ’99 vintage will be on display.

These tastings provide a valuable service to the wine-loving public. Such comparative tastings show that we Sandgropers can mix it with the best in the world. The team at Cullen Wines puts on a tremendous show, for which many are grateful.

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