Ripe time, right place

Has the shift to finer chardonnays using younger fruit from cooler climates come at the cost of flavour?

I regularly run into drinkers who lament the passing of rich, full-bodied chardonnays. They rightly observe there's been a sea change in Australian chardonnay, from the big, buttery, often rather oaky styles of the 1980s and '90s to the lower-alcohol, finer, less oaky and more age-worthy wines of today.

Today's more delicate, and generally, better wines are often made by winemakers avoiding enriching malolactic fermentation. However, the biggest change has been the sourcing of fruit. Today's best chardonnays come from much cooler vineyards. But has the pendulum swung too far?

''Where can you find full-bodied, generous chardonnay?'' I'm often asked. Not oaky chardonnay, nor ugly alcoholic chardonnay - just generously flavoured chardonnay.

Certainly, Tapanappa winemaker Brian Croser thinks it's gone too far. ''Chardonnay is revered as a great grape because it has a lot of flavour,'' he says.

Some of the newly fashionable low-alcohol chardonnays, he says, are made from grapes not properly ripe.

''They lack middle-palate richness; they are hollow because the grapes are being harvested before they've developed the correct flavour profile,'' he says.

Croser believes they have too much green-apple malic acid because early-picked grapes are not put through a malolactic fermentation, a move designed to retain maximum natural acidity.

A chardonnay specialist whose wines always have a malolactic fermentation is Richard McIntyre, of Moorooduc Estate on the Mornington Peninsula. He is also the winemaker for Ten Minutes by Tractor in the same region. Both brands stand for chardonnays of full, rich flavour but they are also wines that have finesse and are seldom high in alcohol. They are complex, sometimes with a subtle buttery note (a sign of malolactic fermentation), but also containing the full range of chardonnay complexities, as well as the silky, rich texture of properly ripe grapes. It is possible to have delicacy with richness - a wonderful attribute of great chardonnay. See the Ten Minutes by Tractor review (opposite page), for example.

''I think some [low-alcohol wines] are an overreaction,'' McIntyre says. ''Critics love them and rave about their fantastic linear acidity. No doubt those producers see it as a chablis style but the trend is towards underripe wines that lack flavour.''

While McIntyre admits he is picking his grapes earlier and at lower sugars than in the 1990s, his wines have better flavour as well as correct ripeness. He says in cooler parts of the peninsula, such as Red Hill, chardonnay has very high acid and cries out for a malolactic fermentation, whereas in lower, warmer sites, such as Moorooduc, it's not as necessary and some people, for example Sandro Mosele at Kooyong, avoid it in all chardonnays (these are still excellent wines and a legitimate style). He prefers to have malolactic fermentation.

Perhaps the biggest chardonnay of the 1990s was Rosemount Roxburgh, a very oaky, massive wine. Australian chardonnay has moved a long way since then and I don't know anyone who wants to revisit the style.

Another rich style I like is Toolangi, of the Yarra Valley. The owner, Garry Hounsell, has a unique approach: he produces three wines off his single 12-hectare vineyard and employs three winemakers with vastly contrasting approaches to make them. The result is three nicely differentiated styles, all of them excellent.

The entry-level $25 wine is made in large licks by Yering Station (where Willy Lunn has succeeded Tom Carson as winemaker) - about 3500 dozen. Even this very affordable wine is a lovely, rich and quite complex style and the latest release 2009 (13.2 per cent alcohol) should satisfy the most exacting ''chardomaniac''.

The Estate bottling is made by David Bicknell at Oakridge, a leader in lower-alcohol chardonnay. The 2007 is current at $50 and is a typical Bicknell - tight, refined style with 12.5 per cent alcohol. Hounsell rates it very highly. The Reserve, also a 2007 vintage ($90), is made by Giaconda's Rick Kinzbrunner in his typically riper style with 14.2 per cent alcohol. It's one of the biggest, but also the most complex and deliriously hedonistic, chardonnays I've drunk in years, with masses of roast hazelnut and creme brulee toffee/caramel notes. It demands rich food such as buttery lobster or creamy roast chicken. I love it.

However, the Estate is the one Hounsell likes the most. ''It fits my palate best,'' he says. ''I like Giaconda and our Reserve but my favourite is Bonneau du Martray's Corton-Charlemagne.'' So, restrained wines but ripe fruit.

Croser is also a big fan of Bonneau. He believes site selection is the way to grow the best chardonnay. ''Select the correct location to plant chardonnay vines, where they achieve the correct, fully ripe flavours without excessive alcohol or the need to add acid,'' he says.

He's not decrying the ''green'' wines, as he believes they are legitimate wine styles without being great expressions of chardonnay. Like McIntyre, he describes them as an overreaction to yesteryear's excessive, high-alcohol wines.

So, what are the desirable flavours in properly ripe chardonnay?

''Nectarine … and honeydew-melon skin but not too much peach,'' Croser says. And certainly no pineapple or other tropical notes.

Mineral aromas are compatible. He's just too modest to add: ''Like Tapanappa Tiers.''