At Thompson Estate, we have been producing premium and super premium chardonnays for nearly 20 vintages. As Ray Jordan kindly pointed out recently, Thompson Estate “Has been one of the premier chardonnays from Margaret River for some time now” and John Lehman reiterated in The Australian “The Thompson Estate Chardonnay has scaled the heights over the past decade to be among one of Margaret River’s most consistent high-quality offerings.”
We planted our chardonnay vines in 1997 and produced the first chardonnay in 2001. During these past two decades, we have seen attitudes to chardonnay shift dramatically. During the 1990’s, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement was in full flight. In the early 2000’s, chardonnay’s image in Australia was not helped by Kath and Kim relying on excessive consumption of “cardonnay” to make it through the day. In Britain, after another hopeless singles bar experience, the lovelorn Bridget Jones records in her diary “‘Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.” These cultural influences didn’t help, but much of the problem lay with the wine itself.
The overproduction during the 1990s and early 2000s of heavily oaked, oily, yellow excessively buttery chardonnay brought Australian chardonnay into disrepute, while the world turned to fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Chardonnay sales slumped and by 2008, the price per tonne of chardonnay grapes had dropped to $300 per tonne. A dramatic rethink of the style saw newer styles with austere flavours with an emphasis on sulphidic gunpowder, funky aromas which generally failed to swing opinion away from sauvignon blanc. In Margaret River, serious chardonnay practitioners led by Leeuwin Estate and Pierro were avoiding these over-corrections, and were consistently capturing the combination of freshness, complexity and intensity which is the essence of this distinguished variety. In the past 5 years, with ABC, Kath and Kim and Bridget Jones distant memories, the pendulum has swung to embrace the beauty of chardonnay, there is a shortage of fruit, and prices are at an all-time high (>$3000 per tonne for quality fruit).
We have been serious about our chardonnay from the start – our very first chardonnay won Wine of the Show at the Margaret River Wine Show in 2002. By defining our own style of elegance, balance, and full flavour with freshness, we have dodged the pendulum swings of changing fashion, and have tried to capture the essence of our region and our unique location with meticulous sustainable viticulture and innovative winemaking practices. Our 25-year-old vines are now showing the benefit of our sustainable viticulture practices and are producing fruit with intense complex flavours which are reflected in the wines.
The 2020 season
The winter period largely sets the tone for our growing period here in Margaret River and the 2020 vintage year started with mild winter conditions during 2019 and lower than average rainfall (see chart, courtesy Margaret River Wine Association).
Temperatures gradually crept up to an early start to the season evolving into the perfect summer growing conditions. The beautiful weather in late spring and early summer and the lower yields predicted from the lower winter rainfall caused an acceleration in grape development. The chardonnay harvest began on the 30th of January, one of the earliest starts on record. The limited yield resulted in wines with great intensity and concentration of flavour. Although the quantity was down, the quality of the 2020 vintage is some of the best we have seen.
Timing the pick
From about a month before the expected picking date, we take fruit samples regularly to track for ripeness by measuring pH, total acidity and baume (traditional method of measuring sugar levels from specific gravity and an approximate predictor of eventual alcohol level in the wine). Dropping acidity and rising baume indicate advancing ripeness. But these indicators are only part of the winemaker’s decision-making process. Visual and taste assessment to ensure that picking is done at optimal flavour level, and that fruit is disease free require close interaction between the vineyard team guided by Ryan Gibbs and the winery team led by Paul Dixon. Careful check on weather predictions and careful planning with the picking team are all part of the complex but crucial decision to get the ideal timing for the pick. At the time of picking the chardonnay in 2020, the average pH was 3.15, the titratable Acidity was 7.8 and the baume was 13.
The importance of the Gingin clone
Once again, the consistent hen and chicken (milllerandage) feature of the Gingin clone of chardonnay provided natural acidity from the smaller berries, adding freshness to the wine and ensuring longevity while the larger plump berries contributed the characteristic intense flavours and persistence. No acid adjustment was necessary in the winery.
“Hen and chicken” in the GinGin clone
At Thompson Estate, we have had three distinct phases in our chardonnay winemaking, each influencing our distinctive house style.
The “medical specialty” model- From 2002 to 2009. Before we had our own winery, we selected the best winemaker in the region for each wine. Our early chardonnays already showed their class and we were able to develop our own house style of fresh full flavoured chardonnays. By 2009, supervising 6 wines in 6 wineries with 6 winemakers became unmanageable and we built our own winery.
The Bob Cartwright era- In 2009. We were fortunate to have the legendary Bob Cartwright join us after 27 vintages at Leeuwin Estate, having established Leeuwin Estate chardonnay as one of the great white wines of the world. Bob helped us design our winery and establish quality and excellence oriented operating procedures.
The Paul Dixon era- Paul Dixon joined us in 2012 and worked closely with Bob, absorbing his experience and introducing exciting new winemaking techniques learnt during his 7 years working with Virginia Wilcock at Vasse Felix. Paul has established his own reputation as one of the leading new generation Margaret River winemakers and since 2017, all wines have been solely crafted by Paul.
Bob Cartwright retiring 2018 with Peter Thompson (left) and Paul Dixon (right)
While many winemakers claim “minimal intervention” produces the best results, in fact technical mastery of multiple winemaking techniques, an experienced palate, exquisite timing and obsessive attention to detail all matter for high quality chardonnay. Paul has mastered the challenging techniques of modern chardonnay winemaking with whole bunch pressing, wild fermentation, fluffy solids contact and less exposure to new oak with consummate skill.
The consistent high quality has attracted a loyal following and for most of the past two decades, the Thompson Estate “Estate” Chardonnay has scored 95+ from James Halliday and Ray Jordan
The Thompson Estate winery built 2009 and expanded 2015
The 2020 Estate Chardonnay
For the 2020 chardonnay, a combination of mostly gentle hand-picking and some tender selective machine harvesting produced fresh high quality fruit. On arrival in the winery, the fruit was chilled, lightly pressed, cold settled and transferred to a mixture of new and older French oak barriques. Fermentation was initiated by a combination of natural yeasts from the vineyard and specially selected yeast strains. Each batch was left on lees for 9 ½ months during maturation with regular battonage before blending, filtering then bottling.
The battonage-lees stirring
One of the enjoyable disciplines Bob Cartwright introduced to Thompson Estate is the fortnightly barrel sampling and stirring. Every second Friday, every chardonnay barrel is laid out on the floor of the barrel hall and the team tastes each one noting the development and oak influence on the wine. The changing character of the wine in each barrel during the 9 months of maturation is fascinating. The tasting is usually followed by stirring of the lees although we have cut back on this in recent years to avoid too much yeasty influence and to preserve the fresh fruit flavours.
The final blending
During the maturation phase of the wine, with the different barrels imparting differing characters to the wine, the final blend is decided by Paul with input from Peter to ensure consistency of the house style. We do this in the cramped surrounds of the winery lab, but are constantly looking to the future of a well-equipped blending room.
Winemaker’s notes for the 2020 Estate Chardonnay
Elegant pale/medium straw with brilliant clarity and a subtle green edge. An array of lifted peach, nectarine stone fruits, lemon/lime citrus, and cinnamon/clove spice with hint of nutmeg and Nougat. A slight wild ferment funk gives an element of depth and richness to the nose. Rich vibrant palate with a soft, seductive creamy texture, and exquisite white stone fruit flavours fill the mouth. Well integrated, supple oak and persistent, tight yet seamless acid lines linger on resulting in a crisp, clean, captivating finish.
The West Australian Wine Guide 2022 by Ray Jordan
Thompson Estate Chardonnay 2020 – 95 points
Has been one of the premier chardonnays from Margaret River for some time now. I like the fine structure in this one. It's tight and almost lean but there is a deep fruit intensity of citrus and nectarine with a faint hint of mealy richness. Like the minerality and slightly savoury finish to complete a classy wine
John Lehman The Australian
Classic Margaret River Chardonnay with a creamy cashew edge. The Thompson Estate Chardonnay has scaled the heights over the past decade to be among one of Margaret River’s most consistent high-quality offerings. A gorgeous nose of white peach and nectarine flows through to a creamy, rich palate, with touches of cashew and cinnamon leading to a clean, lingering finish. Nicely integrated French oak that will delight lovers of high-quality Margaret River Chardonnay. A real beauty.