Absolutely, positively Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a victim of fashion. It needs to lift its image if it’s going to claw back some of the market share lost to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris among others. Chardonnay needs a slogan. It needs a pithy sort of by-line to remind us that Chardonnay is a great though overlooked white wine.

For inspiration I looked at a selection of slogans local councils use to boost the profile of New Zealand towns. Waikato gets close to the mark with “More than you expect”. Chardonnay certainly does offer more than most of us expect although the phrase is slightly apologetic. It’s a little better than the slogan someone suggested for Huntly “It’s not as bad as you think”. I think Huntly’s council did the right thing by choosing “switch on to Huntly”.

Chardonnay producers might consider adopting Hastings old slogan “Take a fresh look” which must now be up for grabs. I think that anyone who abandoned Chardonnay a few years ago would be surprised it they re-visited their old flame. Chardonnay is now less oaky with more focus on fresh fruit flavour while the textures of today’s wines are silkier and less coarse. There’s also a much wider range of regional and winemaking styles available. “Something for everyone” is a promise that Chardonnay producers could live up to.

Chardonnay makers might borrow a line from Tim Shadbolt and the good councillors of Invercargill who coined the joyful phrase “A city filled with beautiful surprises”. I think Chardonnay might deliver on that promise more effectively than the city.

During my tasting of 170 Chardonnay samples over three days I discovered many beautiful surprises. My top New Zealand wines (there are two Australian wines in the list) are as good as any local example I’ve every tasted and are considerably better than the best Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris made in this country.

What makes a good Chardonnay stand out from the crowd? Texture is very important. The best wines have plenty of richness and weight – “mouth feel” is the term often used by wine tasters. If you want to understand what mouth feel is all about line up three glasses of milk – green top, light blue and dark blue. As you move from green to blue the milk gains more body. Sauvignon Blanc and dry Riesling are relatively light-bodied wines while good Chardonnay is quite full-bodied. Pinot Gris can also be reasonably full-bodied.

Silkiness of texture is also a bonus. It’s difficult, and expensive to make smooth-textured Chardonnay. The silkiest wines are produced by handpicking the grapes and pressing the whole bunches to extract juice with a minimum of tannins – a compound in grape skins, steams and pips that can make white wine taste coarse. Oak barrels can also introduce tannins although barrel fermentation (an expensive process) and maturation on the yeasty deposit in high quality oak barrels helps to reduce the level of obvious tannins.

Chardonnay is not a very fruity grape variety. The wine doesn’t leap out of the glass like Sauvignon Blanc or Gewürztraminer. But good Chardonnay has a much broader palette of flavours than both. Winemaking helps to build extra layer of flavours by introducing bready yeast flavours, nutty oak and butter-like characters for much the same reasons we add seasoning and sauces to enhance food when cooking. To prepare a top dish you need good raw materials and a good recipe. Similarly, top Chardonnay is the result of good grapes and good winemaking.

“It’s easy to make great Chardonnay”, a winemaker once told me. “All you need is the right vineyard, a bit of luck with the weather, lots of money and plenty of patience. Then comes the hard bit. You’ve got to try to recoup all your costs and hopefully a bit of profit by selling it at a price that’s significantly higher than that of wines made from over-cropped grapes and fermented in stainless steel with a few bags of oak chips. Both wines are called Chardonnay. They sit together on a retail shelf and the only obvious difference is price – until you taste them.”

Not all Chardonnay is equal

The 63 featured wines represent just 37% of all the wines tasted. They vary in quality from good to outstanding. Some are generously proportioned (Pegasus Bay 2005 Virtuoso Chardonnay, Waipara $48.95 (tastings) and Matariki 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $35.90 (tastings)) while others are rather more elegant (Felton Road 2006 Chardonnay, Central Otago $32.00 (tastings) and Forrest Estate 2005 Chardonnay, Marlborough $20.00 (tastings)). There are fruity wines (Tohu 2006 Chardonnay, Gisborne $18.99 (tastings) and Maven 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $17.99 (tastings)) and others that rely more on oak and other winemaking influences (Villa Maria 2005 Reserve Barrique Chardonnay, Gisborne $34.99 (tastings) and Matariki 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $35.90 (tastings)).

My top wine, Trinity Hill 2006 Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay (tastings) is a bargain at $29.95.. My tasting notes say it all, “Intense and complex Chardonnay in a rather burgundian style with a pleasing influence of mineral, toasted nut and bran biscuit flavours to citrus/grapefruit and stone fruit. Beautifully structured with a lingering finish.” I’ve ordered two cases in case there’s a rush on stocks. New Zealand Chardonnay doesn’t get any better than this.

My prize for top value wine goes to Twin Islands 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough (tastings). At the modest price of $15 it’s certainly not half the quality of the Trinity Hill Chardonnay. I wrote, “Tangy wine with fresh white peach and citrus flavours. Fairly simple but deliciously drinkable and pleasantly dry. Great value at this price.”

Chardonnay Shopping List

I tasted, rated and described 170 wines to compile this shopping list. The top wines (all are of silver or gold medal standard) are shown in price categories and then in order of score. Where two or more wines have the same score I’ve put the least expensive wines first because they represent better value. Wines that score 85 to 92 points are of silver medal standard while those with 93 points or more earn a gold medal. I’ve also included a list of three wines under $15 that earned bronze medals.

$35 and Over

Gold medal wines

  • 95 Ata Rangi 2006 Craighall Chardonnay, Martinborough $38.00
  • 95 Cloudy Bay 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $44.00
  • 93 Pegasus Bay 2005 Virtuoso Chardonnay, Waipara $48.95

Silver medal wines

  • 92 Seresin 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $37.00
  • 92 Felton Road 2006 Block 6 Chardonnay, Central Otago $42.00
  • 91 Petaluma 2006 Chardonnay (Australia) $36.95
  • 90 CJ Pask 2006 Declaration Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $35.00
  • 90 Forrest Estate 2004 John Forrest Collection Chardonnay, Marlborough $50.00
  • 89 Balthazar 2006 Gimblett Road Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $40.00
  • 87 Matariki 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $35.90
  • 87 Stonier 2006 Reserve Chardonnay (Australia) $40.00
  • 86 Ivicevich 2004 Waimauku Signature Reserve Chardonnay, Auckland $38.00

Under $35

Gold medal wine

  • 96 Trinity Hill 2006 Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $29.95

Silver medal wines

  • 94 Kim Crawford 2007 SP Tietjen Vineyard Chardonnay, Gisborne $30.00
  • 94 Villa Maria 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $32.99
  • 94 Church Road 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 93 Gravitas 2006 Reserve Chardonnay Marlborough $29.95
  • 92 Craggy Range 2007 Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Marlborough $29.95
  • 92 Highfield 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $32.50
  • 92 Auntsfield 2006 Cob Cottage Chardonnay, Marlborough $34.95
  • 92 Cottage Block 2006 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 91 Pegasus Bay 2006 Chardonnay, Waipara $34.95
  • 90 Seresin 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $27.00
  • 90 Blackenbrook Vineyard 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Nelson $29.00
  • 90 Staete Landt 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $30.00
  • 90 Montana 2004 Ormond Estate Chardonnay, Gisborne $33.95
  • 89 Wither Hills 2006 Chardonnay,Marlborough $28.00
  • 89 Babich 2004 Irongate Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $34.95
  • 88 Isabel Estate 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $28.00
  • 88 Montana 2006 Waihirere Chardonnay, Gisborne $28.95
  • 88 Black Estate 2004 Chardonnay, Waipara $29.95
  • 88 Kim Crawford 2006 SP Dolly Chardonnay, Gisborne $30.00
  • 87 Saint Clair 2006 Pioneer Block 10 Twin Hills Chardonnay, Marlborough $26.95
  • 87 Summerhouse 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $27.00
  • 86 Maven 2006 Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $25.00
  • 86 Stoneleigh 2007 Rapaura Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $25.95
  • 86 Voss Estate 2006 Chardonnay, Martinborough $27.95
  • 86 Cape Campbell 2007 Limited Edition Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $28.95
  • 86 Felton Road 2006 Chardonnay, Central Otago $32.00
  • 85 Nautilus 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $28.00
  • 85 Lawson’s Dry Hills 2004 Chardonnay, Marlborough $28.00
  • 85 Fairhall Downs 2007 Small & Smith Family Estate Chardonnay, Marlborough $29.95
  • 85 Squawking Magpie 2006 Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $32.95
  • 85 Villa Maria 2005 Reserve Barrique Fermented Chardonnay, Gisborne $34.99

Under $25

Gold medal wines

  • 93 Saint Clair 2006 Sawcut Block 4 Chardonnay, Marlborough $24.95

Silver medal wines

  • 90 Rose Tree Cottage 2006 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $23.95
  • 89 Morton Estate 2005 Private Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $22.00
  • 88 Waimea 2005 Bolithlo SV Chardonnay, Nelson $24.90
  • 85 Forrest Estate 2005 Chardonnay,Marlborough $20.00
  • 85 Waimea 2006 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $21.90
  • 85 Huntaway 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, Gisborne $21.95

Under $20

Silver medal wines

  • 86 Millton 2007 Riverpoint Vineyard Chardonnay, Gisborne $19.00
  • 86 Babich 2004 Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $19.95
  • 85 Twin Islands 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $15.00
  • 85 Maven 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $17.99
  • 85 Tohu 2006 Chardonnay, Gisborne $18.99
  • 85 Main Divide 2006 Chardonnay, South Island $19.95
  • 85 Trinity Hill 2007 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $19.95
  • 85 West Brook 2005 Barrique fermented Chardonnay, Marlborough $19.95
  • 85 Cape Campbell 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $19.99

Under $15

Bronze medal wines

  • 83 Mt Olympus 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $10.99
  • 78 Kingfisher Bay 2007 Chardonnay, East Coast $9.99
  • 78 Shepherds Ridge 2005 Chardonnay, Marlborough $14.95

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – May 2008.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *