Chardonnay – the world’s most popular premium white wine
According to my carefully recorded tasting notes over the past five years I’ve tasted 4,675 examples of the world’s favourite premium white wine. Chardonnay is my wife’s favourite wine (it’s my second favourite white wine after Riesling) so you can add quite a number of recreational bottles to that figure. I’ve tasted more Chardonnay than any other wine type.
I like Chardonnay because it is inevitably dry. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and even Sauvignon Blanc can be annoyingly sweet when I’m in the mood for something dry. You know where you are with Chardonnay.
Because Chardonnay is bone-dry it’s a safe choice for a wide range of foods including moderately robust meats such as turkey and veal. It’s also a safe choice when you need a bottle to share with others and you’re not sure about their taste in wine.
Chardonnay can develop some interesting flavours with bottle age. The best examples have two lives: one when they’re full of tangy fruit flavours and a second when time has replaced citrus and stone fruit flavours with mellow toast and savoury characters. With age flavours integrate and textures often become mellower. As a general rule I would say that Chardonnay with a price tag greater than $25 (in which case the grapes have probably been hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed – techniques that get Chardonnay off to a slow start but allows it to age gracefully) actually need a year or two in bottle to look their best.
Chardonnay comes in more shapes and sizes than other white wines. Some are fruity, others oaky. You can enjoy crisply acidic Chardonnay as a refreshing supplement to a hot summer’s day or savour a mellow, mouth-filling softy in front of a roaring fire during winter. Regional influences introduce a variety of flavours and textures. Gisborne Chardonnay tends to be soft, fruity and charming while Hawke’s Bay wines can be a little more citrus and serious. Cooler growing conditions in Marlborough make sleek crisp wines while a short distance away in Nelson Chardonnay often leans toward the even crisper, drier Chablis model. Central Otago Chardonnay usually has strong mineral flavours with a solid backbone of vibrant acidity.
What style of Chardonnay do you like? When I ask that question in my wine classes I usually get a quick and confident response. Chardonnay drinkers, it seems, know what they like. The “big and buttery” brigade make up the most popular group with a militant anti-oak (or should that be “pro-fruit”) gang in second place. Most people like smooth-textured wines while a number of more discerning Chardonnay drinkers aren’t happy unless it closely imitates burgundy.
Here are just a few of the more popular styles with examples at various price levels.
Big and buttery (with plenty of oak)
I have a good friend and wine shop owner who loves Chardonnay with a passion – as long as it’s big, buttery and oaky. I on the other hand favour sleeker Chardonnay with fresh acidity and a strong mineral character if possible. We often debate the merits of both and it’s fair to say are a little derisive of each other’s favoured styles. After a recent game of golf my friend invited me to have a glass of Chardonnay. Needless to say it was of the big and buttery type. I loved it. As far as big and buttery Chardonnays go this was about as good as it gets.
The best examples of this popular style have a creamy texture and mouth-filling weight. They certainly have plenty of rich, butter-like characters and a solid helping of oak but they also have equally intense fruit flavours in good support. What this style lacks in finesses it makes up for in power and robustness. Here are a few favourites:
- Pegasus Bay 2006 Virtuoso Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $48.65 (tastings)
- Coopers Creek 2007 Swamp Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $29 (tastings)
- Mills Reef 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $20 (tastings)
Fresh and fruity (with little or no oak)
There’s been a strong trend toward this style in recent years, possibly as a reaction to over-oaked wines in the past. Better vineyard sites and improved viticultural methods are producing Chardonnay grapes with more intense and often more attractive fruit flavours.
While many of these wines are labelled as “Unoaked” an increasing number are not, perhaps because some wine producers believe that the description cheapens the wine. It also allows them to use very subtle oak to enhance the fruit flavours in much the same way that a seasoning of pepper and salt might enhance the flavours of a sirloin steak. I’m very much in favour of the concept that “less is more” in some styles of Chardonnay. Chardonnay from our cooler more southerly regions can easily gain a slightly resinous character if the oak influence is excessive. Here are some good examples:
- Felton Road 2007 Chardonnay, Central Otago $32 (tastings)
- Carrick 2008 Unravelled Chardonnay, Central Otago $18 (tastings)
- Kaimira 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay Nelson $14
Taut, powerful wines with subtle flavours and a strong mineral influence. These wines may have spent a lot of time in oak but the oak flavours are intertwined with powerful fruit characters and are less evident. The best examples age wonderfully. My favourites are:
- Felton Road 2007 Block 2 Chardonnay, Central Otago $47 (tastings)
- Fromm 2007 La Strada Chardonnay, Marlborough $30 (tastings)
- Framingham 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $21.90 (tastings)
Solid Gold Chardonnay
The best of 179 wines tasted all of gold medal (93 points) standard. Chardonnay simply doesn’t get much better than this. The top wines are in a range of different styles from five different New Zealand regions and Australia. There’s everything from big, buttery beauties to sleek burgundy look-alikes. Prices peak at $48.65 and go as low as a relatively modest $25.95.
96 Felton Road 2007 Block 2 Chardonnay, Central Otago $47 [BEST WINE]
I was knocked out by the quality of this organically grown Central Otago Chardonnay. It reminds me of an absolutely top French Chablis from an excellent vintage
95 Pegasus Bay 2006 Virtuoso Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $48.65
A super-heavyweight with masses of everything. Great now but will cellar
94 Cottage Block 2007 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $31.95
Hot contender for best value status. Classy wine in a popular style
94 Felton Road 2007 Chardonnay, Central Otago $32
Sophisticated Chardonnay with a strong fruit focus
94 Highfield 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $32.50
Mellow, nutty wine with a silken texture.
94 Martinborough Vineyard 2007 Chardonnay, Martinborough $40
Big, powerful wine with a featherbed texture
94 Mountford 2006 Chardonnay, Waipara $42
Lush, opulent, mouth-filling Chardonnay – very seductive
93 Church Road 2006 Cuvé Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $25.95 [BEST VALUE]
Serious and sophisticated wine at a terrific price
93 Coopers Creek 2007 Swamp Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $29
A triumph of sensitive winemaking using beautifully ripe grapes.
93 Trinity Hill 2007 Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $29.95
Pure powerful fruit and much, much more
93 Fromm 2007 La Strada Chardonnay, Marlborough $30
A nod in the direction of Burgundy
93 Saint Clair 2007 Omaka Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough $32.95
Plenty of style, power and energy – lives up to its “Reserve” status
93 Dog Point 2006 Chardonnay, Marlborough $35.15
Classic Marlborough Chardonnay – deliciously vibrant
93 Pegasus Bay 2007 Chardonnay, Waipara $35.95
Big, sumptuous wine with a texture to die for
93 Domaine Chandon 2006 Chardonnay (Australia) $48.50
Wonderfully pure with intensity and an ethereal texture
Perhaps not quite gold medal quality but in the value stakes they’re hard to beat. Affordable Chardonnays that deliver excellent quality and a lot of style for around $20.
90 Coopers Creek 2007 The Limeworks Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $21 [BEST WINE AND BEST VALUE]
Lovely apple and peach flavours with a seasoning of oak – super wine!
90 Framingham 2007 Chardonnay, Marlborough $21.90
Seductively smooth and suavely subtle
90 Kaituna Valley 2007 Chardonnay, Canterbury $22
Subtle wine with an appealing lightness and ethereal texture
87 Mills Reef 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $20
A muscle machine with masses of ripe fruit and spicy oak
85 Carrick 2008 Unravelled Chardonnay, Central Otago $18
Delicately scented wine with lovely purity
85 Trinity Hill 2007 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $19.95
Impressively fruity wine from one of the country’s top producers
85 Southbank Estate 2007 Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay $19.95
Smooth-textured wine with ripe peach and subtle oak
85 Two Tracks 2008 Chardonnay, Marlborough $19.95
Strong apple and citrus flavours seasoned with oak
Best under $15
I found surprising quality amongst the cheap and cheerful wines entered in the tasting. The four wines listed below fall into the “how do they do it at this price” category. They all boast attractive fruit flavours while some have a seasoning of oak.
84 Station Road 2007 Chardonnay East Coast $13.99 [BEST WINE]
Fresh and fruity wine with a bone-dry finish, very appealing at this price
84 Kaimira 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay Nelson $14
Mellow, creamy wine with surprising weight and complexity
84 Spinyback 2008 Chardonnay Nelson $14.90
Pure pineapple, peach and apple flavours – deliciously fresh
80 Fire Road 2007 Chardonnay Marlborough $8.99 [BEST VALUE]
Soft, peachy wine with a touch of oak – terrific value
First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Jun 2009.