Chardonnay – it’s a buyer’s market

It’s been several years since Chardonnay hit the doldrums as previously loyal fans turned to more fashionable wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. That drop in demand is good news for faithful Chardonnay drinkers. The top wines have been unaffected and have continued to grow in stature while those at the budget end of the market appear to have received a boost in quality.

There are signs that Chardonnay may soon be back in fashion. Wine retailers tell me that demand is increasing for a wine that many believe is the king of whites. Chardonnay lovers may have to move fast if they want to buy a bargain.

I believe that the overall standard of New Zealand Chardonnay is higher than any other country. That’s mainly because we don’t have the underclass of cheap wines to pull down average quality (as they do in France) while the quality of our best wines is exceptional.

I’m sure that New Zealand Chardonnay hasn’t got its deserved recognition on the international market because the wide range of regional styles makes it difficult to understand. Sauvignon Blanc is easy because Marlborough sets the standard. That is certainly not the case with Chardonnay.

It was a pleasure to taste such a cross-section of impressive wines. Despite economic challenges the quality of New Zealand Chardonnay is in good heart and continues to grow every year.

The best

I tasted 135 Chardonnay samples from every one of New Zealand’s eight wine regions. Listed below are my top five picks in order of quality. Quality comes at a price. My favourite wine costs a hefty $70 which puts it into the “special occasion” category as far as my household budget is concerned. It’s the sort of wine I’d offer visiting wine writers when I want to dazzle them with the best this country has to offer.

Felton Road Block 2 (tastings) and Pegasus Bay Virtuoso (tastings) also fall into the luxury class. Serve them to a wine knowledgeable friend and there’s a good chance they will pick either of them as a first division French burgundy with a price tag that’s several times greater.

At around the $30 mark Saint Clair Pioneer Block 4 (tastings) and Dog Point (tastings) are serious wines at a reasonably friendly price given their quality. I like to drink wines of this standard at least a couple of times each week.

It’s interesting to note that the top five wines were made in four different regions. Does New Zealand have a Chardonnay capital? Gisborne winemakers lay claim to the title, Hawke’s Bay is often regarded as the region best suited to making high quality Chardonnay while Marlborough makes the most.

I don’t believe we have a clear winner. Regional styles are so different it’s a bit like comparing apples with oranges. Gisborne makes charming accessible Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay is capable of producing rich and complex wines while Marlborough Chardonnay tends to be slightly edgier and more vibrant. Central Otago, Waipara, Nelson, Martinborough/Wairarapa and Auckland are also capable of making chart-topping wines in favourable vintages.

1st Church Road 2009 “Tom” Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $70

I rate Church Road Reserve Chardonnay as one of the country’s best. This is even better. It delivers great power and an array of complex flavours with great subtlety. Truly an iron fist in a velvet glove. – view on

2nd Felton Road 2009 Block 2 Chardonnay Central Otago $51

True class from Central Otago. Seamless wine with layers of citrus/grapefruit, fig, buttered toast and bran biscuit flavours with beautifully integrated nutty oak. – view on

3rd Pegasus Bay 2008 Virtuoso Chardonnay Waipara $48.95

Flagship wine from one of the country’s top Chardonnay makers. I particularly love the wine’s sumptuous texture and lengthy finish. A no-holds-barred, super-classy wine that will repay cellaring. – view on

4th Saint Clair 2009 Pioneer Block 4 Sawcut Chardonnay Marlborough $30.50

Big, rich wine with appealing fruit sweetness and a silken texture. Quite a concentrated style that should appeal to drinkers who like generously proportioned Chardonnay. Competitively priced. – view on

5th Dog Point 2009 Chardonnay Marlborough $32.50

Delicious Chardonnay with flavours that are a nicely integrated mix of white peach, guava and citrus with bread crust and spicy oak. Very classy wine. – view on

Best under $25

Around half of the wines I tasted had price tag of $25 or less making this a very competitive price category. Chardonnay is an expensive wine to produce. The best wines are likely to come from pricey vineyard sites where the vines have been deliberately trained to produce relatively low crop levels. When the crop of grapes halves the cost of producing them doubles. All of my top five wines have been made from hand-harvested grapes, a process that costs around five times more than machine-harvesting, the method used to make most (but not all) of the wines in the under $25 category. They’ve also been fermented in oak barrels, a process that cannot always be justified in lower-priced wines.

There are alternative ways of adding oak flavour to Chardonnay than lengthy and expensive maturation in oak barrels. Oak staves or oak chips can be suspended in stainless steel tanks to give oak flavour. The cost of ageing wine in oak barrels can be as much as $5 per bottle while the use of oak chips can reduce that cost to as little as a few cents per bottle. There is a quality difference.

A winemaker once told me that any Chardonnay with discernible oak flavour and a price tag of less than $20 will almost certainly have been made with the help of chips or staves although that might have been used in combination with maturation in oak barrels.

I searched the winery websites of the top five wines in this category to learn more about their method of manufacture. Only Kaituna Valley Chardonnay (tastings), the most expensive at $24.95, claimed to have been made from hand-picked grapes that were whole-bunch pressed and fermented in oak barrels before a period of oak maturation.

However all are excellent wines that represent top value.

1st Marisco Vineyards 2009 The Kings Bastard Chardonnay Marlborough $22.95

The new label of Wither Hills founder, Brent Marris, is a rich and warming Chardonnay in contrast to the typically leaner, crisper wines from the region. Seamless, smooth-textured wine offering excellent value. – view on

2nd Kaituna Valley 2008 Chardonnay Canterbury $24.95

Silken-textured wine with fig, nectarine, peach, citrus/grapefruit, mineral and subtle oak flavours. Very impressive wine offering good value at this price. – view on

3rd Hunter’s 2009 Chardonnay Marlborough $19.90

This is a good example of the Hunter’s style with appealing purity, a strong focus on fruit flavour and an ethereal texture. Subtle rather than blockbuster. – view on

4th Squawking Magpie 2010 The Chatterer Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $19.95

Weighty, smooth-textured Chardonnay with attractive citrus/grapefruit and chalky mineral flavours together with a more subtle influence of spicy oak, toasted nut and warm brioche. – view on

5th Morton Estate 2008 Private Reserve Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $21

A bold expression of ripe citrus/grapefruit/white peach flavours with an attractive seasoning of bread crust/brioche and nutty oak. Sophisticated Chardonnay at an attractive price. – view on

Best at $15 or less

The average price of the 135 wines tasted for this article was $26.77. Only nine wines were price at $15 or less. It is very hard to make a decent, drinkable wine that sells profitably at that price level. Of course in the current competitive market there is no guarantee that wines in the cheap and cheerful category are profitable. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of dropping the price below cost to achieve volume sales. I even heard of one Chardonnay producer who was having difficulty selling his moderately expensive Reserve wine so he simply labelled it as his non-Reserve Chardonnay and sold it at half the price. Anyone lucky enough to have bought that wine would certainly have got a bargain.

My expectations are pretty low when I taste wine in this price category. I was pleasantly surprised with my chosen five wines. Although they’re certainly a significant drop in quality from the next category they are clean, fresh, fault-free wines that taste like Chardonnay. I was quite frankly surprised at how drinkable they all are and believe that the current Chardonnay surplus has significantly lifted the standard of wines at this end of the market. My favourite, Nikau Point (tastings), bats well above its league.

1st Nikau Point 2010 Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $15

Light, fruity Chardonnay with a hint of roasted nut character. Simple and moderately appealing wine that offers great value at this price. – view on

2nd Mill Road 2010 Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $13

Strongly fruit-focused Chardonnay with appealing peach and pineapple flavours. The wine shows good purity, has a reasonably smooth texture and is pleasantly dry. A smart buy. – view on

3rd Cathedral Cove NV Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay $8

Never mind the quality, look at the price! I don’t know how they can make a wine, let alone a profit at this price. Fairly basic Chardonnay but inoffensive. – view on

4th Cheeky Little White 2009 Chardonnay East Coast $11

Light, fruity Chardonnay with fresh white peach and citrus flavours. Clean, simple and undeniably good value at this price. – view on

5th Vintage Lane 2009 Chardonnay Marlborough $15

Light, fresh fruit-focused Chardonnay with grapefruit/citrus and a suggestion of mineral. Simple, light-flavoured wine that offers value at this price. – view on

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Jun 2011.

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