Chardonnay superstars

I can cook a pretty good fillet steak. I sear it in the pan, finish it off in the oven and serve it with a sauce I pinched from Rae McVinnie. The dish has earned me a blush of compliments and yet I know that if I were to prepare it in head-to-head competition with Rae McVinnie, Jamie Oliver or any other “proper” chef I would come second even if we started with exactly the same cut of meat.

I was reminded that there are many similarities between cooking and winemaking after tasting over 100 Chardonnays recently. The same handful of wine producers occupies the top slots in good and bad vintages. Kumeu River (tastings), Neudorf (tastings), Villa Maria (tastings), Cloudy Bay (tastings), Bell Hill (tastings), Nautilus (tastings), Highfield (tastings), Dog Point (tastings), Felton Road (tastings), Pegasus Bay (tastings), Craggy Range (tastings) and Te Mata (tastings) and one or two others seem to lead the bunch every year.

If these winemakers are the “super-chefs” of the wine world what are they doing that the others are not?

I talked to Chardonnay super-star and winemaker of Kumeu River, Michael Brajkovich MW, to find what vinous equivalent of secret herbs and spices he uses to give his wines the edge.

Michael talked at length about his Chardonnay making techniques while I filled a notebook with jottings. Techniques such as hand-picking grapes and barrel fermentation are equivalent to searing the steak. They make a big difference to quality and are used by all the top Chardonnay producers. Other factors like using wild yeasts rather than an introduced yeast culture have a much smaller effect but collectively are the “secret herbs and spices” that make an important contribution to the character of the wine.

Michael modestly commented that it is the vineyard that stamps the most indelible mark on Chardonnay quality and character. I’m inclined to believe the French claim “C’est l’homme qui fait le vin” (it is the man who makes the wine). I’m sure that Rae McVinnie and Jamie Oliver deserve more credit than the pasture where a cow once grazed.

Nautilus Chardonnay, Marlborough 2011 – $34

Silken-textured wine with a seductive peaches and cream appeal. Layered flavours of brioche, white peach, pear and hazelnut. Complete Chardonnay that’s is an absolute pleasure to taste. Impressive intensity delivered with great subtlety. Winemaker Clive Jones is a master of the light touch. – view on

Highfield Chardonnay, Marlborough 2011 – $33

Rich, weighty Chardonnay with strong, ripe white peach, nectarine and grapefruit flavours tempered with sizzled butter, bread crust and roasted nut. Deliciously complex wine that shows great mouth feel. Refined, sophisticated wine that’s deliciously drinkable now. Winemaker Alistair Soper has successfully refined this style for 14 years. – view on

First published in KiaOra Magazine – Jun 2013.

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