From Blair Walter, Felton Road, on the day of the tasting 28/3: Wish I could be at the tasting. I have always said that the best NZ Chardonnays are extremely undervalued globally and have a hugely significant long term future in the NZ offering of world class wines.
Background: By way of scene-setting, the first chardonnays I cellared (on the basis of comparative taste evaluation, when Christchurch was the qualitative wine capital of New Zealand) were a case of 1969 Drouhin Puligny-Montrachet Clos du Cailleret premier cru, and a case of 1969 Corton-Charlemagne grand cru selected by Alexis Lichine in his heyday. They were followed by a case of 1971 Meursault Les Genevrieres premier cru, also selected by Lichine. These wines seemed to me to sum up the beauty of bouquet and flavour, and glorious textural palate satisfaction that can be found in fine chardonnay. And both were great years in white burgundy. The wines cellared beautifully for years, and provided an enduring reference point.
Not to put too fine a point on it, my quest in the 40 years since then has been to find something akin to the sensational aroma, flavour and particularly texture attributes those wines displayed, but in latter-day Australasian wines. The journey has been long and bumpy, particularly in New Zealand where for quite a while few winemakers seemed to have tasted chardonnays of that calibre. That has long-since changed. Now, I have the feeling New Zealand chardonnay is finding its true destiny, notwithstanding the social pretensions of a small noisy minority. The tasting reported on below was quite simply exhilarating – one of the most exciting I have presented.
Original Invitation: This tasting was presented by Regional Wines & Spirits, Wellington. Their website said: If anybody out there still harbours lingering doubts as to the quality of New Zealand chardonnay, we request they come to our chardonnay spectacular. We will showcase some of the finest examples of this noble grape ever made in New Zealand, most of them multiple medal and trophy winners [ later: intrinsically untrue, since few of the selected wines are in fact entered in Shows ! ], or the equivalent. To see them in perspective Australia's most famous chardonnay, the Leeuwin Art Series, will be included. And to show that New Zealand chardonnay is worth cellaring, the tasting will include 2005 Sacred Hill Riflemans, as well as their current release. The tasting will be presented by Geoff Kelly, whose experience with New Zealand chardonnay spans 30 years as a senior industry judge, and covers examples back to the pioneering Corbans and McWilliams wines of the late '60s.
Wines will include, from north to south:
2007 Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Art Series, West Australia
2008 Kumeu River Chardonnay Matés, Kumeu
2009 Millton Chardonnay Clos St Anne, Gisborne
2009 Church Road Chardonnay Tom, Hawkes Bay
2010 Sacred Hill Chardonnay Riflemans, Hawkes Bay
2005 Sacred Hill Chardonnay Riflemans, Hawkes Bay
2010 Te Mata Estate Chardonnay Elston, Hawkes Bay
2009 Vidal Chardonnay Reserve, Hawkes Bay
2010 Villa Maria Chardonnay Keltern SV, Hawkes Bay
2009 Neudorf Chardonnay Moutere, Nelson
2009 Escarpment Chardonnay Kupe, Martinborough
2009 Felton Road Chardonnay Block 2, Central Otago
Early days in New Zealand Chardonnay: Leaving aside the pre-Prohibition era when no doubt there were exciting Hawkes Bay chardonnays, but few written records or descriptions survive, post World War 2 the evolution of modern New Zealand chardonnay starts in the late 1950s. Frank Thorpy records that Pinot Chardonnay wine was first produced by Denis Kasza at the Te Kauwhata viticultural research station, probably from the 1958 or 1959 vintage. In 1959 it was thought to be the best New Zealand white wine a group of interested Auckland wine people had tasted. The first commercial wines came in the 1960s from Alex Corban at Henderson, making at first unoaked Pinot Chardonnay wines with a distinctly Germanic feel to them. Dudley Russell at Western Vineyards also had the grape, but there was always a question mark over the relationship between the stated variety on the label, and the composition of the wine. Thorpy records that Mazuran and San Marino Vineyards (now Kumeu River) also had the grape. But it was Tom McDonald in Greenmeadows who was the other person working constructively with chardonnay, even though it remained pretty well a hidden asset despite the debut of Cresta Doré in the later 50s (year to be confirmed). That wine presumably included some chardonnay from the outset, since it cellared for several years. Some of the chardonnay was presumably included in the McDonalds Pinot Blanc of the 60s, too.
McDonald's Chardonnay burst into prominence in the mid-60s, reaching a peak with the spectacular but pretty-well unprocurable McWilliams 1967 PB 67/1 Pinot Chardonnay, which to my taste was essentially unoaked. This wine was in fact made by the late Denis Kasza (1921 – 1974), as suggested by Stewart (2010) and confirmed by Dennis Robinson (of McWilliams), but where the initiative came from for McWilliams to plant chardonnay, or at what date, is unclear. Tom may have had it in the McDonald vineyard, along with his beloved cabernet, or it may follow from Kasza joining the firm in 1957, and bringing with him his enthusiasm for chardonnay gained at Te Kauwhata. Tom however garnered the credit for the wine. The label was commercialised in the late 60s, with mixed results thru the early 70s. It is a matter of great sadness that virtually none of this is documented, as far as I know. With the penchant for throwing out paper records now so evident in the computer age, it may soon be too late to answer simple questions such as the above, or even when Cresta Doré was introduced. Certainly I could not easily find out for sister-wine Bakano a year or two ago, though it is in the few years up to 1956. In discussion with Dennis Robinson for this review, he thinks 1954 is the likely date. Checking the 1950s results for the then Industries and Commerce National Wine Competition, or the Auckland Easter Show Competition, would provide a lead. Incidentally, Kasza arrived at McWilliams in 1957, so while he may have improved the consistency of these two mainstay McWilliams wines, he certainly did not create Bakano. Whether or not he initiated Cresta Doré remains to be clarified.
The 1970s and 1980s: Nick Nobilo at Kumeu introduced a chardonnay in 1972 or 1973, and Denis Irwin at Matawhero in Gisborne had chardonnay from about that time. While some of these earlier chardonnays were presumably stored in oak vessels (the Nobilo for example tasted that way), the first chardonnay to be given new oak treatment specifically was I think the McWilliams 1978, in American puncheons. Dennis Robinson advises there was in fact some experimenting in the 1977 vintage, but 1978 was the first serious use of new oak.
American oak was the norm in those more parsimonious days, so it was a good but very bold wine. The upbeat young winery Cooks quickly followed, and their 1980 Chardonnay from Gisborne fruit was remarkably rich, and a delight. It well deserved its gold medal at the National Wine Competition (now the Air New Zealand). Good bottles of that wine are still alive. In the McWilliams the ratio of oak diminished in the more balanced 1980 and 1981 wines (gold medal in their day - and still interesting too), but then that initiative faded. Delegats under the influence of new Australian winemaker John Hancock and then Larry McKenna took up the oak theme in 1981. They immediately introduced French oak, and modern chardonnay was away with gold-medal wines from Delegats in 1981 and 1982. Being before the days of any MLF component, some of these wines when rich enough have kept surprisingly well.
John Hancock went on to develop chardonnay much further in his time at Morton Estate, notably with his Black Label Reserve wines from 1984 on. From discussions with John and others over the years, it seemed that his 1984 Reserve was the first widely-available chardonnay to be 100% barrel-fermented in 100% new French oak in New Zealand. Michael Brajkovich started investigating the approach in 1984, but not commercially at that stage. Matawhero may have been active with this approach prior to this date, but the detail is not clear. However it seems that in fact Mission Vineyards takes the honours for the first fully barrel-fermented chardonnay released in New Zealand – the 1983 Mission Estate Chardonnay Barrel-Fermented. The detail on the oak differs, and production was only one quarter that of the Black Label, so it did not have quite the impact of the Morton Black Label wine.
Mission winemaker Paul Mooney recollects: When I started at the Mission our winemaker, Br John, always whole bunch pressed our best fruit; whether it be Pinot Gris or Chardonnay. Back in 1981, we bought a new Limousin oak barrel to age Chardonnay in. Our Chardonnay wine, in that year, was transferred to barrel after fermentation. This oak from the Limousin forest did not prove to be the best for Chardonnay. So in 1982 we used a Nevers barrel which was better. The next year, 1983, we decided to ferment the Chardonnay in barrel. Br. John, Ian Clark and I had discussed back in 1979 the merits of barrel fermentation [and thought it] only appropriate for ripe fruit at high sugar levels, which was not all that common [ at that time]. However, 1983 was an El Nino year and the grapes did ripen pretty well in that vintage. We harvested Chardonnay at 22.2 Brix on 8 April. The result of the barrel-fermented 1983 Chardonnay was very good. This was the first New Zealand Chardonnay that had been whole bunch pressed and fermented in newer oak barrels to the best of my knowledge. We made about 250 cases and the wine aged very well into the late 1980's. Mooney goes on to say that the Mission did not have good access to chardonnay until 1989, when they started experimenting further with extended maturation on lees, initially for 10 months, and later up to 18 months. In the 1990s this culminated in the highly-regarded Mission Jewelstone Chardonnay, which continues to this day.
Brajkovich however considers that the 1984 Morton Estate Reserve wine represents the turning point in the evolution of New Zealand chardonnay. It won gold medals including the National Wine Competition, and certainly created great excitement amongst winelovers, and being a cooler season, chardonnay was particularly flavoursome that year from Hawkes Bay. John Hancock recalls with delight the first great chardonnay that profoundly influenced him in his wine career, a 1979 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne: ... it was a real revelation and massive influence ...truly great wine! Like nothing I had ever seen. I then did my first big trip to the wine regions of Europe in 1981. Of course I had to visit Latour. I was there when they were processing Chardonnay and noted they were going straight from press to barrel, not something that was done in NZ as we were very much inclined towards very clean, even filtered juice, with added yeast and cold fermentation. The wines were then cleaned up, often filtered, before going to barrel. So I took that thought back from France and commenced with the 1982 at Delegat's in taking that line, in small steps that first year, using un-settled juice but still with added yeast all in stainless steel. This was pretty radical, but must have done something as that wine won the THC trophy that year. Both the 1981 and 82 were made from fruit purchased from Denis Irwin. Then in 1984 at Morton, utilizing excellent fruit from Hawkes Bay, I took the full step of barrel fermentation in French oak (100% new, Seguin Moreau if I remember correctly!). Because I was looking at lees stirring, with long lees contact, I was concerned about H2S production, not fully understanding the process and selected a so-called Saccharomyces bayanus yeast (a champagne strain) which I figured (correctly as it turned out) would not give sulphide problems. Anyway we used very little batonnage for the first couple of months and then increased that until 1 time weekly for the full 12 months on lees. As you may recall, that wine caused quite a stir amongst the wine community!
Prior to the Mission and Morton wines, chardonnay was fermented in stainless steel, and matured in oak. The risk of oxidation in this approach is much higher, unless total sulphurs are highish, and that leads to flavour degradation. In contrast, the continuing interaction between fruit, yeast, alcohol and oak in a breathing vessel leads to quite different results from stainless steel. Brajkovich sums this up eloquently: ... there was a major change in winemaking technique for Chardonnay in the early 1980's ... that significantly changed Chardonnay for the better. Prior to this change, Chardonnay was regarded as another white wine variety that was best fermented (like Muller-Thurgau) in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures where the fruit could be adequately protected and the best possible varietal expression achieved. After fermentation, the wine could then be "seasoned" by ageing it in barrels. This was the first mistake, as it typically led to over-extraction of wood characters, and to oxidation. Finished white wine has no inherent protection from oxidation apart from the SO2 it has. In oak barrels this does not last long, and the wines typically showed aldehyde and brown characters relatively quickly. Finished wine is also quite high in alcohol, which is the principal solvent for the extraction of oak components, and this typically also happened too quickly, and quite clumsily, leading to grossly over-oaked wines.
The introduction of barrel fermentation changed all that. Putting juice into oak barrels allows initially only very gentle aqueous extraction of the oak, followed by slowly increasing alcohol levels. The interaction of juice/wine with the oak and yeast is a very complex one, but one that is much more gentle and subtle than that used previously. Yeast also provides a very reductive environment that essentially helps prevent oxidation in the wine while the wine remains on yeast lees. The overall result is less oxidation, brighter fruit, and much better integrated oak characters, and I would venture to say that all of the wines you have reviewed have benefited from this approach. Barrel fermentation also allows for the slow absorption of yeast autolysis products, and that has improved texture and body, as well as improving cold stability and protein stability. For our barrel fermented wines we very seldom need to use cold stabilisation for tartrates, or bentonite for protein, because of the mannoproteins that are derived from the yeast and from the oak.
Lest we think that we were ahead of the game in Australasia with these 1980s chardonnays, however, Bruce Tyrrell advises that their firm's famous Vat 47 Chardonnay was first barrel-fermented in new French oak in the 1973 vintage. This was in Nevers oak imported from Demptos. Paul Atwood believes 1982 was the first year Leeuwin Estate adopted 100% barrel-ferment in French oak for their top Chardonnay. They imported Seguin Moreau barrels into Australia, the first of many Australian wineries to favour this firm. Neither winery desires MLF in their chardonnay, to conserve acid. That initiative lies with New Zealand.
Another factor in building complexity into the white burgundy / chardonnay winestyle concerns the state of the juice, before ferment. Once stainless steel arrived, conventional white wine thinking was to hold the fresh must preferably cooled in tank to settle, and to then rack off the clear upper fractions of the juice for fermentation. Alternatively a percentage of the cloudy lower fractions or even some of the thicker gloopy bottom deposits can be retained for the ferment. Where the juice from the press is run directly to the fermentation vessel, be it barrel or tank, with all or most of the dissolved and suspended matter, this is called a high-solids ferment. It is risky, for the protein-related substrates thus included provide complex metabolites including sulphur for the yeasts to work on. In extreme cases aromas reminiscent of fusel oils, mercaptans and marzipan can be produced, which are more favoured in the old world than the new, and more favoured previously than now. Many winemakers therefore hold the juice briefly in tank to settle just a little, leaving the heaviest fractions behind. There is clearly a continuum of both time held to settle and the fraction retained, leading to infinite variation in the winestyle achieved, and hence the infinite appeal of chardonnay as a wine. Some comment will be found in the wine reviews indicating the approaches which have appealed to me.
Yet another detail concerns the physical contribution from yeast lees themselves in barrel fermentation. As the wine settles from the turbid state of full fermentation, there is a natural fining action as the yeast-cells settle to the bottom of the vessel, taking coarser aroma, flavour and tannin-related molecules with them. Where stirring of the lees is introduced to keep oxygen in the system, and preclude any risk of stagnation of the lees and hence sulphide development, there is repeated fining action. This process profoundly influences the level of phenolics in the wine, and hence improves texture. Maturation of the wine on the yeast lees as they disintegrate / dissolve (autolysis) also leads to totally new smells and flavours in the bread / crust / brioche family, and further enhanced textures, as in good Champagne. This is part of the glory of fine white burgundy / chardonnay winestyles.
Following on immediately from barrel-ferment, an equally important revolution in 1985 was Brajkovich's first introducing the practice of complexing chardonnay wines via the European malolactic fermentation. Irwin had experimented with this approach at Matawhero, but Brajkovich persevered with MLF despite the wine being panned by conservative winemaker judges of the day. His Kumeu River labels with 100% MLF are now arguably New Zealand's most famous chardonnays, in Europe and America. And as has often been the case in New Zealand wine, Te Mata Estate was also in fairly early in the piece, and from 1984 started to contribute to the evolution of New Zealand chardonnay. Their Elston now ranks among New Zealand's best. Also from the 1985 vintage Joe Babich's first partly barrel-fermented chardonnay appeared – Babich Irongate. I remember the pride with which Joe showed me this first subtle but serious wine, in a visit to the winery that year. It moved to full barrel fermentation in the 1987 vintage, Michael Cooper advises. For some years Babich made a feature of it being a non-MLF chardonnay. Also by that stage Larry McKenna was well-established at Martinborough Vineyard, where from 1985 he produced increasingly attractive and refined examples of the grape, simply labelled Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay.
Meanwhile the Villa Maria winemakers (notably Kym Milne then) had been keeping a very close eye on Hancock and Brajkovich's endeavours with chardonnay, and quickly followed suit. For the 1986 chardonnay vintage Villa Maria Estate decided to highlight the barrel-ferment technique in naming their top Gisborne wine 1986 Villa Maria Reserve Barrique-Fermented Chardonnay. This wasn't the first Reserve Chardonnay from the firm, but the wine itself was succulent and delicious and justly won gold medal. Both the wine and the name caught the public fancy, and from that date there have been Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnays every year. They variously come from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough, and the best provide compelling statements about New Zealand chardonnay. Perhaps the best of them have been from Hawkes Bay, the various Marlborough wines being a little paler in style, but each year the achievement is different. And the original Gisborne Barrique Ferment label is still part of the scene. There are now both Reserve Chardonnays, and Individual Vineyard Chardonnays, both at much the same price. Occasionally the wines of the next tier down, particularly the Hawkes Bay Cellar Selection Chardonnays are just as good, usually because the oak-handling is subtler. Villa Maria is bigger than just the Mangere-based firm though. Since about 1990 there has been growing friendly competition between the separate-entity wineries of Villa Maria, Vidal Estate and Esk Valley within the group, with each now having exciting Reserve chardonnays. Over the years the trend has been to lower ratios of new oak in the barrel-ferment stage, and where possible lower alcohols. These trends are to be applauded.
In passing, Villa Maria group are now a bit hard-done-by by the market, for though the wines can be superlative, in the secondary market particularly they do not attract the following some of the other leaders tasted for this article do. One may speculate that this is a subconscious reaction (including snobbery) to the extensive (sometimes whole-page newspaper) advertising the firm deploys, highlighting every last gold medal the firm wins in the two important wine competitions in New Zealand. The wines that are sought-after at auction are those which do not enter competitions, even though they may be no better. Consequently, the Villa group wines may later offer great buying, and chardonnay at auction is often available at irresistible prices !
More generally in the 1980s the essential problem with much New Zealand chardonnay was a lack of care and understanding of plant physiology in the vineyard, over-cropping, under-ripeness, and mixed ripeness such that green notes persisted even in wines which were sugar-ripe. The concept of full physiological ripeness of flavour applies as much to white wines as red, but was then almost unknown in New Zealand, as we struggled to move beyond our hybrid-based grape industry and its non-vinifera flavours. So oak was seen as a remedy, even though it sat unhappily with any trace of green flavours. At that time visiting Australian winemaker judges mocked the general run of our chardonnays ... The strange thing is that learning about appropriate cropping rates for full physiological ripeness of flavour was still all in the future, even though the French had made the concepts crystal-clear empirically many decades previously, and pioneer vinifera winemakers such as Denis Irwin in Gisborne had been applying the notion to white varieties notably gewurztraminer since the 70s. It was all a long slow haul though, and some of the oaky mixed-ripeness overly alcoholic monsters of yesteryear can still be found in the market-place.
By full physiological maturity of ripeness and flavour in grapes (or any fruit) I mean the alchemy by which organic acids, carbohydrates and phenolic / tannin precursors ripen through the summer / autumn season via sunshine, temperature and standard plant physiological processes into the sweet, ripe-smelling and ripe-tasting compounds which give each fruit its characteristic aroma and flavour profile. The chemistry of ripening is complex, and does not need to be fully understood to be agreed to as a fact. Anybody can tell the difference between a tree-ripened and perfectly fragrant Royal Gala apple and an early-picked cool-store one totally lacking in smell. So it is with assessing wine quality. Some wine scientists would have us believe that if a factor cannot be measured, it does not need to be considered. Nonsense. Much of the charm and magic of wine is that still, some of its critical parameters cannot be elucidated by strict science alone. Great wine nowadays is achieved when the best science augments great sensory and artistic ability and judgement. The understanding the science bestows enhances the prospects of repeating a great achievement, but Nature remains the ultimate arbiter of achieved wine quality.
The last 20 years: the progress initiated by the first practitioners has been built upon by winemakers such as Tim Turvey at Clearview Estate, Tony Bish of Sacred Hill, Chris Scott at Church Road, Kevin Judd and James Healy initially at Cloudy Bay and now independent, and Tim Finn and John Kavanagh of Neudorf Estate. Latter-day New Zealand is such a young (vinifera) wine country that some of the pioneers such as Hancock (now jointly with Warren Gibson at Trinity Hill), Brajkovich and Peter Cowley (Te Mata) are all still very actively involved with chardonnay. When you further add in creative winemakers such as Helen Masters at Ata Rangi (Martinborough) whose Craighall Chardonnay is in some years among the best in the country, and Paul Mason (succeeding Claire Mulholland and Larry McKenna) at Martinborough Vineyard, the Donaldsons at Pegasus Bay (Waipara), and Blair Walter (Otago) to name only a few, the range of fine chardonnays now being offered to New Zealand wine-lovers can only be described as wonderfully diverse. The future for the variety in New Zealand given our temperate climates is both exciting and infinitely promising.
Another key innovation which has come into more general practice in the last 20 years has been moving from inoculated yeast ferments to wild yeast ferments. As always with New Zealand chardonnay, Brajkovich and Hancock were there first, from about 1986 for Brajkovich, but in the later 90s many started exploring this approach. The complexity notes this technique introduces can be glorious, moving the wine-style much closer to classical white burgundy, or can be lesser. And the risk is higher, because low or nil sulphur is used to encourage the succession of wild yeasts which populate the ferment. The word succession is used advisedly, for some species and varieties of yeast have remarkably low alcohol thresholds, and die-off early in the ferment. Most wild yeast ferments do end up being dominated by varieties of Saccharomyces cerevisiae simply because that is the most widespread species in the industry, and it has the highest alcohol tolerance. It is the diversity of yeasts in the low alcohol stage of the ferment which introduce the complexity.
A further great change in the later period is the emphasis leading winemakers now place on the quality of the oak. The best seek barrels made from oak air-dried for a minimum of three years, and with tight grain and high density so that it is less porous. The days of tolerating harsh sappy oak smells and flavours from kiln-dried oak are in the past. Hancock was the first to go directly to Burgundy and seek out classical coopers. Up till then, the relatively small amount of new oak in the country had come via Australia, and at that time mostly they were using the cheaper American oak. Noteworthy though is that when American oak is matured in the best traditional French fashion as outlined, the results are much more subtle. Some practitioners and many customers still like the slightly-emphasised vanillin smells and flavours of premium American oak. And vanillin is after all a natural constituent of chardonnay chemistry. The combination of highest quality oak, a reduced ratio of new oak, and barrel-fermentation to naturally fine out the larger flavour and texture molecules derived from oak are all part of the subtlety and beauty of great chardonnay. The emphasis on barrel quality means great chardonnay will never be cheap, but conversely the lower percentages of new oak some are pursuing attenuates that factor.
About 1990 the spiritual successor to the pioneer McWilliams label returned to the fray, though then owned by the Montana group, with the launching of the Church Road range of wines. Right from the start the Church Road Chardonnays have been very more-ish wines. Being cold-settled they display beautifully pure fruit characters, avoiding the spurious and sometimes negative smells and flavours associated with more extreme high-solids approach some wineries favour. There are usually suggestions of the yellow-stonefruit mendoza clone evident. Some years there is no MLF, to further focus on the fruit quality. There are Reserve versions too, but sometimes the standard wine has shown the better oak ratio. Church Road and Montana are now part of the Pernod-Ricard group in New Zealand, and the source of the prestige Tom Chardonnay included in this review, but more thought is needed on the parameters for that wine. Also, re-naming the group's top chardonnay to honour Denis Kasza's contribution to New Zealand wine would be appropriate. Such a move would complement the name "Tom" for their top Bordeaux / Hawkes Bay blend honouring Tom McDonald, and better reflect the skills of these two (latterday) pioneer winemakers.
Over the years numerous other wineries have produced stunning chardonnays, but there has not been the consistency of achievement that I have more focussed on in this review. The Mission Jewelstone has already been mentioned. Another example would be the 1996 Seresin Reserve Chardonnay made by Brian Bicknell, which was a succulent stone-fruited wine which cellared well. Later vintages went too far with the high-solids approach for my palate. In the late 1990s Morton Estate set out to recapture some of the chardonnay glamour associated with their firm in the 1980s, and launched a highly-priced 1998 Coniglio prestige chardonnay. The 2000 Morton Estate Chardonnay Coniglio offering was a subtle and finely-drawn wine of great style, but the market was perhaps not ready for the price. There has been no vintage released since the 2004. Trinity Hill also had a highly priced wine in the earlier 2000s, and Craggy Range have sought to match their red successes with several chardonnay labels. Many of these wines fell by the wayside on excess oak or alcohol, or both. But more importantly, these other players highlight how much more exciting New Zealand chardonnay will become, as more firms seek to match and topple the current style-leaders
Present achievements and future potential: Nowadays the harmony in the best New Zealand chardonnays is both astonishing, and a delight. In the leading establishments much more attention is now being paid to achieving full flavour ripeness and evenness of ripening, reducing alcohol, and reducing new oak. The best wines are beautifully balanced and satisfying, both intrinsically good in themselves, and great accompaniments to food. Winemakers have mastered using oak in ways only being experimented with in the 1980s – particularly barrel-fermentation – and now for many subtlety is the goal in oak-handling. There is still scope for refinement in this matter, however. Likewise the complexity introduced into the wine by the MLF fermentation is now much better understood, and the leading wines are now not unduly milky, creamy, buttery or even cheesy. Keeping the wine on lees for extended periods, and the interaction between this practice and the diminution of malolactic off-flavours is also now much better understood. Such wines at best show an integration of stonefruit, mealyness, and lightly nutty or mineral bouquets and flavours which can only be compared with the great wines of Burgundy, ranging from (rarely) the Chablis district in style more commonly to the wines of Puligny, Meursault and Chassagne, and even the Macon in riper examples. Occasionally a particularly good wine will even capture the much-valued acacia blossom notes of top Chablis (and sometimes elsewhere).
Lest it be thought that in citing French models so much, I seek only the replica of something French, I need only point to the top wine in this review, the Neudorf Moutere. It is first and foremost great New Zealand chardonnay, but it has reminders of the richer wines of the Cote de Beaune. And in parallel, what constitutes classical French chardonnay is changing greatly, as old-world winemakers more and more pay attention to factors the new world thinks of critical importance. One only needs to think back to the sulphur-ridden white burgundies of merely one generation ago, to clarify that issue. The critical factor here is that New Zealand, in its great diversity of temperate-climate viticultural districts, has the potential to match the classical districts of France for almost every main style. Few places elsewhere in the world have such critically comparable climates. Questions of texture will be met by cropping rates and winemaking, more than climate. Against this may be put the view that chardonnay is perhaps the most plastic or tolerant vinifera variety in the world, and climate is less important. The success Australia has had and is having with the grape is evidence of that. But when it comes to florality, a key quality parameter in fine wine, a temperate climate will always out-perform a warmer one. And with florality comes freshness, another vitally important component of fine wine. These are the two critical reasons why the future potential and scope for New Zealand chardonnay is so great. Another is that we can potentially produce wines which match the classical districts, at a more affordable price. Winemakers Blair Walter and Michael Brajkovich have both emphasised these points, in correspondence.
More industry research needed: though the starting point may be argued, 1960 is a good year to say the modern vinifera grape industry started in New Zealand. We have therefore completed the first 50 critical years in this new world of real wine. The sad thing is, so little of the detail of this tumultuous 50 years has been documented. Dick Scott (1964) recounts developments up till then, Frank Thorpy (1971) extended the story to that year with a little more wine info included, and latterly the careful wine author Michael Cooper has included a measured resumé of the subject in his Atlas (Cooper 2002). Cooper advises the second edition in 2008 contains further info, including "a list of many of the most valuable theses and dissertations on NZ wine". Keith Stewart (2010) has recently published a comprehensive history of New Zealand wine, which to first inspection tells the story well but is not so attentive to the detail. The detail is needed, if we are to understand how the wine industry reached the point it has today. It is already becoming hard to establish simple facts about those formative years, such as when was Cresta Doré first released, and what was it actually made from. How much more we need winemaking and viticultural detail, for example. As the key players of those times pass on, so it will become harder.
There is therefore a critical need for the universities to come down from their ivory towers, and grow beyond this current academic conceit that if a subject cannot be "validated" by statistics, it is not worth studying or funding. Scholarship can be measured in many ways, as can the ability to undertake and complete thorough research. Numbers are not the be-all and end-all. Theses and dissertations can now take so many forms, and vary so much in length, that there are any number of topics to study and document in this first 50 years of vinifera wine in New Zealand. Completing this essay made that clear. A few years ago I prepared a similar account of the evolution of Hawkes Bay / Bordeaux blends in New Zealand. The lack of info there is even more acute, the timespan being longer. The University Departments of History, Geography, and Wine Science need to be cooperating with the Wine Institute and each other to continually keep an eye out for and identify persons interested in gaining more precise knowledge and understanding of the wine industry, and its origins and practices, and then find ways of supporting the work. Warren Moran, Randy Weaver, Philip Gregan: please consult !
The Tasting: The above notes (now augmented) presented some thoughts and details tasters could look for in assessing the selection of top New Zealand chardonnays. Additionally, each winery was sent a questionnaire, requesting details on the exact wine. All bar one replied despite the seasonal pressure, and the info was summarised for tasters. It is included in the 'admin' / italicised section of each review. Many of the wines were from 2009, a year which pretty well everywhere in the country was superb. In most instances we did not show the current vintage – in a country obsessed with young wines, the idea was to show wines with some chance of illustrating the harmony gained after a year or two in bottle. 2008 was equally good in the Auckland district, and 2010 though a little younger, may turn out to be as good for whites in Hawkes Bay as the 2009s, albeit in a slightly more finessed / floral style. And the yardstick wine, Australia's top chardonnay from the Leeuwin Estate Art series, came from a vintage which James Halliday rates at the 95 / 96 / 97 level this winery usually achieves. The wines were not presented as the top New Zealand chardonnays, but as some of them.
Tasters poured all 12 wines in one flight, blind. With only 30 mls per pour, the emphasis was on tasting, not drinking. Tasters were requested to come to terms with each wine's quality sufficiently to decide on their top wine, and their bottom wine. This task is near impossible if the identity is known. Once that info was collected, the wines were identified so the tyranny of blind tasting was alleviated. While we still had plenty of wine left in the glass, we could then talk more about the style and content of each wine, and try to better understand them.
Acknowledgements: Alastair Morris of Regional Wines, Wellington, invited me to present this super tasting, and assembled most of the wines. 11 of the 12 winemakers contacted took the time out of a difficult vintage to respond in detail to my questionnaire on technical details for the wines – I appreciated this very much, as did the participants. Michael Cooper of Auckland, Dennis Robinson of Pernod-Ricard (and originally of McWilliams Wines, Hawkes Bay), Andrew Kasza of Wellington, Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines, Hunter Valley, and senior winemaker Paul Atwood of Leeuwin Estate, West Australia, all provided valuable detail. Within two days of publication, Michael Cooper was kind enough to send me careful comments correcting detail and clarifying poorly expressed parts. I appreciate that greatly, and have amended the article accordingly. Sacred Hill's chief winemaker Tony Bish kindly made available an older (2005) Riflemans Chardonnay, to help dispel the notion that chardonnay does not cellar well. After the tasting Wellington wine amateur (in the strictest (French) sense) Andrew Swann opened not one but two 2005 chardonnays, to put alongside the 2005 Riflemans particularly. They illuminated the tasting wonderfully and added to the learning experience. Tasting notes are included for interest. Leading chardonnay practitioners Michael Brajkovich and John Hancock went to considerable trouble to answer my many questions, and clarified key details admirably, but that does not mean they agree with the article in detail. Many thanks to all these people.
Cooper, M 2002: Wine Atlas of New Zealand. Hodder Moa Beckett. 288 p.
Scott, D 1964: Winemakers of New Zealand. Southern Cross Books. 100 p.
Stewart, Keith 2010: Chancers and Visionaries – A History of Wine in New Zealand. Godwit. 447 p.
Thorpy, Frank, 1971: Wine in New Zealand. Collins, 199 p.
THE WINES REVIEWED: CHARDONNAY
Lemonstraw, perfectly in the middle for hue and depth. Bouquet attractively illustrates chardonnay made mealy by barrel-ferment and extended lees-autolysis, not quite as markedly so as the Elston and therefore a little more new world in style. But even on bouquet, there is the gratifying suspicion this wine is rich and complex. Palate confirms that wonderfully, with mealy and cashew nut complexities a delight, the body and flesh including golden queen peach stonefruit all sensational. Acid balance is refreshing, oaking is to a restrained maximum but on balance not excessive, the length of flavour and concentration in mouth really exciting. The wine hints at Corton-Charlemagne, and its moderate alcohol reinforces that thought great. In another two years this wine should be mellowing into a great chardonnay, cellar 3 8 years or longer, if you like old chardonnay. GK 03/12
Deeper lemonstraw, above midway in colour. Two wines in the tasting stood out for the absolute beauty of their bouquets, and this was one of them. The volume of limpid chardonnay fruit and cashew mealy complexity on bouquet is enchanting. It outclasses the Neudorf wine at this stage in its magical parallel to the great wines of Meursault and nearby districts. In mouth, it is however narrower than the Neudorf, like most Te Mata wines lacking absolute generosity of fruit, as discussed earlier this year. What is there is lovely, however, the balance of fruit to oak and the flavours a delight, the style wonderfully suited to food. Colour is more forward than some Elstons, but typically the wine cellars well. I can taste no reason why this wine should not follow suit. Cellar 3 8 years. GK 03/12
Lemonstraw, just a slight wash of straw is disappointing at such a young age. Bouquet initially opened is quite grapefruity, breathing out into classic young chardonnay still quite oaky at this early stage, more oaky and less subtle than the Neudorf or Elston. Palate is yellow-fleshed stonefruit, real mendoza flavours here, and a similar degree of mealy and cashew nut complexity to the Neudorf. It is let down fractionally alongside those wines by the more obvious new oak. The richness seems between Elston and Neudorf. Length of flavour is great, with attractive fruit sweetness. This should cellar well, 3 8 years, maybe longer. GK 03/12
Among the lemonstraw wines, this is the deepest, but the hue is more lemon than some. Initial bouquet is citrus and stonefruits, very neat and taut and understated, very Puligny, nearly a floral component. There is also a slight hint of mineral / chalkyness on bouquet, but here at a totally positive level. Many wines falter on this all-too-often spuriously marked-up complexity factor. Palate is more integrated than some of the top wines, as befits its extra year, it is not the richest but there is great elegance and restraint. Integration of fruit, oak, acid and chalk in the long finish is masterly you can see why one or other of the Kumeu River chardonnays has figured seven times on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of the Year list. No other New Zealand chardonnay can match that achievement, perhaps because the Kumeu is so European in style, and is therefore so food-friendly. Cellar 3 7 years. GK 03/12
Lemon, a lovely pure colour. In some ways this is the most beautiful bouquet of all, in that it captures the rare and elusive delicate acacia floral notes scarcely recognised in Australasian wine circles, but much praised in Europe. Behind the florals there is stalky and citrusy pale stonefruit, wonderfully pure, absolutely grand cru Chablis. Palate is a slight shock, total acid higher relative to the field, but the floral / white nectarine / chalky flavours are sustained beautifully on lees-autolysis and subtle oak. It would be so easy for the oak to be spiky at this total acid, but that side of the wine is excellent. Winemaker Blair Walter has given a lot of thought to his new oak ratios, and it shows. Chardonnay is still the hidden potential in Otago, but it stands to reason that a fine pinot district must produce good chardonnay too. I wonder whether winemakers will consider more direct intervention to ease the acid slightly in their chardonnays, even though the pH is fine. Funny business, taste. Cellar 4 10 years. GK 03/12
Lemongreen, the palest and most classical colour all. Bouquet however is behind the pace in this company, being simpler and more fruit-based, even hints of some [ untoward ? ] exotic fruit like feijoa in citrus and limey notes. A certain simplicity of elevation is also apparent relative to the cool-climate chardonnay wines. On palate, this translates into rich stonefruit and golden queen peach accurately reflecting the mendoza clone, but total acid is spiky in the Australian style presumably reflecting added tartaric, and the flavours lack the mealy complexity that long lees elevation coupled with malolactic conversion bring to both great white burgundy and New Zealand's best chardonnays. Despite the apparent oak, actual fruit richness is excellent, though, and the length of the finish is amongst the best. The Leeuwin wine is widely regarded as the Australian benchmark for chardonnay (though Penfolds seek to displace it), so naturally enough it is lavishly praised over there, and rarely subject to either critical scrutiny or comparative evaluation against world-standard chardonnays. Cellar 4 12 years, maybe longer. GK 03/12
A perfect lemon colour, one of the lightest. This is a very 'straight' wine. It smells of chardonnay fruit of great purity, not unduly complicated either by the yellow-fleshed notes of clone mendoza, or extended autolysis or other factors. Palate fills the wine out a little, very good fruit richness comparable with the Neudorf, but all completely white-fleshed stonefruits, subtlest MLF and autolysis, crumb of bread rather than crust complexity, no cashew. The purity and varietal definition this wine displayed on opening meant it had to be placed first in the blind line-up, simply to set the scene, and it fulfilled that role admirably. In its almost Corton-Charlemagne-like richness, it will be exciting to see this wine evolve in cellar 3 10 years, maybe longer. GK 03/12
Full straw, the deepest colour. The first thing to say is that for the group, this was by a clear margin the top wine of the evening. This interesting result shows the extent to which keen consumers still do cellar wine, and still do appreciate the flavours of fully developed wines, rather than the youthful current-release wines so many declare to be the best in the country. Bouquet is a rich blend of peachy stone fruit, including best glacé peaches, a hint of bottled quince, with brioche and even shortcake complexities woven through. The latter flavours highlight the magic brought about by the MLF fermentation, and long lees-autolysis. Palate simply extends the bouquet, beautifully harmonious and fully developed, to my mind a little older than I would wish for its age, so the oak is showing a little. Hence the score. It was a treat to see two vintages of Riflemans five years apart, particularly when both wines have near-identical elevage. Fully mature now, but will hold several years yet. GK 03/12
This wine is also a perfect lemon colour, hard to separate from the Vidal. There is a lovely citrus blossom note to the bouquet, which gets it off to a great start, on pale stonefruit. Like the Vidal, it is a simpler purer bouquet in the field. Palate however is a little less, a lack of flavour relative to some of the more mendoza-dominant wines, the quality of the autolysis not as convincing as the Elston, say, and the total acid hinting at a small addition like the Leeuwin but less but in fact James advises no acid addition at all. Again like the Leeuwin, a lack of MLF in the autolysis phase leads to markedly less of the oatmeal / cashew suite of flavours, which adds so much charm to white burgundy. Like the Vidal, though, its purity is compelling. Cellar 3 8 years. GK 03/12
Lemon green, a sensational colour. Quite apart from the fact that the initial bouquet is tending reductive, the bouquet is, in a word, trendy, showing an excess of the barrel char quality which was so fashionable a year or two back, and compelled winewriters and wine judges to heap unthinking plaudits on such wines. Why ? Simply because that character in moderation is correlated with certain expensive French wines, and is fashionable. Whether the attribute is sufficiently subtle in its character to be positive is not critically dissected. In this wine it is not, for anyone moderately sensitive to reduced sulphur. This tell-tale aroma and flavour treatment was first systematically used by Corbans in their Cottage Block wines in the 1990s, in New Zealand. However, any aroma and flavour cue which includes sulphur compounds has to be handled extremely carefully, both in the winery, and by commentators and judges. Behind the charred quality (burnt toast etc) there is pure white-stonefruits chardonnay. On palate there is a certain narrowness of mouthfeel reminiscent of Elston, but the elevage cannot compare with the complexity and finesse of the latter wine. The char persists, and leads to an acridity on the finish (even though the fruit is fresh), which is lesser. Should cellar 3 8 years, but whether to mellow out and become pleasing is open to debate. This wine was one of only two wines in the bracket which were actively disliked by a number of tasters, at the blind stage. It is a perfect example of the folly of following fashion rather than critical sensory analysis in building a cellar. GK 03/12
Rich lemon straw. Initially opened the wine is very bold and oaky. Decanted and in the blind tasting several hours later, there has been a flowering / mellowing, with rich golden fruit now apparent but still noticeable oak, the whole wine markedly more developed than the Neudorf. In mouth the richness of flavour is a delight, and it must immediately be said that for anyone who values an older style of bigger wine along the lines of some earlier Clearview Reserve Chardonnays, this wine would rate much higher in the field. Latterly however the Clearview wines are becoming more finessed. I felt the boldness of the wine, the oak and the golden fruits (though not clone mendoza, interestingly) looked unsubtle alongside the wines rated more highly. It is more in the Penfolds 94A / Yattarna style, and they enjoy a great reputation in Australia. So, a large element of personal preference in scoring a wine like this, and the richness is a delight. Cellar 3 10 years, maybe longer. GK 03/12
Rich straw, a touch of lemon. Bouquet is rich, but in a quite different style from all the Australasian wines. Essentially the oak is older, and there is not the great purity of the new world wines. It is clearly mealy chardonnay, you can see the similarity of elevage to the Elston, but it is all blurred, with marzipan undertones. Palate is rich, mealy and nutty but just a hint of bitterness as in walnuts, and the fruit notes include dried peaches. The lack of new oak is in one sense a delight with food, but for perfection the 'old' oak needs to be fresher than here. The closest comparison in richness is to the 2005 Riflemans, and in flavour to the Escarpment. Corton-Charlemagne is famous for its richness grand cru chablis on steroids and tasting the wines side-by-side illuminates just how good Riflemans is in maturity. The Corton is even richer, though, richer than all the New Zealand wines (a lesson there), just not so pure. It makes the Elston seem delicate. Cellar some years more, in its style. GK 03/12
Full straw, the second deepest colour. Bouquet immediately is something else. With the right food, this would be a sensation. The florality of the 2009 Felton Road is I think evident here, but it has been transmuted into a most unusual crayfish and baguette character. There is an element of Te Koko in the wine too, more from the elevage complexities than any obvious herbal notes. Palate is rich, long, but again the high acid commented on for the 2009 wine shows through. It sits with the 2005 Corton-Charlemagne and 2005 Riflemans beautifully, yet is so different, really quite a sensory experience. The wine is reaching a level of complexity where it is hard to be objective, and likewise is hard to score. There is plenty of life left in this bottle, in its distinctive style, perhaps cellar 2 5 years. GK 03/12
Lemonstraw, in the middle for depth of colour, but a worrying faint hint of brown in the hue. Bouquet is lesser in the field, a quincey note bespeaking slight oxidation, otherwise fair fruit, subtle oak, some complexity. Palate picks up the quincey note, good fruit, a good textural feel, like the Corton-Charlemagne a hint of marzipan (which I associate with high-solids, negative), lacking the varietal fruit definition of the wines rated more highly. It is only fair to add, that I have reviewed (this site) the 2006 Kupe Chardonnay as: the best Larry McKenna has made, and perhaps New Zealand's most complete and finest example of the grape yet. I hope he will return to that style. Cellar 2 6 years, in its style. GK 03/12