Rebecca's Blog: The Best of NZ Chardonnay

May 20th, 2013

The standard of New Zealand Chardonnay ought to be better. 

After living in Middle Earth for more than three years, there are few Kiwi Chardonnays that have escaped my glass. Unfortunately, an astounding number have been about as inspiring as a day out with a librarian.

It’s sad but true that the vast majority of Kiwi Chardonnays have thus far failed to reach their potential. We have a cool, maritime climate with abundant sunshine. If Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir thrive here, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Chardonnay should be right at home.

Why, then, are so many New Zealand Chardonnays soft, sweetly fruited, buttery as Lurpak (or Challenger for American readers), and overpowered by oak?

It could be suggested that the overpowering butter/milk flavor and textures are due to high malic acid levels found in New Zealand Chardonnay – a result of the cool climate.  Put the wine through the malolactic fermentation and the whopping malic acids are converted to a whole lot of lactic acid. The result? Butter, cream, and milky notes. The sweet fruit characters probably derive from the intense sunlight in New Zealand and the Mendoza clone isn’t probably helping matters. 

Then again, perhaps this overt style hasn’t anything to do with malic acid. There are plenty of malo-inducing bacteria that don’t produce diacetyl, which is responsible for the buttery character. Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra believes it’s also a stylistic choice that winemakers are taking. “There are people who do like lots of butter and the honking, big everything kind of Chardonnay style.”

But there are a handful of producers making some astonishingly good Chardonnays in New Zealand in a more reductive mould, which are hugely successful, proving that this non-aromatic varietal can excel here.

What are they doing that others are not? 

Many producers use whole bunch pressing in a bid to retain delicacy and keep the phenolic content low; wild fermentation in barrels and larger 500-liter puncheons are du-jour followed by time on lees in barrel. 

But these techniques are used by both those making the great Chardonnay and those that are distinctly average. What is it that truly sets them apart? The vineyard?

Or, is it a great winemaker? Chardonnay is seen as a winemaker’s grape – a blank canvas to stamp a signature upon. Is it surprising, therefore, that two of New Zealand’s Masters of Wine (Michael Brajkovich at Kumeu River and Alastair Maling at Villa Maria) consistently make some of the country’s best Chardonnays year after year, in regions that aren’t renowned for their greatness?

When New Zealand Chardonnay is good, it’s great: pure, taut and fine. The best examples show off the country’s cool climate white stone fruit and citrus with a supporting cuddle from hazelnut-like oak. They have focus on the mid-palate, linearity and poise. 

Unfortunately, too many distinctly average Chardonnays are made in New Zealand, which doesn’t do the producer or the country any favors. 

The Top 5 Chardonnay Producers in New Zealand (IMHO)

1. Kumeu River, Auckland - Okay, no surprises here but the Brajkovich family keeps pulling it out of the bag year-in year-out in a region that fails to attain greatness otherwise. There are five Chardonnays in the range, starting from the “village” Chardonnay, which kicks the butt of other Kiwi Chardonnays at this price point. Its single vineyard wines, particularly Mate’s Vineyard – named after Michael Brajkovich’s late father – are superlative, and show that New Zealand can be taken as seriously as Burgundy in the Chardonnay stakes – now and again. 

2. Villa Maria - It may be a rather large operation, producing some ordinary Chardonnays at its commercial tier, but the Chardonnays from its Keltern and Ihumatao (good look pronouncing that one) Vineyards consistently perform. 

3. Pegasus Bay - Better known for its ass-kicking Riesling, this party-hard family-run business turns out complex Chardonnay from low yields with interesting aromatics and taut linear structure. Steer clear if you don’t like sulfides though. The wineries more “commercial” brand Main Divide is pretty impressive at the price.

4. Black Estate - I think I may have a crush on this relative newcomer. Everything they have turns to gold at the moment: from their broody Omihi Pinot Noir and Beaujolais-like Netherwood rose to their Omihi Chardonnay. They can’t put a foot wrong at the moment. Keep your eyes – and lips – on this Waipara outfit.

5. Neudorf - Owners Judy and Tim Finn have developed a reputation for classy Chardonnay – and rightly so. They are the go-to winery in Nelson and their Chardonnays are finely woven and restrained.

Current Release Tasting Notes (for those of you who like reading this sort of thing)

2011 Black Estate Chardonnay, Waipara - Relatively aromatic for a non-aromatic varietal(!). Talcum powder, white flowers and white stoned fruit provide a rather Riesling-like aromatic profile.  There’s also a high level of sulfites – but in a good white Bordeaux struck match way. Linear structure, taut, focused. Delicate on the mid-palate and fine acidity belie its cool climate origins. Nutty oak and alcohol well integrated. 93

2008 Pegasus Bay Chardonnay, Waipara - Hugely powerful Chassagne-like style with superb concentration of fruit suggesting low yields. Intense aromatically lime toast-like reductive notes dominate at first, giving way to white stone fruit and perfumed white talc notes. Structured and focused with a fine line of steely acidity on the finish. Punchy yet classy. 94 

2011 Neudorf Chardonnay, Nelson - Fine and pure nose with lemon citrus, white peach and French oak derived subtle hazelnut-like nuances.  Delightful texture: delicate, taut and linear. Tastes like a good Maconnais Chardonnay. 90


Rebecca Gibb is editor at Wine Searcher and lives in Auckland, a long way from her original home of northeast England. She recently passed the theory and practical parts of the Master of Wine exams and is now working on her dissertation.

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