Kiwi Chardonnay shines

Chardonnay was New Zealand’s most planted grape until 2001. It deserves to be more appreciated. For publication in the week starting 23 January 2017.

Prior to the massive planting of Sauvignon Blanc from the late 1990s, Chardonnay was the most-planted grape in New Zealand right up to 2001. Last year Chardonnay represented only 9 per cent of total production and 2 per cent of exports. Now almost three in five vines in the entire country are planted to Sauvignon Blanc.

This variety represents almost 86 per cent of the country’s wine exports, and contributed significantly to the surge in the total volume of wine exports between 2010 and 2015, from 142 million litres in 209 million litres. In 2016 those exports were worth NZD 1.57 billion, up 10 per cent on the previous year. The industry is aiming for wine exports to be worth NZD 2 billion by 2020.

Sauvignon Blanc became the most common variety from 2002, and by 2005 it had double the number of hectares as Chardonnay. That proportion doubled again by 2009, and Sauvignon Blanc has maintained its dominant position ever since. The world wants Kiwi savvy and 58 per cent of the country’s 36,192 hectares of vines are devoted to that single grape variety.

Winemakers sometimes use the term “malleable” to describe Chardonnay, meaning the grape can be bent to the will of the oenologist depending on their desired result. Chardonnay can be made in every style imaginable from crisp, zesty and mineral through to fat, buttery and oaky. The best are often somewhere in the middle, provided they are balanced.

After tasting a range of Kiwi whites, this column suggests that Chardonnay is under-appreciated and ripe for re-discovery. Chardonnay’s versatility was part of the reason for its decreased popularity, along with fashion. We can do little about the latter – remember that appalling phrase in the late 1990s of “ABC” or “anything but chardonnay”? We need to start to re-appreciate the grape’s versatility and classic flavours. It remains one of the world’s great grape varieties.

An example of how winemakers are “formatting” the grape is the “struck match” bouquet of some so-called “contemporary” Chardonnays. Personally I find the sulphurous aroma distasteful. Winemakers tell me it comes about when grapes are picked early and certain yeasts used in the fermentation process.

Sulphur Dioxide is the most common chemical used in winemaking. It helps prevent oxidisation and stabilises wine. Good winemakers use it carefully. But deliberately seeking a “struck match” aroma seems excessive. It causes an unpleasant tingling sensation in the nose though it should be noted that the aroma does not indicated that wines are faulty.

The southern areas of Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s north island are producing some excellent Chardonnays. Hawke’s Bay is the second largest area under vines with 4,744 hectares, though it’s a long way behind Marlborough with its 24,020 hectares. These figures are from 2016, the most recently available from NZ Winegrowers. Chardonnay was the country’s third most planted variety after Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Steve Skinner, winemaker at Elephant Hill in Hawke’s Bay, believes Chardonnay is the “undisputed premium white” in the region. “The cool climate, the soils and the winemakers come together to make complex [and] serious wines worthy of being considered at the top table of world-class Chardonnay.” Alwyn Corban, winemaker at Ngatarawa Winery, believes the region is the “perfect home” for Chardonnay. “The consistent international accolades for all styles of Chardonnay from this region are testament to that.”

Many attribute the sunny summers and marked differences between day and night temperatures as key factors. The latter slows the ripening of grapes and allows them to develop pure and intense varietal flavours, combined with balance, elegance and the capacity to be food friendly.

The 2014 Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay is a lovely wine with zingy acids and profound fruit flavours. The vineyard sits in the Te Awanga zone near the coast, and the wine displays extraordinary length. It sings in the mouth for what seems like ages. It was aged in French oak for 10 months, and 18 per cent of the oak was new.

Winemakers in the region have thought hard about the use of oak. Warren Gibson, winemaker at Trinity Hill, said the focus was on using better quality oak and a variety of barrel sizes. Judicious use of oak tends to increase the “length” of a wine: how long the flavours stay in one’s mouth. “Oak is like using spices in cooking; it’s all about the selection and balance,” Gibson said.

He noted the influence of high acidity and natural balance in Hawke’s Bay wines. Most winemakers employed malolactic fermentation methods, he said. This is a winemaking technique in which sharp-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid, which gives the wines more balance and a buttery feel.

The 2014 Ngatarawa Alwyn Chardonnay comes from the Bridge Pa area, which is slightly inland, though few vineyards are far from the coast in Hawke’s Bay. A “pa” is a Maori word for a fort or camp. This is another precise and fine wine, with wondrous length. It spends 11 months in oak, 30 per cent of that new, which confirms Warren Gibson’s opinions about the influence of oak on length.

By world standards New Zealand’s production is tiny, accounting for less than 1 per cent of total volume. But the average price for a New Zealand wine tends to be high relative to other countries, a reflection of its desirability and quality. Lockwood Smith, New Zealand’s High Commissioner in London, told a tasting in that city that his country’s chardonnays represented excellent value for money compared with white burgundy from France. “Hawke’s Bay Chardonnays are cheap given they are as good as premier cru from Burgundy but a lot less expensive.”

Chris Stroud, marketing manager for NZ Wine in London, said New Zealand’s leadership in sustainable viticulture practices, plus pioneering techniques such as canopy management, stainless steel fermentation and the use of screwcaps, were major reasons why New Zealand’s wines were so well regarded in Europe and the rest of the world.

Grab a bottle of Kiwi Chardonnay and see for yourself.

Words: 1,002

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