Chardonnay is a versatile variety. As a grape that can grow in cool, moderate and hot climates there is no one set of descriptors that will encompass all Chardonnay wines and as a fairly neutral grape, it can be easily influenced by wine making techniques like malolactic fermentation, ageing on their lees and oak maturation. Giving you a whole raft of options.
I tend to get hung up on the big, bold, in-your-face version with a huge buttery hit and an overt presence of oak. Leaving a lasting impression of a wine style that is brash and obvious.
Recently I’ve been making more time for Chardonnay, not the over-the-top versions, but the more refined and elegant versions of Chardonnay I keep coming across. This is in no way an exhaustive list, I’m sure there are many fantastic Chardonnays I’ve simply yet to try, but these are my personal top five New Zealand Chardonnay to date.
The first two wines are from winemaker-led tastings where the reds were the hero. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Chardonnay overshadowed the hero reds, they did definitely hold their own. From John Hancock and Larry McKenna, there are the Trinity Hill Chardonnay 2011 and the Escarpment Kupe Chardonnay 2008 respectively.
Trinity Hill Chardonnay 2011
The Trinity Hill Chardonnay is fermented with 100% uninoculated yeasts in 100% French oak, 25% of it new. Winemaker Warren Gibson takes his cue from the Australian winemakers who are shifting away from the big, oak-y Chardonnays of the past. To provide the required structure and complexity without overpowering the wine in oak, the 2011 Chardonnay was fermented in larger 600L barrels rather than the usual 225L barriques. This is a wonderful, modern example of Chardonnay with nutty almond, coconut and apple notes with a winning creamy texture from the 30% malolactic secondary fermentation.
Escarpment Kupe Chardonnay 2008
The signature range 2008 Kupe Chardonnay underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, compared to 50% for the 2011, the result was a rounder, mellower wine. The older vines used to produced this rich wine with great complexity, the Kupe also boasts a flinty backbone and plenty of mouthfeel. On the nose there is an abundance of vanilla, along with a few granny smith apples and a pineapple thrown into the mix. A very interesting wine you’ll want to take your time with.
This next one was a far more informal tasting with my partner and a mate visiting from London. My mate handed me his credit card and asked me to show him New Zealand wine. I picked a few Wellington-based wine bars on a Sunday afternoon and from each we ordered three wines to pass around the table. The Neudorf Chardonnay 2009 I remember because we were sitting on the deck at Martin Bosley’s and although there was a perfectly fine Sauv and a rather lovely Viognier to sample, we were all fighting over the Chard. It was gorgeous.
Neudorf 2009 Nelson Chardonnay
A cheerful wine with a bright citrus-driven nose and powerful nutty notes with the slight presence of oak. A rich and creamy feel in the mouth. The wine was a true delight, it had everyone enamoured.
The last two I haven’t had in a while, but I was able to easily locate them in my book of scribbles under wines to definitely try again. These are the John Forrest Collection Chardonnay 2007 and the Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Hawke’s Bay 2010.
John Forrest Collection Chardonnay 2007
This is the connoisseur’s Chardonnay, elegant and full-bodied with its age and complexity you’ll love it or hate it, with little room for grey indecision. It has everything a truly remarkable Chardonnay requires: creamy texture, sweet melon flavours, dry palate and oaked overtones.
Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2010
A brilliant lemon yellow colour, the nose is very subtle with soft notes of apple, nectarine and melons. Baked apples and cinnamon in the mouth with a smooth balance, creamy texture and just a touch of oak. It was the texture overall that had me reaching for a second glass.