A New Zealand Chardonnay Classification

CBA is the reverse of ABC

Ten years ago in 2000, New Zealand not only grew more hectares of chardonnay than any other grape, but that year (for the last time) it was also the largest variety by tonnage harvested, about 30% of the total industry output.

Today, even though still the third largest variety by plantings, chardonnay seems almost a pariah grape, especially in Australia and New Zealand.

The coining of the acronym ABC – “anything but chardonnay” – has famously passed into the consumer conscious along with “if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving…”. Both are, of course, exceptionally unfair generalisations justified only because each grape variety has developed a ubiquitous reputation for overly fruity or oaky, mass produced blandness. If ever a style deserved to go out of fashion it was this! However, the generalisation ignores the facts that in the right hands and from the right locations, both chardonnay and merlot provide pinnacle examples of wine.

The Australian wine industry has recognized this in the form of moves to re-invent chardonnay from a marketing perspective. The problem it faces is that Australian chardonnay – the highest production volume white wine grape – has two very different faces. It remains the white wine lynchpin of the hot irrigated hinterlands, where the possibility of producing good volumes of qualitatively unique or expressive wines seems remote. However, the industry has to keep trying to sell such wines, regardless of whether so doing undermines the marketing of Australia’s other chardonnay voice: classically Australian wines from cooler climate districts that faithfully reflect their sources with not only power but also elegance and a sense of style.

The names of Giaconda, Leeuwin, Shaw & Smith, Tiers, Yattarna and others are deservedly having their new day in the sun.

Ironically, New Zealand does not have the same issue of having to contend with huge volumes of cheaply grown chardonnay, even if it does produce more, relatively inexpensive volumes that are still difficult to sell. Even many of the Gisborne vineyards that have focused on production of grapes for lower-priced labels in the past (ignoring grapes grown in volume for sparkling wine), could potentially be harnessed to produce better with yields restrained.

What New Zealand also has, a result of its wide latitudes of largely maritime conditions, is almost exclusively cool climate chardonnay, from every district. There is no comparison to the warmer climate areas producing volume chardonnay in Australia, California, South Africa, or even the South of France.

What New Zealand doesn’t do widely enough is to plant its chardonnay on the best or ideal sites (thankfully there are exceptions), and to act as if it really is in the quality game. If we believe the ABC press, failure to perform becomes self-fulfilling.

How to Sell New Zealand Chardonnay

The first step is so simple but at the same time so difficult: make better wine.

There is an overwhelming sense that shines out of some of the larger published tastings of recent months (including Decanter and Cuisine magazine tastings) that chardonnay has not received due attention from many winemakers. Perceived to be a “hard sell”, it has become an obligatory part of a portfolio to satisfy those few poor souls who still ask for it. Perhaps the fact that it is considered a hard sell is one reason why it is these days often accorded a lower priority in the vineyard and the winery. In other words, it can become self-fulfilling.

The thing is that if grown with care, not over-cropped or over-ripened, and then made with restraint (not over-oaked or handled) by winemakers, Chardonnay can be one of the most emphatic varietal portrayers of its terroir (not unlike that other oft-misunderstood grape, riesling). Perhaps what chardonnay and riesling also have in common is abuse by larger volume wine producers who seem to believe that consumers are only interested if these wines fit into a specific profile with upfront fruit and sweetness on the palate – styles of wine that set out to remove their intrinsic and unique qualities.

What chardonnay needs then, is stylistic clarity. This is not to say that every region should try and make the same styles, as that would be wrong. However, chardonnay is competing with other varieties and styles that make a virtue of cool climate freshness. By ignoring or denying that it also can reflect these hallmarks chardonnay may yet be able to let its own statement be heard.

A word should also be added regarding the clonal make up of the New Zealand chardonnay vineyard. New Zealand chardonnay is still dominated, as it has been for most of the last two decades, by clones 15 and Mendoza. Together these fairly similarly behaved clones, noted for their propensity to “hen & chickens” bunches – favourable for big upfront flavours and sugars – make up about 55% of all chardonnay vines. The balance comprises a mix of Californian clones and occasional imports, although the revolution in chardonnay clones began with the importation of clone 95 which I believe makes a contribution to a disproportionate number of the younger among the leading wines here. With newer and highly reputed French clones 548, 121 and 1066 now in the country and being sought out by several growers for replanting purposes, the revolution will likely change even further.

A New Zealand Chardonnay Classification

Rather than resort to slogans or other desperate ways of attracting consumer attention I have felt that the interests of chardonnay might best be furthered by drawing attention above all to its qualities – especially when these are not at all out of keeping with “fashionable” modern wine styles.

By focussing on quality, above all, chardonnay’s value quotient can also be enhanced.

As a step toward this goal I felt it might be useful to assemble a classification of New Zealand’s top chardonnay labels. I also felt that this exercise might enhance discussion regarding some of the specific characteristics of different regions and their climate and soils, reflected in the wines.

Aware of the risks associated with personal taste, I have attempted this exercise by relying not just on my own (relatively wide) exposure to these wines, but also on checking for consensus with published notes from other much more experienced tasters, including Michael Cooper, Bob Campbell and Geoff Kelly.

I have adopted some other notable methodologies that might not be preferred by others.

1. I have organised my selection of a Top 50 into 3 star ranking categories, with the pinnacle being 3 stars, the next level 2 stars and the balance of New Zealand’s best chardonnays receiving 1 star.

2. I have selected these on a regional basis, such that they are represented from 9 different regions.

3. I have chosen no more than 1 label per producer, from each region. This does result in the situation where producers with wines from multiple regions (notably Villa Maria and Pernod Ricard as it was) have multiple labels selected, whereas other producers with several labels that might otherwise justify representation have just the sole selection named. In several cases I have had to debate which wine to include when others have presented strong cases. In my view, the best producers, as represented here, tend to make solid chardonnays through their range.

4. I have preferred labels where there have been several representative vintages of consistent quality, although I have reserved the right to make exceptions and have not been a slave to this rule.

5. I have also checked most, and in some cases used, market prices as a tool for representation but not necessarily of ranking.

6. Several labels have attracted lower rankings than have sometimes been attributed to these wines based on other tasters in the past on account of my personal impression that either styles have changed, standards have not been maintained or else simply that other labels have overtaken them on a straight comparative basis.

7. I expect arguments, not only over omissions (I hope there are plenty!) but also over the implied rankings. I suspect there may be fewer arguments (but not no arguments) over my list of 3 star wines than over the other categories! Here then is my classification of New Zealand’s Top 50 Chardonnays.

Region

***

**

*

       

Northland

 

Marsden Black Rocks

 

Auckland

Kumeu River Mates

Man O’ War Valhalla

Villa Maria Ihumatao

 

Te Whau

   

Gisborne

 

Millton Clos de Ste Anne

Kim Crawford SP Tietjens

   

Montana “O”

Odyssey Iliad Reserve

     

Spade Oak

     

TW Reserve

     

Villa Maria Reserve BF

Hawke’s Bay

Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux

Babich Irongate

CJ Pask Declaration

 

Sacred Hill Riflemans

Church Road TOM

Coopers Creek Swamp Res

 

Clearview Reserve

Morton Coniglio

Esk Valley Reserve

   

Te Mata Elston

Ngatarawa Alwyn

   

Trinity Hill Homage

Stonecroft

     

Villa Maria Waikahu

Wairarapa

Ata Rangi Craighall

Dry River

Martinborough Vineyard

   

Escarpment Kupe

Nga Waka Home Block

     

Palliser

Nelson

Neudorf Moutere

   

Marlborough

Seresin Reserve

Cloudy Bay

Foxes Island

   

Dog Point

John Forrest Collection

   

Fromm Clayvin

Saint Clair Omaka Reserve

   

Mahi Twin Valleys

Spy Valley Envoy

     

Staete Land

     

Villa Maria Reserve

Waipara

Bell Hill

Pegasus Bay Virtuoso

Black Estate

     

Greystone

     

Mountford

Central Otago

 

Felton Road Block 6

 

In truth I considered narrowing down a four star range with obvious contenders being Neudorf and Kumeu River. The only problem was that there were wines I feel can, on their day, argue a right to stand toe to toe with these icons – whether on long-term achievements, or on out and out pinnacle moments. It got too hard and I wimped out in favour of the perhaps oversized three star list above. In other words, there is a good argument for 2 tiers among these wines and I just wasn’t able enough to split them.

As a further aside, I find it interesting to note how many of the producers listed from Wairarapa south (but with the exception of Central Otago) are also among the leading pinot noir producers.

Overall my point is that the wines I have listed range from the merely excellent to the exciting. The best way to re-energise the market for chardonnay is to shift the perception of drinkers from stodgy sameness to intrigue. There is no better way to achieve this than by highlighting the excitement factor in the best chardonnays, and by giving consumers the tools to reliably find the styles that they want to drink by better clarifying regional taste characteristics.

Ultimately this means taking a leaf out of Australia’s book, as this is very much the strategy that Australia is trying to implement. In New Zealand the lack of the flabby hot climate chardonnays means we are not dealing with an immediate conflict to undermine such a programme. Most of all we need to get out and ask consumers who say they don’t like chardonnay, “well, have you actually tried one lately?”

Regional Chardonnay Notes

Classification Representation (and some additional useful information)

Region

Total

Hectares (2010)

Area Rank

Tonnes (2009)

Area Rank

Yield/ha

Northland

1

 

3

44

1

 

Auckland

4

122

1

490

1

4.4

Gisborne

7

1056

1

13283

1

12.6

Hawke’s Bay

14

1161

1

8787

2

7.6

Wairarapa

6

70

3

325

3

4.6

Nelson

1

121

3

909

3

7.5

Marlborough

11

1075

3

9959

3

9.3

Waipara

5

71

4

302

5

4.3

Central Otago

1

67

3

276

4

4.1

Total NZ

50

3865

3

34393

2

8.9

Northland

Northland carries a reputation of being warm and humid; less than ideal for growing grapes. This is a half truth. Parts of Northland are indeed warmer than most of the country in terms of accumulated degree days, and especially winter temperatures. However, Northland is also amongst the most maritime regions of the country with most vineyards quite close to the sea. It also has a wide and variable range of distinct sub climates and soil variations. The result is a very long growing season, often with greater disease risks despite being relatively windy, and occasionally being drought prone when the country is subject to predominantly south-westerly weather conditions. Chardonnay is the third most widely planted grape variety in the region.

Marsden Estate is located in Kerikeri on the East Coast. It has a decade long history of producing consistently high quality chardonnays under the Black Rocks label (winning several awards in the past). Chardonnay’s relatively early ripening means that, as in Gisborne, it is less at risk of autumn rain. The Kerikeri soils are predominantly free draining red volcanic clays, relatively unique in New Zealand and (unusually for the generally young soils of Northland) amongst the oldest soils in the country.

Other Northland flagbearers include Okahu Estate, Karikari Estate and Lochiel – all widely dispersed through the region.

Auckland

The wider Auckland region has for some time ridden Kumeu River’s coat-tails as a chardonnay producer, often viewed as a curiosity because of its high annual rainfall. However, like Northland, it seems to benefit from the relatively early ripening of chardonnay after an early start to the season, reducing some of the risk associated with the variety. Reduced frost risk also improves the economics of chardonnay as a variety in the northern regions. Moreover, despite Auckland’s top chardonnays coming from diverse corners of the region, all are on clay soils of historic volcanic origins. A problem I had here is that there are quite a few people who think Hunting Hill is even better than Mates. Close call (or should I have plumped for the impressive Coddington). Aside from Villa Maria’s individual style from Ihumatao, Waiheke is also starting to make a reputation with chardonnay. Producers from the Matakana district (such as Mahurangi River’s Field of Grace) are also starting to forge reputations with the variety.

Gisborne

Is Gisborne’s self-proclaimed status as New Zealand’s Chardonnay Capital a help or a hindrance to its reputation? It has advantages and disadvantages in growing the variety. Like other more northerly regions its soils are often clay-rich, ameliorating climate warmth, providing steady access to water through the growing season and providing palate breadth to the wines. Gisborne chardonnays have a naturally riper flavour profile than other regions and I am convinced that the soils are as much a factor as the climate (which can certainly get very warm up the Valley).

For all its reputation as a producer of large volumes of lower priced chardonnays such as the over 30 year old Montana Gisborne label (itself often an exceptional value for its quality), the region has also an established group of stars, as well as a latter day group of up and coming labels – some made elsewhere in the country but using grapes from established high quality growers.

The Montana “O” label may have an unclear future following the sale of Pernod Ricard’s Gisborne assets, but it has never really achieved the wider recognition it has deserved as a regional flagship drawing on some exceptional quality-managed vineyards. Other established producers such as Millton and Villa Maria have produced consistent exemplary examples for over two decades. Newer examples (relatively speaking) include the Tietjen Witters TW label (the same vineyards contributing to Kim Crawford’s SP Tietjen), Steve Voysey’s Spade Oak and Rebecca Salmond’s Odyssey Label. There are arguments for other candidates, including the likes of Matua’s top chardonnay Ararimu, usually made from Gisborne fruit.

Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay is geographically very close to Gisborne and often shares similar climatic factors (temperatures, sunshine and rainfall) but its chardonnays are quite distinctive despite being grown in a variety of different sub-regions , soils and exposures. Half of the 14 Hawke’s Bay chardonnays I have listed are grown in the Gimblett Gravels. The balance are spread between the Te Awanga coastal area, the Ngatarawa triangle, the hillside vineyards of Havelock North (with some limestone), the Tutaekuri River valley and inland toward Mangatahi. This says as much about how the industry in Hawke’s Bay is taking shape as it does about the individual sites or producers.

The three wines I have ranked highest all come with well established reputations that have not diminished in recent years. In my opinion the styles of both Sacred Hill’s Riflemans and Clearview Reserve, both of which showed as high-powered wines early in their existence, have added more complexity and verve to balance the power. Craggy Range’s Les Beaux Cailloux may have emerged more awkwardly but reflects the degree of commitment and investment expended by the company on all its top labels with an elegance that belies the ripeness that comes easily in the Gimblett Gravels.

Stylistically all of the other labels illustrate the Hawke’s Bay ability to produce fruit that can handle reasonable oak treatment and retain a fresh acid spine. This style is more linear than that of Gisborne and to a certain extent seems to reflect the usually gravelly and always free draining soils. Another point of note is that it seems to me Hawke’s Bay growers lead the country in terms of upgrading the chardonnay clonal material, in part a measure of the importance of chardonnay among the white grapes of the region. This suggests that even better will be achieved in future.

Wairarapa/Martinborough

Two things stand out in considering the Wairarapa contingent, all from Martinborough. One is the level of commitment these producers show toward chardonnay, something noticeable among those that did not make this list as well (including contenders such as Voss and Alana). The other feature is that Martinborough, like Hawke’s Bay and most of Marlborough, is based on gravel-based soils, in contrast to the clays that dominate in several other districts. I believe this influences the style of the wines in ways that cut across the climatic story. The standout, in my experience, is Ata Rangi for consistency, age ability, and stylistic clarity. Its chardonnays are paragons of elegance, in arguable contrast to the more powerful approach of Dry River. Most of the Martinborough wines seem to fit into a spectrum between the two, which to me makes the district extremely interesting and far from boring.

One other feature of the district is the relative age of its chardonnay vines, especially alongside more southerly districts.

Nelson

Neudorf rules, not only for style but also for consistency. While its style has evolved slightly with time, Neudorf continues to exemplify the role of sympathetic winemaking and the fact that all of the country’s best chardonnays do indeed age well. Neudorf’s Moutere vineyards are based on soils with a mix of clay and gravel. The Nelson climate, with high sunshine hours and moderate rainfall clearly plays its part. Interestingly, some of the other contender wines from the region, such as Greenhough’s Hope Vineyard, Te Mania Reserve and Waimea Bolitho are grown on the alluvial sols of the Waimea Plains.

Marlborough

Marlborough, it should be stated, is not just about stony river gravels, just as it is not only about sauvignon blanc. As one would expect for a large district with more producers than anywhere else, the chardonnays are produced in a range of soil types including the stony river gravels the region is famous for and the clay slopes of the hillsides, ranging also from near the sea to several kilometres inland. Interestingly my list of the best of Marlborough has very little representation from the Awatere Valley – whether this is because there is relatively little chardonnay grown in the much newer plantings of the Awatere or owing to other factors, is not clear to me. (Note that Vavasour and Villa Maria’s Taylor’s Pass were candidates considered).

The Marlborough style, as would be expected given its latitude, windiness and positioning is typically lighter than that further north and with more pronounced acidity. In keeping with most South Island chardonnays it is much more a statement of freshness and pristine flavours, with the best makers lending some gentle oak assistance but avoiding excessive oak uptake that can unbalance the style.

The “promotion” of Seresin may, I admit, be one of the more controversial aspects of my classification. I justify it on the basis of the depth, purity and personality of the wines – not something that can be said of many higher production competitors, with the fruit showing through and representing the soil aspects. Seresin’s chardonnay grapes come from both clay and gravel soils and so are not easily pigeonholed in that respect. The Seresin Reserve is also built to age, not really coming into its own until it has as much as five years bottle age, and it reflects conscientious selection policies.

In total 11 Marlborough chardonnays made my list. I know of several Marlborough producers who have grafted over older chardonnay vines, regarded as not worth the effort. To me the first point of note is the rise of newer producers putting a real effort into the variety, such as Dog Point and Mahi (Kevin Judd’s Greywacke will surely be of interest), while the others I have listed are largely established operations whose knowledge of the district and the variety is surely a large factor in their success.

Waipara

The Waipara district of North Canterbury, and surrounding areas, produces New Zealand’s most starkly unique style of chardonnay. While the base of the Waipara Valley features alluvial and limestone gravels washed down from the hills and mountains of the hinterland, the hills feature levels of limestone only occasionally encountered elsewhere. All of the wines I have listed have varying degrees of the distinctive mineral nose and flavour profile of limestone soils, sometimes quite reminiscent of the wines of Chablis in France, always matched to fine fruit and a clean spine of acid that together makes them very distinctive.

The wine I have ranked in front is the Bell Hill chardonnay, made in tiny quantities at Waikari and drawing widespread extraordinary reviews for its ethereal personality. I have not tried (and therefore can not comment on) the two even smaller production wines grown biodynamically at nearby Pyramid Valley.

Which is not to belittle the consistent quality being produced at the producers listed in the Waipara Valley proper. From the superb fruit and balance of the Pegasus Bay wines, exemplified by the slightly more concentrated qualities of Virtuoso as well as the excellent estate label, the beautifully constructed Greystone and Mountford, and the extreme minerality of Black Estate. It is interesting to note that until this year there was fractionally more chardonnay grown in Waipara than one of its signature grapes, Riesling. In my view it is quite wrong that these should have fallen so far behind sauvignon blanc in a region that shouts its terroir and is best suited to grapes that will reflect this.

Central Otago

Central Otago’s soils and climate are a clear departure from the rest of the country. The fact that chardonnay and pinot noir co-exist so well in Burgundy might have meant that more Central producers would make the effort with chardonnay (as occurred in Martinborough and Waipara, for example). This does not seem to have been the case as it languishes far behind in plantings – perhaps in part on account of the higher spring frost risk.

Felton Road has progressed markedly as a chardonnay producer over the last decade to earn its place with consistently stylish wines that highlight the minerality of the soil with a strong acid spine.

Other chardonnays from the region have impressed in the past, including examples from Michelle Richardson, Peregrine, Chard Farm, Akarua and Mt Difficulty, although seasonal variation appears very pronounced and it is not clear to me if the region understands the style that suits it or really puts the effort in.

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