Despite receiving flak from some, Sauvignon Blanc is still the key variety in New Zealand, accounting for 75.8% of the 2019 harvest. There are three other varieties that lead the chasing pack; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris:
As you can see, vintage variations account for a lot of the movement over the ten year period, but there is a definite upward trend in both Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, with Chardonnay being fairly stable/stagnant (choose your own descriptor) in quantity.
Whereas Sauvignon Blanc is concentrated in Marlborough, which has the most distinctive style, the varieties above prosper in several NZ regions. The most adaptable – in my opinion – is Chardonnay, which makes excellent wines in:
- Auckland – e.g. Kumeu River
- Gisborne – e.g. Wrights
- Hawke’s Bay – e.g. Trinity Hill
- Wairarapa – e.g. Ata Rangi
- Nelson – e.g. Neudorf
- Marlborough – e.g. Cloudy Bay
- Canterbury – e.g. Bell Hill
- Central Otago – e.g. Felton Road
Below are a couple of Chardonnays that impressed me at the recent “New Zealand in a Glass” tasting in Dublin. They are both from the Villa Marie group, though different producers and quite different price points.
Vidal Legacy Reserve Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2018 (13.5%, RRP €35 – €43 at winesoftheworld.ie)
Unlike many New Zealand wineries which were founded by immigrants from the Balkans, Vidal was founded by a Spaniard – Anthony Joseph Vidal – in 1905. He planted vines in Hastings (Hawke’s Bay, not Sussex) and the winery is still based there today (I actually visited it with my wife in 2009).
The Vidal range has four levels (in order of increasing quality):
The two reds in the Legacy range are a Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot blend and a single varietal Syrah, both from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay. The sole Legacy white is this Chardonnay, but it stands alone proudly. Unlike the wine below, quantities were relatively small (33 barriques which would produce less than 10,000 bottles) and from a single region. Fermentation used wild yeast and took place in a mixture of new (45%) and old French barriques. Maturation was for 10 months in those barriques (I assume with lees stirring) then a further 2 months in tank to blend the barrels together.
If I said I didn’t want to taste this wine, that might sound like I’m slating it…but I didn’t want to taste it as that would tear me away from its magnificent nose (Lady Gaga, you’ve got nothing on this wine!) It’s obviously very young indeed, but it has amazing struck-match reductive aromas with rich fruit notes and toasty, tangy oak. The palate is slightly less impactful as there’s an underlying freshness rather than butteriness, but it’s still fabulous. For the price, this wine over-delivers. Interestingly, on Vidal’s own website they offer this 2018 but also a mature release 2011.
Villa Maria Private Bin East Coast Chardonnay 2018 (13.0%, RRP €14.99 at SuperValu & Centra stores)
If you look at a map of New Zealand’s wine regions then you find the majority of them on the East Coast; the East Coast designation is therefore a useful label for inter-regional blends which doesn’t necessarily mean much in itself. Without spending hours on the origin of the term, my instinct is that it was brought in to satisfy EU regulations (similar to South Eastern Australia) though happy to be proven wrong.
For this wine the fruit came mainly from the warm climes of Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, with a small dash from Marlborough for extra freshness. The winemaking decisions were taken on a parcel by parcel basis; for some, indigenous yeast was used while others had cultured yeast; malolactic fermentation was encouraged – followed by bâtonnage – for some parcels while being blocked for others. For all, fermentation took place “in contact with premium French oak”; given the modest price one might assume that the oak was in the form of chips or staves as there is no mention of actual oak barrels.
After all that, how did the wine turn out? Very well indeed actually! This entry level Chardonnay really surprised me as to how appealing it was. The nose is balanced between pip fruit, stone fruit and oak tones, with a touch of flint and reduction. There’s a real creamy texture from the lees work and tangy oak on top of the fruit. It’s ready to drink now but another year or two wouldn’t hurt at all.