Tasting Reviews

Gisborne Classic Chardonnay

The ‘Gisborne Classic Chardonnay’ group has been recently formed by a number of passionate Chardonnay producers to build on the reputation that the Gisborne region has in making "traditional barrel-fermented Chardonnay”. The group will be embarking on promotional work around the country in the coming months conducting a number of events, including the "classic Gisborne Chardonnay Express” which will expound the quality and style of flavoursome Chardonnay from Gisborne. To aid the process the group has launched a website www.gisbornechardonnay.co.nz which proposes that the Chardonnay variety is eminently suited to the region, and provides a detailed history of the grape in the region. The website is worth visiting if only for the history alone. The website has seven producers listed as being members, but there will certainly be more added in coming months.

From my personal interest in the wine industry, the phrase "Gisborne – The Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand” which appeared in 1981, certainly struck a chord with me. The 1970s and 1980s were glory times for the region and Chardonnay, led by the initiatives of the Irwin family at Matawhero with the Mendoza clone. This was the time that the plantings in Gisborne were the largest in the country, a result of the country’s larger players looking for fruit volume to gain market share. Chardonnay was the star and premium variety, with the ubiquitous Montana Gisborne wine, fruit-focussed with a smidgen of oak leading the pack. But the larger companies also made smaller quantities of high quality Chardonnays that performed with distinction on the show circuit. Montana’s ‘O’, Matua ‘Judd’ and Nobilo ‘Dixon’ brought much credit to the image of Gisborne Chardonnay, as did Villa Maria ‘Barrique Ferrnented Reserve’, which still is regarded as a special wine.

Along the way, a number of small, but high profile producers added to the distinction of Matawhero, notably The Millton Vineyard. But it was the withdrawal of the large industry players from the Gisborne region that has brought a quieter period which remains today. Lion and Indevin remain the sole large company, and it is arguably the efforts of the small, boutique-sized producers that are keeping the flame alive, not only for Chardonnay, but the whole industry in general for the interest of the market

The Special Qualities of Gisborne Chardonnay
In general terms, what makes Gisborne Chardonnay very popular with consumers is the richness, ripeness, breadth and accessibility of fruit they have. Most of this is a result of the warm climate of the region which "is the first to see the sun”. The propensity of the fruit to be expressed this way has been enhanced by the more perceptive winemakers with barrel-fermentation, aging in oak, the contact with lees and use of MLF conversion. In the simplest sense, the making of "big, bold and buttery” wines enamoured early Chardonnay drinkers in this country, and there is still a strong segment of the market which hankers for this style of wine. And it seems that Gisborne is the region which tends to produce them.

In a modern world where the more elegant, food-friendly, ageworthy and complex flinty and minerally style of Chardonnay is being espoused as the way forward, there is a proportion of Chardonnay drinkers who cannot abide this style, finding it too lean and austere. To the more ‘informed’ consumer, these contemporary, sometimes gunflinty and reductive wines show minerality and terroir, seeing the wines of old as being flabby and dominated by winemaker inputs.

What I’ve noted is some of the words used by members of the Gisborne Classic Chardonnay group to describe styles they make are "traditional”, "old school” and "old fashioned”. While these descriptions portray what the region has done and can do, there is the aspect that wines such as these are passé. To be fair, I believe that most of the Gisborne Chardonnay producers have moved with the times and incorporate the best of the latest techniques in the winery (and in the vineyard) to make the best wines they can that reflect their growing region, and the style it does well.

The Gisborne Classic Chardonnay producers see a lot more complexity in the issue of style and how it comes about. They believe that their modern wines still retain the broader, richer, more flavoursome nature, as an expression of region and terroir. As with the other main and large wine producing regions of the country, there is sub-regionality in Gisborne. The areas of Manutuke and Riverpoint are maritime influenced, and are cooler, and thus later-picked in the vintage. Further inland to Patutahi and the Central Valley, the influence of the sea breeze lessens, and riper and earlier picked fruit is seen. The Golden Slope and Ormond areas are hotter again, but along with that is a wider range in diurnal temperatures. Of course there are special pockets of grapegrowing that are different and individual to the adjacent areas, such as James Millton’s hillside plantings and Villa Maria’s volcanic terrace, and the Ormond Valley.

Taking in a more in-depth look, it is deemed that soil types are crucial to style as well as quality. The silty sites close to rivers are very free-draining and tend to produce tighter, more liner and minerally wines. Clay soils see wines with vigour and volume, and ripeness and size, but this can vary with the weather. Kaiti clay is regarded as the best soil, as this older clay stresses the vines, but the wines still remain sizeable, but arguably more balanced. This soil type can be found in Ormond, Hexton and Patutahi. Geology and situation is also crucial, with the western areas cooler and drier, whereas the eastern side of the valley is warmer but wetter.

Then comes the hand of man in the style of the wines produced. The matter is considerably complexed by viticultural factors, such as clones, rootstocks and issues such as cropping and yields. And more obviously are vinification paths from picking, yeasts, inclusion of solids, fermentation vessels, time in oak, how much new, lees work and malolactic conversion. Steve Voysey, one of Gisborne’s most experienced winemakers has brought ‘regional culture’ to my attention. And this is no doubt behind the formation of ‘Gisborne Classic Chardonnay’.

A Tasting of Gisborne Classic Chardonnay
I was sent a selection of wines from the Gisborne Classic Chardonnay producers to assess. With the wines I took the approach of trying to appreciate any commonality between the wines, as well as trying to understand their differences. Here are my notes on the 8 wines. They were tasted in alphabetical name order, identity open.

Bushmere Gisborne ‘Classic’ Chardonnay 2015 
Brilliant yellow colour with light golden hues and some depth, lighter on the rim. The nose is full and softly interwoven with harmonious aromas of yellow stonefruits and tropical fruits melded with creamy barrel-ferment and nutty oak notes, and subtly complexing lemon-curd MLF and toasty elements. Medium-bodied, the palate is elegant in proportion with fine, fresh and tightly bound flavours of yellow stonefruits and nuances of tropical fruits entwined with creamy barrel-ferment notes. The fruit is still to unfold. The palate has a light, grainy texture with bright, fresh acidity that enlivens the mouthfeel. The wine carries to a tight, firm, lingering finish of creamy and nutty oak. This Chardonnay has a harmonious and complex nose with a tight, fresh, concentrate palate of stonefruits and creamy, nutty oak on a fine, grainy-textured palate. It will develop over the next 4+ years. From David and Shona Egan’s estate. Central Valley, 60.5% clone 548, first pick, 20% clone 15 from vines 11 y.o. and 19.5% Mendoza, vines over 25 y.o., fully barrel-fermented by indigenous yeasts to 12.5% alc., the wine aged 11 months on lees with 4 months batonnage in 20% new French oak, with 20% MLF. 18.0+/20 Apr 2017 RRP $25.00

Cognoscenti Gisborne Chardonnay 2016 
Bright, even yellow colour with pale gold hues, lighter edged. The nose is fresh, firm and deeply packed with aromas of bright yellow stonefruits along with nutty oak, and barrel-ferment detail, complex lees notes and a little smoke. Medium-full bodied, the palate has good power with moderately concentrated flavours of yellow stonefruits and citrus fruits entwined with nutty and creamy oak, forming a firm core. The palate has very good detail and balance, and the wine flows along a fine, taut, textural line with fresh, underlying acidity. The wine caries to a long and sustained stonefruity and nutty finish. This will develop well over the next 4-5+ years. From Waimata Vineyards. Mendoza and clone 15 fruit from Knights Road, Patutahi, WBP and barrel-fermented, 60% with indigenous yeasts to 13.6% alc., the wine aged 9 months in 25% new oak barriques with batonnage and 30% MLF. 18.5/20 Apr 2017 RRP $22.99

Hihi ‘The Full Monty’ Gisborne Chardonnay 2016
Bright, full yellow colour with light golden hues and some depth. This has a fresh, elegantly concentrated and full nose with yellow stonefruit and citrus fruit aromas, along with lifted lemon-curd MLF notes which build in depth with aeration. Medium-bodied, the palate is up-front with sweetly rich flavours of ripe citrus fruits and tropical fruits interwoven with a layering of creamy and buttery MLF flavours. The palate is rich, luscious and rounded with a fine-textured guiding line and good acid vitality for balance. The mouthfilling flavours carry to a full, broad finish. This is an up-front rounded Chardonnay with mouthfilling citrus and tropical fruit flavours layered with creamy and buttery MLF. Drink this Chardonnay over the next 3 years. Fruit from the ‘Jackson’ vineyard, Patutahi, fermented in ‘Flextank’ barrels to 13.0% alc., the wine given American and French oak additions, and undergoing 100% MLF. 17.5/20 Apr 2017 RRP $19.00

Le Pont Gisborne Chardonnay 2015
Bright, even yellow colour with light golden hues, paler on the rim. The nose is elegantly concentrated with tightly bound and deep aromas of white and yellow stonefruits along with nutty notes and subtle creamy barrel-ferment suggestions, unveiling flinty nuances. Medium-full bodied, the palate is fresh with a tight core of sweetly ripe yellow stonefruits along with nutty oak and creamy barrel-ferment elements, and a little flint. The palate is slippery and flows smoothly along a fine-textured line with some underlying alcoholic power providing drive. The mouthfeel has refreshing, balanced acidity, and the wine leads to an elegant, lingering, nuanced finish. This is a taut Chardonnay with stonefruit, nutty and creamy flavours with a little flinty complexity on a fine, driven palate. The wine will develop richness and become rounder over the next 4+ years. From ‘Bridge Estate’. Clones 15 and 95 from Ormond and Patautahi, fully barrel-fermented with high solids and approx. 10% indigenous yeasts to 13.4% alc., the wine aged 14 months in 25% new French and Hungarian oak, undergoing batonnage and 25% MLF. 17.5+/20 Apr 2017 RRP $34.00

Spade Oak ‘Vigneron’ Gisborne Chardonnay 2015
Even, light golden colour with some depth, lighter on the rim. This has a full,soft and gently harmonious nose with aromas of fresh white and yellow stonefruits along with nutty oak and integrated barrel-ferment creamy elements. This builds in intensity with aeration, but retains elegance. Medium-bodied, the flavours of white and yellow stonefruits show with restraint, unfolding subtle layers of nutty oak and creamy MLF detail. The mouthfeel is very fine in texture with balanced acidity lending poise. This has a smooth, driven core and line, and the wine carries to a sustained, elegant finish with subtle complexing detail. This is an elegant and restrained Chardonnay with subtle complexing detail on a fine-featured, refreshing palate. This will develop more richness and deeper flavour over the next 4+ years. Mendoza clone fruit from the ‘Ashwood’ estate, fully indigenous yeast barrel-fermented with high solids to 13.0% alc., the wine aged 10 months in 25% new oak, undergoing batonnage and 100% MLF. 18.0/20 Apr 2017 RRP $34.95

Stone Bridge Gisborne Chardonnay 2014
Full, even, light golden-yellow colour, a little lighter on the edge. The nose is softly full with gently deep aromas of ripe yellow stonefruits with tropical fruit and citrus notes, unfolding fresh yellow florals and subtle creamy and nutty barrel-ferment elements and suggestions of oxidative complexities. Medium-full bodied, the palate possesses rich and sweetly ripe flavours of yellow stonefruits and citrus fruit harmoniously melded with creamy barrel-ferment layers, unfolding nutty, oxidative elements. The mouthfeel is fresh and lively with bright acidity, and the wine flows with good energy along a fine-textured line, leading to a restrained nutty finish. This is a bright and vibrant Chardonnay with fresh, sweet, yellow stonefruit flavours along with creamy and nutty oak, and oxidative complexities. This will hold well over the next 4 years. 17.5+/20 Apr 2017 RRP $25.00

The Prospect Ormond/Patutahi Gisborne Chardonnay 2015 
Bright, even yellow colour with light golden hues, a little lighter on the edge. This has a fresh, bright and aromatic nose of white and yellow stonefruits along with subtle creamy barrel-ferment and nutty oak notes along with hints of MLF. The aromatics are sweetly ripe and also complex with savoury notes. Medium-full bodied, the palate features vibrant and lively white and yellow stonefruit flavours that form a firm and taut core. The palate has layers of subtle nutty oak and creamy barrel-ferment detail with hints of flinty lees and subtle lemon-curd MLF elements. The mouthfeel is fresh and lively and fine in concentration, and the wine carries to a long and sustained, firmly bound finish with refined textures. This is a fragrant, finely concentrated Chardonnay with yellow stonefruits and complexing detail on a refined, fresh palate. This will develop greater richness over the next 4+ years. An Indevin wine made by Steve Voysey. Clone 95 and 15 fruit from vines, 11 y.o., from Waihirere heavy silt loam, Kaiti loam clay and Makaraka silt loam soils, pressed with high solids directly to barrel and fermented 13.5% alc., a portion by indigenous yeasts, the wine aged 11 months in 21% new French oak. 18.5+/20 Apr 2017 RRP $27.00

TW ‘Reserve’ Gisborne Chardonnay 2014
Full, light golden-yellow colour with some depth. The nose is firm, deep and powerfully presented with full yellow stonefruit and nutty aromas, building in concentration and depth, unveiling creamy oak and MLF nuances. Medium-full bodied, the palate possesses rich and sweetly ripe flavours of yellow stonefruits and tropical fruits with subtle nutty and creamy barrel-ferment elements and MLF suggestions. This has layers of flavour underlined buy power, and the palate has opulence. The flavours are fulsome and rounded with good depth, and balanced by integrated acidity. The flavours flow along a very fine-textured line leading to a long, tightly bound finish of stonefruits, tropical fruits and nuts. This is a rich and concentrated, powerful Chardonnay with ripe fruit and complexing oak and MLF detail. It will develop over the next 4 years. From the Tietjen-Witters vineyards on the Golden Slope. Mendoza and clone 15 fruit, the Mendoza 15-30+ y.o., fully barrel-fermented, 30% by indigenous yeasts to 13.8% alc., the wine Aged 10 months 20% new French, American and Hungarian barriques, with batonnage and 65% MLF 18.5/20 Apr 2017 RRP $28.00

Some Conclusions
Firstly, the impression of the wines as a group was surprisingly one of modern and contemporary style, rather than ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘traditional’. By this I mean the wines were relatively elegant and did not have over-ripe fruit, were not excessively oak, and did not have dominating buttery MLF flavours. The inputs were generally well-handled and sensitive to the fruit volume and depth. Clearly, the evolution of Chardonnay both domestically and internationally has led to this style of relative elegance, compared to the wines of 15, 20 or 30 years ago.

The wines were certainly more up-front as a group than wines from other regions, this accessibility arguably a characteristic of Gisborne regionality. The wines had a softness and roundness generally in common, and were not lean, tight, skinny or austere, nor overly acidic, which can be characteristics of cooler climates. There were no obvious signs of cool-spectrum aromas and flavours. Also apparent was a lack of the contemporary popular gunflint sulphide reductive aromas and flavours that tend to be prevalent from regions further south. Some of the wines had nuances of this, but the flintiness was a complexing detail, rather than a feature. It seems these reductive sulphides may not be compatible with the ‘sweeter’ and riper nature of the wines being presented.

There is a considerable divergence and difference of expression for each of the wines, even though they share some overriding similarities. This is to be expected as each of the producers and labels have different fruit sources, and philosophies and ways of handling the fruit. This begs the question: Should some guidelines be put into place to bring some more conformity of style, so that the marketing of the group’s wine be clearer and transparent. In the group’s material presented, Gisborne regionality and ‘style’ is paramount. So a delimitation of fruit source area could be considered. Are certain practices in viticulture to be recommended? Are certain clones more suited to the preferred style? Is barrel-fermentation in oak barrels a compulsory aspect? Then there are aspects such as solids in fermentation, lees work, and possibly very importantly, the degree of MLF conversion?

It will be crucial to get on board some of the larger companies who make a range of Chardonnays. The most obvious producer is Villa Maria, who makes a number of ‘Reserve’ styled Chardonnays which express regionality and site, and thus terroir. This company’s ‘Reserve Barrique Fermented’ Chardonnay is a faithful regional representation at the highest quality level, and the consistency of expression of this label relative to the wines from other regions they make is in my opinion, an outstanding example of a model that demonstrates the Gisborne Classic Chardonnay group’s aims to a large degree.

It is clear that the Gisborne Classic Chardonnay group is at the start of its journey. I see many positives in highlighting the historical and current differences that Gisborne regionality can be responsible for. A more focussed approach and guidelines would be useful to create a strong core of beliefs and structure to operate and produce the representative wines. I look forward to the endeavours of the group to show the excellent style of Chardonnay that the Gisborne region is capable of producing.

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