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Diversity in Chardonnay – A Tasting at Winos

By March 22, 2016No Comments
Winos in Blenheim is one of a small number of independent wine shops in the country with an excellent selection of wines that will have something for everyone. Such shops are run with passion and the love of wine by proprietors who stock wines that they wish to share with other aficionados. In Blenheim, which is wine country, Winos has a strong clientele which includes many of this country’s top winemakers. If one is in the store, you’ll usually come across a local winemaker or even a visiting one from another district, who has heard about Winos. www.winos.co.nz

Most of these independent, passionately run shops conduct a regular tasting programme, and I’ve been pleased to have been invited to host several tastings at Winos over the years. This year, proprietor Clive Macfarlane asked me to host the season’s first tasting, of Chardonnay wines around the world. I didn’t hesitate in replying, and set about thinking about the wines. Clive came up with a selection of wines from the shop, and with getting in a couple of extras, there was a strong tasting line-up. On the night, there were around 30 people attending, quite remarkable, really, as much of the region had already begun harvest. Besides wine production people, there were growers and ‘just plain’ wine enthusiasts. I outline my introduction following.

Clive Macfarlane – Wino’s

An Introduction: Sense of Place and Winemaker Input
It is pleasing to see a return to popularity with Chardonnay wines. The world took an odd turn with the ‘ABC’ phase. Of course, Chardonnay has always figured among the world’s greatest wines, and white burgundy has been the model, expressed superbly by Chablis and the wines of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet in the southern part of the Cote d’Or. Oustanding and excellent examples of Chardonnay are now made throughout the world, including Italy, North America, Australia, South Africa and now South America.

The best New Zealand Chardonnays can be seen to be top class and rival those from most anywhere in the world. My own perceptions of Chardonnay include the early Penfolds wines along with the McWilliams bottlings of the 1970s. The seminal wine for me was the Cooks Gisborne Chardonnay of 1980, which was fully barrel-aged. I bought cases of it. Then Paul Mooney of Mission and John Hancock of Morton Estate began barrel-fermentation in 1982. The father to the modern style New Zealand Chardonnay is the 1985 Kumeu River Chardonnay, this employing full indigenous barrel-fermentation and 100% MLF. The wine was outrageous at the time for showing complex sulphides which many judges saw as a wine fault. Geoff Kelly has a more precise and objective history of New Zealand Chardonnay and his masterly synopsis on 20 April 2012 on his website is required reading. www.geoffkellywinereviews.co.nz

While Chardonnay is a wine that shows winemaker input exceptionally well, I believe it also expresses terroir, site and regionality with clarity. It may not be as transparent as Riesling, Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, but there is no denying it shows a ‘sense of place’. Maybe the relatively neutral state of fresh Chardonnay must is its starting point of transparency? Unadulterated, it will no doubt develop to reflect its origins. The proof of terroir expression with Chardonnay is in white burgundy. Why do the grand cru wines of Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet, situated just above the D113a, have greater finesse than the Batard-Montrachet wines situated downslope from the road? And similarly, where are there differentiations between grand cru, premier cru and village Chablis?

Kelly at Wino’s, assisting

Site and Region in New Zealand
While terroir expression is seen in Chardonnay vineyards in New Zealand, regionality is beyond dispute. The following examples will hopefully be demonstrated with the wines to be tasted. Terroir is clearly shown in the Auckland single vineyards of Kumeu River. The ‘Mates’, ‘Hunting Hill’ and ‘Coddington’ consistently display their individuality. It is harder to define Auckland regionality, but tight and elegant white stonefruit flavours are a common theme. Gisborne wines are well-known for their roundness and plush fruit characters, more often than not in the tropical fruit spectrum. James Millton would espouse the differences between his hillside ‘Clos de Ste Anne’ site and the ‘Opou’ vineyard on flatter land.

Hawke’s Bay has probably stolen the mantle of ‘Chardonnay Capital’ from Gisborne now. The wines are more elegant with citrus and stonefruit flavours and possess excellent acidity. Sub-regional differences are clear, such as the cooler, coastal Te Awanga district to the warmer Gimblett Gravels. There are a number of sites already renowned to be outstanding, such as Sacred Hill’s ‘Riflemans’ in the Dartmoor, and Te Mata’s ‘Elston’ vineyard in the Havelock Hills. The Wairarapa also demonstrates site and sub-regionality, Ata Rangi’s ‘Craighall’ vineyard on the Martinborough Terrace makes tighter, finer and longer-lived wine than that from the cooler ‘Petrie’ site near Masterton.

There are clear distinctions in sub-regional style in Marlborough. The wines from the Lower Wairau are clearly more open and broader than those from the Southern Valleys, and the wines from the Awatere even tighter and racier again. It is generally believed to be primarily an expression of soil type, but there are many other factors and influences. The vignerons of the Waipara Valley are probably more ‘soil aware’ than growers and winemaker of other regions. Much of the Chardonnay there is grown on the Omihi limestone influenced clay hills, rather than the gravels closer to the Waipara river.

Winemaker Input
Much of this is well-known and understood. Winemaker input has a very strong influence in the style of Chardonnay wines, but I believe that terroir, site and regionality eventually appear and become stronger in expression.

Not strictly winemaker input is the expression of different clones. Mendoza in our industry’s early days gave us very high quality wines. Its favour has waned, but there is a growing appreciation of it again. The stalwarts of the likes of clones 95 and 15 are now being challenged by new imports such as the Corton-Charlemagne 548 clone.

Hand-picking which allows whole bunch pressing can give finer juice than machine-picked fruit which is crushed. But the new picking machines are very good at harvesting whole berries… Do you include solids in the ferment, or do you settle the must for a degree of clarity? Is the ferment left to native yeasts, or do you take the less risky path of inoculation? And what vessels are used for the fermentation? In in oak, partly in oak or none? The oak regime is critical. Duration in barrel, the percentage of new wood, degree of toasting and of course its provenance all have a bearing on style. Then, what to do with the lees? How much contact and is there active stirring or batonnage? And the allowance of malolactic conversion has a significant influence on textures as well as flavour.

The decision on most of the points above result in the degree of complexity a Chardonnay wine can show. These complexities can border on being funky. How much funkiness can the drinker handle before it becomes unenjoyable? The current trend of accepting complexing sulphide reduction shows a shifting of the goalposts of acceptability. The tolerance of the current levels of reduction, which is now seen as complexity was not accepted, say 20 years ago, when it was regarded as a wine fault. Many of today’s innovative winemakers who have reductive sulphides in their Chardonnays (and other wines) see this as the ‘pathway to minerality’ and way to greater elegance. This is food for thought here, definitely.

At the other extreme is the preference of many consumers for ‘big, bold, buttery and oaky’ Chardonnays. Despite the move away from this style, led by winemakers and drinkers of fine Chardonnay from around the world, the liking of the old-fashioned, broad and big wines by many consumers just won’t go away. Surely, the range of acceptable Chardonnay should allow for this expression?

The Tasting
Ten Chardonnay wines consisting of six from New Zealand, all from the 2014 vintage, two wines from France and one each from California and Australia were served. The wines were served in pairs, the identity of the pairs known but the order within the pair ‘blind’. Tasters were asked to make notes on their descriptions of the wines, their preferences, and to possibly identify them. Here are my impressions of the wines, in the order served.

Flight One: Auckland and Gisborne
The Kumeu River ‘Hunting Hill’ Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $59.99) was one of the best wines of the tasting overall for me. Pale in colour, this was fine and firmly bound, but the expression of white stonefruits, nuts and flint was gentle and rich, the fruit with a degree of sweetness. Beautifully textured with no hardness, this was intricately detailed, but deep and intense in character. The mouthfeel exuded a wonderful freshness. Equally liked by the group was the Millton ‘Opou Vineyard’ Gisborne Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $32.99). This was also pale in colour, with a full and gently broad nose, with clear and bright aromas and flavours of white stonefruits entwined with subtle tropical fruit notes, and some sweet and nutty oak. Not quite the tightness and intensity of the Kumeu River, the restrained richness provided a smooth, rewarding mouthfeel. I could see a move towards a tighter style over previous vintages, along with subtle reductive interest and crisp acidity. Others saw a more ‘traditional’ outlook. An easy pair to identify for the tasters.

Flight Two: Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough
The Ata Rangi ‘Craighall’ Martinborough Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $49.99) was extremely tight and backward. Pale in colour, the aromatics were pure and refined with clarity and finesse. White stonefruits, mineral and nutty aromas and tight, underlying oak. The mouthfeel taut and slender, but with building intensity and beautifully refined textures. This was a wine for the future, and was recognised as such, many tasters impressed with its sheer quality. The Elephant Hill Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $29.99) is already showing what it has got. A little more colour, and much more up-front with fulsome flavours of ripe yellow stonefruits harmoniously melded with flinty complexities and noticeable oak. This has an immediate richness and boldness, the mouthfeel with presence and a little texture to guide it on the way. Not quite the linearity, but already a mouthfilling breadth. Beautiful drinking now, its strength and boldness winning votes. The ines were generally identified.

Flight Three: Marlborough and Waipara
This was led by the Greystone Waipara Valley Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $39.99). Quite an elegant and somewhat restrained and smaller scale wine. Pale in colour, with well-proportioned aromas and flavours of white stonefruits and subtle gunflint complexities entwined with nutty notes and a seam of chalky minerals. Fine, soft acidity, this pleased with its lovely balance. Interestingly, though from a challenging vintage, it grew in depth and richness in the glass. However, it could never compete with the Dog Point Marlborough Chardonnay 2014 (RRP $41.99). Again, pale coloured, the depth and intensity of aroma and flavours just sensational. Amazing richness, depth, concentration and power. The sweetness and succulence of the white stonefruits, powerful oaking and immense structure challenged by the incredibly intense and bold gunflint expression. Though firmly constructed, it had no excessive hardness. This is a winemakers wine for sure, and will polarise drinkers. I loved it, but had to look carefully at it over most of the glass to decide so. It was very clear which wine was the Dog Point. It was preceded by its reputation.

Flight Four: Australia and California
Served first, the Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2013 (RRP $49.99) was straw-yellow and more fruit-focussed but sweetly ripe with aromas of yellow stonefruits and nuances of tropical fruits, Some nutty oak and flinty minerality detail emerged win the glass, and the wine was ‘cuddly’ with its roundness, yet retained a good sense of style. Some tasters found this a ’big and bold’ wine’, thus thinking it Australian. I saw ‘New World’, but with a nod towards the elegance of Burgundy. This was followed by the Leeuwin Estate ‘Art Series’ Margaret River Chardonnay 2015 (RRP $129.99), a wine of great concentration, richness, depth and intensity. Relatively light coloured, this has wonderful fruit power, but carries it with contemporary gunflint reductive interest that just melds in with the overall package. I see the stylistic change to include the reductive characters has taken time to reach this point, but it is extremely successful. A complete wine with so much built into it that some tasters thought this an archetypical American wine! The same descriptors and parameters forming the stereotypes for each country were operating!

Flight Five: France
The Daniel Dampt Chablis 1er Cru ‘Les Lys’ 2013 (RRP $46.99) was pale in colour and softly presented, the bouquet building in volume to show full white stonefruit aromas with chalky, flinty minerals. The fruit pristine and without oak influence. On palate remarkably soft, smooth and seamless, very light on its feet, the acidity very much integrated. The gentle richness and mouthfilling flavour were the features. This was very popular. Then the Vincent Girardin Chassagne-Montrachet ‘Vieilles Vignes’ 2013 (RRP $82.99), pale yellow colour, and also very smooth and refined in presentation. This had class and stylish smoothness, with fine linearity, but added richness and dimension in the most subtle way. A little more phenolic texture the giveaway to its origins, along with white and yellow stonefruits, creamy barrel-ferment and nutty nuances. Altogether more complexity, but restrained in its display. The more air time this saw, the more facets and detail it unfolded. But all the time with a degree of shyness to keep one guessing. Lovely wine too. The tasters readily identified the wines.

The tasting generated considerable discussion about complex sulphide reduction in the form of gunflint and struck match characters. This is one of the currently hot topics with Chardonnay, especially. Such styled wines are performing extremely well on the show judging circuit. In New Zealand the acceptance of the character appears to be more balanced than in Australia, where more extremes are seen.

Almost all of the wines tasted possessed the reductive notes. Interestingly, the French wines, particularly the Chablis, and the American wine were more subtle and held-back with the gunflint notes, aiding the softer mouthfeel.

There was some discussion on how these complexing sulphides come into the wine, with many seeing the use of full solids in fermentation and the working of the lees as contributing and significant factors. Some say that batonnage actually reduces the expression! And many producers believe the character originates in the vineyard, and is vintage dependent. Clearly, it is a very complex issue, and it is one that will engage much thought and discussion over the years to come.

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