New Zealand isn't all Sauvignon Blanc, says Roger Jones
Despite its New World tag, New Zealand also produces some amazing refined Chardonnay, with a magical array of boutique producers hitting world-class quality. With the 2015 vintage, Chardonnay represented the second biggest grape production by volume in the country and was the only variety where production grew.
In basic terms, New Zealand's North Island hosts more tropical styles, with full- to medium-bodied rich wines with delicate acidity. By comparison, the cooler climate
of the South Island gives light to medium-bodied wines with racy acidity, citrus and refreshing minerality.
However, with so many individual winemakers and microclimates, it is hard to draw a defining regional difference. What is clear is that the winemakers are striving to carefully balance the use of oak to achieve a refined yet complex style, which allows fruit expression and minerality.
The general regional differences in New Zealand Chardonnay are outlined below.
The Gisborne area in the North Island produces fresh, rounded Chardonnays with ripe citrus and tropical fruit flavours. They are generally made for early consumption but can also be concentrated and complex, with a proven ability to mature well for several years.
Hawke's Bay, also on the North Island, tends to produce very concentrated, medium to full-bodied wines, with peach, melon and citrus/grapefruit flavours. Generally, these wines drink well in the short to medium term, while the best improve greatly with further ageing.
Wairarapa (Martinborough, Gladstone and Masterton) on the southern coast of the North Island, delivers finely structured wines with stylish elegance and bright acidity. They are textured, long and lingering, and medium-bodied.
On the South Island, Marlborough typically produces zesty Chardonnay with good acidity and strong nectarine, grapefruit and other citrus fruit flavours, which work well with or without oak.
Canterbury and Waipara Valley have lots of styles, with generally good structure and body, finely poised acidity and rich citrus fruit.
And Central Otago wines have citrus and mineral characters, are tightly structured, fine-bodied and sophisticated, and can be closed in youth but grow in stature with some age.
A tour of the wineries
One wine in this region comes to mind and that is Felton Road's Block 2 Chardonnay. This wine has quickly built up a cult following since it was established in 1991. This is Felton Road's top cuvée and it ages well. The 2009 has refined elegance, buttery flavours, precise stone fruit, soft nutty nuances, lingering flavours of wildflowers and herbs, a touch of toast and sheer elegance on the finish.
Felton Road's Block 2 Chardonnay (below) has established a cult following
A tiny wine region 30 minutes from the centre of Auckland, the area is home to the legendary Kumeu River winery, which specialises in Chardonnay. Owned by the Brajkovich family, Kumeu River makes five Chardonnays. The Kumeu Village Chardonnay 2012 offers great value and a clean Chablis style, with bright, refreshing and clean stone fruit. It is precise and ready to drink now.
The Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2012 is restrained with a soft buttery elegance shining through that will develop with time. The 2006 I have tried was a wine of great beauty, perfect acidity, and a joyful mouthful of fresh stone fruit and citrus, drinking perfectly.
Then there are three single-vineyard Chardonnays, each with its own unique style. Kumeu River Mate's Vineyard 2006 is stunning. It is opulent, with notes of spiced
barley sweets, soft caramel and white juicy peaches, and very elegant.
These wines excel with age and deliver pretty much perfection. The Coddington is richer in style with more fruit and is deeper, with nuances of apricots and yellow peaches. The Hunting Hill is floral and perfumed, very precise, and with age (2007) was deep in colour, offering a lovely racy vibrancy on the nose, with beeswax and unwaxed lemon aromas; very bright and exciting.
Once recognised as the capital of New Zealand Chardonnay, Gisborne now produces an array of wine varieties at a super-league level.
One of the best Chardonnays I tried was James Millton's Clos de St Anne Naboth's Vineyard Chardonnay 2010. It had a lovely brightness and exotic, glowing, luxurious aromas of lemons, acorns, tangerines and sweet apricots.
On a more commercial level, but not at all mass-produced, is the fabulous Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay. It may well be in supermarkets, but it is great value.
Hawke's Bay is thriving, with numerous multi-million dollar investments coming to fruition, not least Craggy Range, which produces both super-premium wines and value wines that benefit from all the expertise and money that have gone into its top wines. Hawke's Bay wine production combines the purity of New World fruit flavours with Old World complexity and elegance.
Craggy Range Kidnappers Chardonnay 2012 is pale golden straw in colour, with lemon zest and toasted almond flavours, finely structured, and offering glimpses of sweet pink grapefruit and white peaches. The Craggy Range stable has invested heavily in New Zealand and is at the top of its game. This Chardonnay offers exceptional value for money with a trade price of £10 a bottle.
Another top performer is Elephant Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2012. It has no malolactic fermentation and so offers an intensely bright, fresh wine with clean stone fruit and lingering mouth-filling spices of dried pineapple.
This small, picturesque colonial town at the lower part of the North Island comes alive on weekends and during its wine festival (the third Sunday in November) when 10,000 wine tourists visit, mostly from Wellington. Although famous for its sublime Pinots, the town's Chardonnay is pretty special too.
Martinborough is part of the Wairarapa wine region, which takes in Te Muna Road, Gladstone and Masterton vineyards. Martinborough and Te Muna Road vines are set on an elevated terrace in prized growing conditions.
Martinborough Vineyard 2012 Chardonnay is a rich, complex wine that has notes of popcorn, toast, tropical fruit and citrus. It was recently named top Chardonnay in the world outside of Burgundy.
Ata Rangi Petrie Chardonnay 2013 is rich and expressive with layers of creamy peach and sweet pink grapefruit flavours. The spiced citrus tones tingle all down your spine. Sourced away from the main vines at Masterton, Ata Rangi Craighill Chardonnay 2013 is more tropical and buttery and has lots of texture. A wine to age.
Neudorf is praised worldwide
Overshadowed by New Zealand's flagship Marlborough region, Nelson is just under two hours' scenic drive to the east, with its own microclimate and a glut of small, boutique wineries. One is Brightwater, run by Gary and Valley Neale. They set up the winery as a retirement project, but success has brought expansion and they are now thriving with the prestigious multiple award-winning Lord Rutherford label. This Chardonnay offers elegance, tightly structured sweet fruit, soft citrus, and has great intensity and stoney minerality.
However, top dog in the Nelson area is Neudorf. Praised worldwide, the first wines were made here in a small barn back in 1981. Owned and run by Judy and Tim Finn, the Neudorf property is as stunning as the wines. The Mendoza clone gives the wine a deep minerality, and loves the high intensity of the New Zealand sun without the heat, which shows this clone at its best. These wines are reminiscent of Burgundy Grand Cru.
They have a range of styles, from the Neudorf 25 Rows 2013, which is fermented in stainless steel and offers a Chablis style with citrus, cashews, a touch of lemon curd, bright freshness and an enticingly clean aftertaste.
The Neudorf Chardonnay 2013 (it used to be called Nelson Chardonnay) is 100% barrel-fermented, but with only 15% new oak. It is brightly textured and tastes of ripe stone fruit.
And then there is the Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2013, one of the best Chardonnays I tried on a visit to New Zealand last November. This needs time, and the 2006 Moutere was sublime: deep golden in colour with a limey and savoury nose. A wine to seek out.
While this area is important for establishing New Zealand as one of the frontrunners in modern Sauvignon Blanc, to me it is interesting to see how good the Chardonnays are - not least Cloudy Bay Chardonnay, which is outstanding year on year - and with a few years in age can transform into quite magical wines.
Waikari (in north Canterbury) is home to Bell Hill and its sublime wines. Getting to this place is not easy, but is certainly worth it. Bell Hill makes its wines on very steep limestone terraces, which gives minerality and amazing flint nuances. The 2011 Bell Hill Chardonnay has the purity of a Meursault, is beautifully structured with clean floral tones and a flinty, bright and zesty acidity to balance the textures. These are very special limited-production wines.
Food and wine matching
A young or unoaked Chardonnay is fabulous with seafood. Mature New Zealand Chardonnays are richer and more complex, with stronger toast and nutty flavours.
They complement full-flavoured savoury dishes, and are especially good with Asian and Oriental-style foods with spices.
Tempura lobster (pictured) would be a good match for a young, fresh and crisp New Zealand Chardonnay, such as Neudorf Twenty Five Rows 2013.
Slow-cooked pig's cheek with Périgord truffles would be perfect with a mature New Zealand Chardonnay, such as Kumeu River Mate's Vineyard 2006.
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