Hawke's Bay is producing stellar Chardonnays, some from vineyards within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean. Left and centre above, Rod McDonald vineyards; right, Elephant Hill vineyards.
New Zealand wine growers can afford to be magnanimous towards their Australian counterparts. NZ Sauvignon (aka savvy) has been Australia’s biggest selling white wine for several years, much to the chagrin of Australia’s white wine producers. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to hear Warren Gibson, winemaker of New Zealand’s Trinity Hill in Hawke's Bay, say that in the last five years the region's Chardonnay producers have learnt lessons from Australian Chardonnay (yes, aka chardy).
He volunteered the comment while leading a Hawke's Bay Chardonnay masterclass at the big annual New Zealand wine tasting in London last week, so it was no off-the-cuff private remark. It was a public statement to an audience of high-profile wine people, not to mention New Zealand’s High Commissioner to London – Sir Lockwood Smith, no less – who is a big fan of New Zealand Chardonnays and thinks they’re second to none in terms of value too. No bias there, of course. Anyway I need to get back to the point, although, as I’ve mentioned before, the beauty of a blog is that you can digress as much as you like. The only thing you need to watch out for is losing your readers… Come back! Wake up! I’m back on track! We're talking Hawke's Bay Chardonnay here.
Sir Lockwood Smith (left), NZ High Commissioner to London and a big fan of Hawke's Bay Chardonnay
The object of the tasting was to highlight the quality, look at developments and at wines from the different sub-regions, climates and varied soils. Sub-regions include Gimblett Gravels, the most famous, roughly 20k inland; the Bridge Pa Triangle, just a little further inland and south of Gimblett Gravels, so cooler, but on similar (although older) alluvial gravels; and Te Awanga, within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean and cooler again.
We tasted eight Chardonnays (see list and notes below) each from a different winery, in vintages from 2013 to 2015. The wines were very different, but that was as much a result of winemaking as location – never mind viticultural variations, such as age of vines, or how much the grapes were shaded from the sun by foliage or how much deliberately exposed to it. Inevitably oak maturation varied, whether length of time in oak or proportion of new oak, or, in the case of Warren Gibson's Trinity Hill, the use of larger barrels (500 litres). Some wines had been fermented all or in part by wild as opposed to off-the-peg cultured yeasts (Elephant Hill Reserve, for example, was all wild yeast). How the malolactic fermentation was handled differed from winery to winery (the malolactic process turns tart malic acid to softer lactic acid). Some wines had been aged longer on their fine lees (dead yeast residues that can add complexity to texture and flavour). The last and most expensive wine in the line-up (Rod McDonald Trademark) had a natural cork. One wine had a Diam cork (a cork specially manufactured to eliminate taints, notably TCA, the compound that causes corked wine). All the rest had screwcaps. Alcohol ranged from 12.8–14%. And those were only some of the differences.
Variety of expression is all well and good – indeed, very good – but what did the tasting tell us about the style, the specific characteristics of Hawke's Bay Chardonnay? At the end of the tasting Warren Gibson was asked to sum up the Hawke's Bay style, given that the eight wines were examples of different approaches to growing and making as well as of regional style. This is what he highlighted: lovely, fresh acidity, aromatics driven by citrus, grapefruit and melon, controlled power and structure, complexity in a compact package, freshness and vibrancy. It might not help me identify Hawke's Bay in a global blind tasting of Chardonnay, but I do think it sums up the wines we tasted. As for quality, all I can say is that there wasn’t a wine I wouldn’t want to buy (I gave scores of 89 to 93), although there were some that are outside my usual budget (I’m not a High Commissioner, after all). Prices are £17.90–£40 (see wine-searcher.com for stockists).
Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay 2014, Te Awanga, Hawke's Bay
Very pale, crisp, elegant and citrusy, with delicate, wax and nuttiness. Warren Gibson described it as 'more Chablis-esque' than the others. It's one of three Hawke's Bay Chardonnays that Craggy Range produces.
Te Mata Elson Chardonnay 2013, Hawke's Bay
Bigger and richer than most; creamy and buttery, with polished oak and with tension provided by zesty grapefruit.
Elephant Hill Reserve 2013, Te Awanga, Hawke's Bay
From a single vineyard very close to the ocean and also near to Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard, but a fuller, riper, more concentrated wine that was wild-yeast fermented and lees-aged for richness and complexity. Vibrant grapefruit acidity.
Ngatarawa Alwyn Chardonnay 2014, Bridge Pa, Hawke's Bay
Big and rich, nutty, toasted-wheat flavours, balanced by a peppery mineral freshness. A fairly traditional style.
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels 2015, Hawke's Bay
From stony soils in a warmer part of Hawkes Bay. The aim is to be 'complex but not in a heavy way' and indeed the wine has a creamy, lightly toasty roundness but a high-wire tautness.
Vidal Estate Legacy Chardonnay 2014, Hawke's Bay
Powerful, flinty, struck-match (reductive) aromas, with tropical fruit playing against zesty citrus peel and oak. I liked this very, but the struck-match character divides people.
Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve Chardonnay 2015, Hawke's Bay
Perfumed, nutty, wheaty and creamy with pepper, grapefruit and lemon peel. A textbook example of the 'controlled power' and 'complexity in a compact package' that Warren Gibson highlighted.
Rod McDonald Trademark Chardonnay 2015, Hawke's Bay
Not just struck-match, but funky aromas. Peach, apple and exotic fruit lightly wrapped in oak. Rich and complex but elegant with a long, fresh, salty-mineral, citrus-peel finish. May be too funky for some, but not for me.
Photograph of glasses of Hawke's Bay Chardonnays by Joanna SImon