New Zealand Chardonnay (August 2018)

Chardonnay once dominated the market for fine white wines in New Zealand, with top trophies in the 1980s going to barrel-aged wines that tasted so woody, critics complained that drinking them was like gnawing on a tree. A gentle seasoning of oak can add depth and complexity, but too many winemakers simply swamped their Chardonnays’ restrained, peachy, citrusy fruit flavours with oak.

Today’s Chardonnays are far better balanced, with a biscuity, toasty oak influence that enriches, but doesn’t overpower, Chardonnay’s naturally delicate fruit flavours. But is the bold style of yesteryear on the comeback trail?

Caro’s Wine Merchants, in Auckland, report that “there is much chatter in wine spheres – mostly from people who make or market it – about changing ‘customer trends’ towards more ‘mineral’ and less oaky Chardonnay . . . [But] we could count on one hand the number of punters in a month asking for unoaked, fresh or fruity Chardonnay. For most people, Chardonnay is still synonymous with richness, creaminess and oak.”

My recent tasting of New Zealand Chardonnays attracted big, fat, buttery wines, but also elegant, tightly structured wines with vibrant fruit flavours to the fore, a subtle seasoning of French oak and crisp, appetising acidity. That’s hardly a surprise, because the classic white-wine grape of Burgundy is spread throughout New Zealand’s wine regions, particularly Marlborough (where 34 per cent of the vines are concentrated), Hawke’s Bay (32 per cent) and Gisborne (22 per cent).

Gisborne is renowned for mouthfilling, peachy, buttery Chardonnays; Hawke’s Bay for sturdy, citrusy, peachy Chardonnays with structure and aging potential; and Marlborough for vibrantly fruity, appetisingly crisp, slightly leaner Chardonnays, which have a proven ability to mature well for a decade. That we have such a diversity of Chardonnay styles to explore is worth celebrating.