Tasting Panel – Chardonnay

, from Issue #67. July 18, 2016
Tasting Panel – Chardonnay

While some would say you either love it or you hate it, in reality there are so many variables in chardonnay, as proven by Dish’s tasting panel, everyone should be able to find a drop they favour. 

I firmly believe if you don’t enjoy chardonnay then you haven’t tried enough of them,” remarks senior judge Jo Gear. “There is a chardonnay out there for everyone. You just need to keep trying.” And we here at Dish couldn’t agree more. Whether it’s those glorious old-school buttery, oaky artery-cloggers or lean, mineral-edged grapefruit-led stars that sommeliers love so much, the selection presented at this tasting had it all. Whether you favour, as Jo adds, “a bright, tropical fruit cocktail or one bursting with burnt match, natural-ferment and warm weetbix funkiness,” our 145 entries show that New Zealand chardonnay is in a very healthy state indeed.

So how do you confidently get your chops around a clutch of the best on a regular basis? Well, for starters you can’t go wrong with our Top 10. There are a smorgasbord of styles that will suit every “chardologist”. Oak is still very much a part of what most winemakers consider a “must-use” ingredient. It was amusing to see how many producers, when filling out the section on the entry form which asks whether the wine has seen oak, wrote, “But of course!”

Five gold, 27 silvers and 32 bronze medals were awarded in this tasting, which means that 44 per cent of entries walked away with some heavy metal. It also means that 56 per cent of entries did not and our tasting could quite possibly have been the official debut of the word “meh” as a wine descriptor. Chardonnay might be a total workhorse grape, but things can go seriously glue-factory if it’s not managed carefully in the vineyard and winery.

So what exactly were our judges looking for? “To me it’s the collision of fruit weight, flavour intensity, complex aromatics, and texture, texture, texture. When the oak is kept under control, chardonnay is just the best carrier of regional expression,” offered associate judge Chloe Somerset. “Fruit-led intensity, elegance, balance. Done well, chardonnay can be a perfect distillation of the soil, climate and geology. The very best ones have the ability to create imagery through taste. Not many varieties have the ability to do this to quite the same extent.”

“Chardonnay from a winemaking point of view is generously forgiving,” adds Gear, “the cuddly Aunt to Pinot’s cruel stepmother. It’s also my go-to after a tough week when riesling looks tight and pinot all judgey-judgey. Chardonnay will always welcome you.”

One thing was very clear and that’s the plethora of chardonnay styles available on our shop shelves, from the pure, flinty, Chablis-like, right through to juicy, tropical fruit-bombs, buttery, nutty numbers and then deeply funky, struck-match-packed sulphidic examples. Winemakers are pushing the bounds as far as possible in all directions with chardonnay, and we at Dish think that’s a great thing. 

Style/varietal: Chardonnay
Tasting date: June 2016
Entries: 145

  • Yvonne Lorkin (Dish drinks writer)
  • Jo Gear (Winemaker NZ Wine Society)
  • James Rowan (Winemaker at Westbrook)
  • Chloe Somerset (Cable Bay – associate)

Rating System
Gold ★★★★★ – ​Superb. Strongly recommended.

Silver ★★★★ – A cut above the rest in quality.

Bronze ★★★ – A good quality crowd-pleaser.

(NB: All wines are judged blind and the scores of judges for their own wines cannot exceed those of other judges.)

Top Wines of the Tasting

Winemakers Reserve Chardonnay 2015 ($32)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Wow. Winemaker Gordon Russell has produced something of extreme loveliness in this chardonnay that bursts from the glass in a wave of peachy, buttered toast, cinnamon and roasted nutty niceness. “Generous entry and shows a lovely, fine acidity, minerality and a chalky texture – very, very good wine,” commented Jo Gear to nods of agreement from the panel. There’s a charred, smoky complexity on the finish, a funky, feisty character that makes every sip something to think about.

Small Parcels Wild Grace Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2014 ($25)

★★★★★ Gold Medal
An instant hit with the judges and the word “Yum” appeared in every tasting note. “Funky, toasty, weetbix and char notes,” commented James. “Sweet-fruited entry, delicious slippery, ripe texture and absolutely dripping with style.” Jo Gear found the wine had real impact and was “quite the beauty”. This will definitely appeal to those who like to get a little adventurous with their chardonnay. Gorgeous.

Marlborough Chardonnay 2014 ($23)

★★★★★ Gold Medal
Oak lovers unite! Here’s a Marlborough chardonnay boasting attractive, toasty complexity on the nose, hints of lemon pith, fig and white peach “and a balanced, tangy tension on the palate,” according to Yvonne. Crafted from fruit sourced from the “Johnson” and “Outpost” vineyards, the other judges, too, were impressed with the texture, warmth and “fatness” of this southern star, produced by Paul Bourgeois and his Waihopai winery team.

Marlborough Chardonnay 2014 ($31)

★★★★★ Gold Medal
It was the creamy, roast cashew character of this wine that won over our judges. Combine that with soft, peachy complexity, hints of white pepper, smoke and a sneaky grapefruit pith layer slipping in there too. It’s juicy, succulent and as Chloe pointed out, “has a harmonious feel to it”. Classic Awatere Valley chardonnay here.

‘Waimauku’ Chardonnay 2014 ($38)

★★★★★ Gold Medal
Great to see a Westie among our winners. “Lovely elegant lines, beautifully tight, tangy and poised,” noted Yvonne. “It’s a very well made wine indeed”. Jo agreed,
“It has real charm and character. Weetbix, flint, cedary oak, full flavoured – there’s a lot going on here.” Generous stonefruit and spice alongside fresh acidity made this a firm favourite.

Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2015 ($18) 

★★★★½ Silver Medal (Best buy)
All judges commented about this wine’s “structure” and all felt the wine was very complete and attractive across all its dimensions. It hits that sweet spot
between pure citrus, finely grained oak and lifted mineral, flinty characters, and the beginnings of some mealy, creamy characters. It’s a superb value-for-money chardonnay that oozes complexity and “drink-me-ness”.

Lowburn Valley Central Otago Chardonnay 2015 ($39)

★★★★½ Silver Medal
For Yvonne, this chardonnay had rock star written all over it. “Hints of smoked stonefruit on the nose, fresh juicy acidity, luscious fruit, layers of spice and citrus pith notes, this is a fresh, vibrant, lovely example,” she said. Jo agreed with, “Nicely styled”. Chloe replied with, “Really nice phenolics”. James backed that with “Beautifully balanced”. So if you’ve never tasted a Central Otago chardonnay – here’s your cue.

Estate Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2015 ($25)

★★★★½ Silver Medal
Attractive toasty oak aromas, solid roast stonefruit and a tangelo-like tang soaks across the palate in this fresh and distinctive chardonnay that James felt had finesse and restraint. This is “a very tight, taut style” according to Jo, while Chloe recommented that “the balance of sulphides to fruit is really good and there’s a lovely creaminess. It’ll appeal to both sides of the fence”.

Reserve Gisborne Barrique Fermented Chardonnay 2015 ($37)

★★★★½ Silver Medal
“Super-sexy aromatics, really attractive on the nose,” remarked Yvonne. “Full of life,” commented Chloe, while Jo noted very confidently that it was intensely pungent, bold and warm-fruited, boasting layers of flint, vanillin, peach and citrus, supported by solid oak and juicy acidity and a delicious texture. “Back it!” she said. The other judges clearly did.

John Forrest Collection Marlborough Chardonnay 2011 ($50)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

“Very interesting lean, mealy layers on the nose, smoke, grapefruit pith on the palate – there’s a grain-spirit, sake-like character that I really like,” said Yvonne. “A big, fat, old-school, generous example that’s in good condition, developing nicely and is very drinkable,” added Jo. Buttered toast, coriander seed and cinnamon notes all added to the delicious complexity of this ageing beauty.

With thanks to Janet Blackman from the Professional Wine Studies Department and the AUT School of Hospitality and Tourism. For more on the programmes in hospitality, food and beverage, and hotel management visit aut.ac.nz.

Water kindly supplied by Antipodes. 
Glasses supplied by Spiegelau.