Is Chardonnay the greatest white wine variety in the world?
Winemakers Nick Picone of Villa Maria and Hugh Crichton of Vidal think so. But they add that at the end of the day, wine is very subjective and Chardonnay, in particular, is polarising. It’s not surprising when you consider the many guises of Chardonnay – from unoaked, light and steely to rich and full-bodied with fruit in harmony and gloriously integrated oak and winemaking complexities.
Hawkes Bay is a successful region for Chardonnay, the young winemakers explain. They talk about the synergy between climate and soils and the cool nights that help to retain acidity. The wines from the region are diverse – from every day drinking styles to those that are powerful and complex.
“It’s easy to make everyday drinking Chardonnay but not easy to attain greatness.”
That might sound like a smug comment but followers of Nick and Hugh’s work know their top Chardonnays are ‘great’ in the New Zealand context. “It’s using your experience over time to find out what works,” says Nick.
They talk about the decisions that go into creating Chardonnay, decisions that include
• when to pick
• hand pick v machine pick
• oxidative handling
• Settling v non settling
• tank v oak ferment
• natural ferment v inoculation w cultured yeast
• malolactic fermentation v no malo
• Maturation and battonage (i.e. lees stirring)
If you pick early the acidity is high while sugar and resulting alcohol will be lower. Fruit will be in the citrus spectrum with some elements of stonefruit. Picking later means the sugars increase while acidity decreases. High sugar equates to higher alcohol and fruit is more in the stonefruit spectrum.
Villa Maria and Vidal are now picking their Chardonnay at lower ripeness than they used to: sugars measured 22.5 Brix in 2013 compared to 24 Brix previously, for example. This allows acidity to be retained, the result being more elegant wines. They put the crushed juice directly into barrel without prior settling and allow the action of natural yeasts to ferment the wine. Natural ferments mean more work, as the winemakers need to smell and taste regularly and get rid of anything that seems like it is going ‘off’, but the end result is more complex wines. They stir the barrels once a week and as the yeast lees absorb oxygen, the wines will not oxidise. The wine is matured in barrel for 8 to 10 months. Malolactic fermentation, which adds buttery characters to wine, is used to adjust acidity when required.
The master class session took place at the Villa Maria Trade Day, a function I like to attend because there are great wines, great people, great food and most importantly it is one wine function I get invited to that partners are also invited to. There are several master classes during the course of the day and this year I chose the Hawkes Bay Chardonnay class as I love good chardonnay and it’s very hard to resist some of top labels from the Villa Maria family of wines.
These are the wines tasted in the order tasted:
Villa Maria Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2012
Straw gold with shy aromatics that have a creamy mealy nuance, but the taste is powerful in the rich creamy palate with terrific toasty, smoky oak characters, grilled peach, peach leaf, lovely soft mouthfeel, great presence and a long bright finish with excellent length.
Villa Maria Single Vineyard Keltern Chardonnay 2012
Light yellow gold. Sweet nougat and mealy nuances to the scent and vibrant and spicy to the taste with toasty oak, rich grilled peach tones and a delectable creamy savoury mealy backbone. Bold in its expression with a long, powerful finish. Delicious.
Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2012
Straw gold with a intriguing aroma that has funky wild yeast nuances that seem almost soapy in this respect, and integrated spicy oak scents too. The barrel work is obvious in the palate, which is underpinned by an exciting fresh acid spine. It’s smoky with a creamy richness and a savoury, spicy undercurrent – and while subtle to start it is expansive in the mouth with a surge of power to the finish.
Vidal Reserve Series Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2012
Light yellow gold coloured with very creamy aromatics infused with sweet mealy notes and a buttery nuance that seems to suggest some malolactic influence here. A youthful wine with a ‘gummy’ mouthfeel effect, but that’s superseded by the vibrant oak, grilled citrus and melon. Interestingly this wine recently took out Champion Chardonnay and overall Champion Wine at the 2013 Hawkes Bay regional wine show. It is what the judges preferred on the day.
Vidal Legacy Series Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2011
Ah, vibrant and spicy on the nose – it oozes Chardonnay opulence and promises satisfaction. It lives up to that promise in the intriguingly savoury palate where funky, mealy, nutty characters intertwine with grapefruit and juicy nectarine. Very complex, sophisticated and classy with a long creamy finish. Outstanding wine and hard to resist.
Te Awa Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2011
Light gold with creamy aromatics, quite firm in the palate and the only one of the six to show any grip to the texture. Rich with hints of white peach, but it didn’t seem as complex as the iconic wines from Villa, Vidal and Esk and perhaps would have been better positioned earlier in the tasting.
My top wines were Villa Maria Single Vineyard Keltern, Vidal Legacy and Esk Winemakers Reserve. Villa Maria Keltern is 100% Keltern Vineyard but the other two have some Keltern fruit in their multi-vineyard blends. In this respect, Keltern could quite possibly be the greatest Chardonnay vineyard in Hawkes Bay.