The Oenophiliac

Bringing you stories from the world of wine and beer.

A vine romance with chardonnay

Wine snobs and doubters, listen up – chardonnay is getting its mojo back.

Sure, it’s not about to overtake our industry darling, sauvignon blanc, any time soon, but it is increasingly finding favour as a sophisticated and elegant alternative, capable of holding its own in the finest company.

You only have to look at the wine awards to see how chardonnay is winning attention.

For example, at the prestigious Air New Zealand Wine Awards in mid-November, Villa Maria won Champion Wine of Show for a chardonnay, its single vineyard Keltern 2010.

It took the same top award once before, in 1987, with a Gisborne chardonnay.

Chardonnay’s fall from grace in New Zealand began in the 1980s, although it is still the most popular white wine grape globally, in part because it is the grape used to make Champagne. Overseas, it has become ubiquitous, a hardy grape able to be grown in most climates.

Some New Zealand chardonnays, however, tried to mimic French styles, where chardonnay is known variously as white burgundy, chablis and macon.

These distinctive appellations – legally protected names used in France, which identifys specific wine production regions – were often so badly reproduced that many wine drinkers turned away.

They were too oak, too buttery. Some winemakers even added wood chips to try to emulate the effect of the French oak barrel.


Kiwis turned instead to to the new kid on the block, sauvignon blanc, introduced to New Zealand by Matua Road founder Ross Spence in 1974.

He had been studying oenology and viticulture in California, and on his return to New Zealand experimented with some of the varieties he had enjoyed there.

Sauvignon blanc proved a hit on his Matua vineyard, north of Auckland.

It then became popular with other growers. Montana (now Brancott Estate) was the first to plant and make sauvignon blanc in Marlborough, after taking some cuttings from Spence.

It is our sauvignon blanc, rather than our chardonnay, which has proved most popular internationally.

Eight of every 10 bottles sold offshore today are sauvignon blanc.

The latest figures show exports of chardonnay, merlot and pinot gris were down, but industry body New Zealand Wines (NZW) says this is more because of a smaller 2010 harvest rather than lack of demand. The 2011 chardonnay vintage accounted for 8 per cent of the country’s varietal mix, down from 10 per cent in 2010.

With fewer grapes from the North Island and more from the Mainland, NZW says it is no surprise sauvignon blanc accounted for 69 per cent of the varietal mix from this vintage, up from 66 per cent.

It does note with some consternation, though, that the long-term implications of us depending on a single variety “must be taken into account when considering the sector’s future direction”.

“In target markets such as China and Europe, there have been impressive numbers for styles such as chardonnay and full-bodied reds,” NZW chairman Stuart Smith says in the 2011 annual report.


Not all winegrowers have given up on chardonnay. One of the early proponents and still a keen fan is Kumeu River, which produces a Burgundy-influenced style of chardonnay that features indigenous yeasts, extended lees ageing (leaving the wine with the sediment) and malolactic fermentation, which gives the buttery notes.

Winemaker Michael Brajkovich says chardonnay’s comeback was almost inevitable.

“It has had a resurgence in interest, not because it’s any better than it used to be, but because things do go in terms of fashion and chardonnay has always been, I think, the very best variety for dry white wine.”

Kumeu River has just won stunning reviews in the United States wine publication, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.

Asia correspondent Lisa Perrotti-Brown reviewed 892 Kiwi wines and Kumeu River’s Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 was the highest-ranked white wine and was placed third overall. The 2009 Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay was fourth equal. They were the only two whites among the seven best scoring wines.

The winery stopped producing sauvignon blanc because it felt there was “too much around”, focusing instead on chardonnay which grows well in its area.

However, Brajkovich accepts some winemakers did get it wrong with chardonnay. Some New World wine producers believed that if a little bit of oak, as in the true Burgundy style, was a good thing, then a lot of oak must be really good.

“In the first instance in New Zealand and Australia, people were making the wine in stainless-steel first, doing the fermentation, then ageing the wine in barrels. That’s the worst thing you can do, because you over-extract the oak, tend to oxidise the wine,” he says.

“It’s only been since we started to ferment in barrels that you started to get more subtle characters from the oak and then use a bit of subtlety in the percentages of new oak.”

The other development in chardonnay in the 1980s was the use of malolactic fermentation, basically a bacterial fermentation which converts the apple-like acidity to a milk-like acidity – the buttery note in chardonnay.

“When it was first introduced in New Zealand chardonnay, it was looked down on as a bit of a fault,” Brajkovich says.

“Our first commercial chardonnay, in 1985, which had the malo character … judges thought it was oxidised.

“We were using the [method] not to introduce butteriness, but to reduce the acid biologically rather than chemically.”

A trend was born, but sometimes to the detriment of the variety. “In many cases in warmer climates, the malo was not required, because the acids were low enough already,” he says.

“Again, like a lot of these things, if a little bit of butter is good, then a whole lot of it must be great, so you ended up with these parody chardonnays. The trend now has been to more elegance, more true to type fruit characters.

“The wines are refreshing again, rather than tiring.”

John Belsham, founder and winemaker at Foxes Island Wines in Marlborough, is a small producer but has a flagship chardonnay, which was its major wine in the 90s and early 2000s.

“We’re now finding that interest in chardonnay is increasing for us as well,” he says.

Foxes Island sells to high-end restaurants and independent retail. “What we’re finding, particularly in the Auckland marketplace with restaurants is that sales of chardonnay are increasing, riesling is stable and sauvignon is stable at best,” says Belsham, who was an Air NZ Wine Awards judge for 20 years, five as chairman of judges. “The bad chardonnay makers that were cashing in moved away from it because they were losing market share, so the producers that have always produced it and who have just got better are still there.”

That trend to producing quality chardonnay was evident in the accolades Kiwi and Australian winemakers were getting, but also in the respect they got from restaurants across Australasia, Belsham says.

“They are much more structured, textural, elegant wines that have complexities that are not just oak driven. And they’re damned good wines, often pretty competitively priced, so its not surprising that these are being discovered, in some cases rediscovered, by consumers.”

NZW chief executive Philip Gregan isn’t so sure, yet, of a huge swing back to chardonnay.

But he agrees the chardonnays being produced here have improved. “More sophisticated, elegant and stylish.”


The question is whether chardonnay will ever overtake sauvignon blanc with wine drinkers or be something new that knocks it off its perch.

Villa Maria is one winery that thinks it’s important for the industry to continue to focus on new varieties, not an easy task given the long cycles required for research, planting and growing.

National wineries manager Fabian Yukich says when Sir George Fistonich founded the vineyard in 1961, he insisted on his managers and winemakers thinking long term.

“If you didn’t try other varieties, we wouldn’t have New Zealand sauvignon blancs. You’ve got to do this work and see what grows in these conditions,” he says.

Villa Maria senior Auckland winemaker Nick Picone says several new varieties are faring well at the cellar door, including the relatively rare grape arneis, which comes from northern Italy.

There is also verdelho for a dry white, used for fortified wine in Portugal, which is grown by only a handful of New Zealand vineyards. It has three viogniers, from the entry-level private bin to the luscious single vineyard Omahu Gravels, situated next to Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay.

It is also producing a grenache, the main grape used in the famous Cotes du Rhone wine – and appellation – Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Jane Skilton recently wrote in the Sunday Star-Times of the little known vermentino produced by Northland’s Doubtless Bay Wine Company. Skilton said a panel of wine experts were asked to nominate grape varieties that could become popular in the next 20 years – one English wine merchant chose vermentino.

Even Ross Spence has been quoted saying it was probably unfortunate that sauvignon blanc turned out to be so successful in New Zealand, because there had been a reluctance to seek new varieties that would provide an equally exciting future.

We’ll drink to that.


Wine industry data (2010) shows there are:

1128 growers in New Zealand, with 672 wineries producing on 33,428 hectares. About 266,000 tonnes were crushed.

Sauvignon blanc is New Zealand’s major variety, accounting for 44.3 per cent of total producing vineyard area, ahead of chardonnay at 11.3 per cent, pinot gris at 4.3 per cent, riesling at 2.7 per cent and gewurztraminer at 0.9 per cent.

Marlborough is the country’s major vineyard area at 57.7 per cent, with Hawke’s Bay next at 14.8 per cent, Gisborne at 6.2 per cent, Canterbury-Waipara at 5.3 per cent, and Otago at 4.6 per cent.

Sales by volume in 2010-11 reached 221 million litres, up 11 per cent the previous year. Exports grew to $1.1 billion, making it the ninth ranked export product.


A verse by the late Christopher Stevens, a Master of Wine, friend and mentor of Michael Brajkovich, of Kumeu River Wines, and big promoter of French wines in New Zealand and the wines of New Zealand to the rest of the world. Note: An ampelographer is an expert at identifying grape varieties.

Ampelographers in their wisdom say

the grape that’s great is Chardonnay.

Vignerons, on the other hand

Have been rather slow to understand

That what will make the people pay

A little bit more

Is Chardonnay.

– Kit Stevens (1941-2004)

– © Fairfax NZ News

Story by Nick Krause

Courtesy of

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This entry was posted on January 13, 2012 by in News. and tagged , , , , , .

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