By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 18 August 2017

If you like your Chardonnay with pure crystalline flavours, juicy citric fruits and a crisp minerality – head to New Zealand.

Overshadowed by its fellow white grape Sauvignon Blanc, Kiwi Chardonnay is so often forgotten.  Yet almost every region – from Auckland, Waiheke Island, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Martinborough in North Island to Nelson, Canterbury and Otago in South Island – can produce excellent examples from wineries who care to focus on it – but the problem is that too few do.

The numbers speak for themselves.  In New Zealand there are 3,211 hectares of Chardonnay, compared to 21,000 of Sauvignon Blanc.  Growers were encouraged to pull out their Chardonnay and replant with Sauvignon which was an easy seller.  Yet Chardonnay is capable of much more versatility, subtlety and elegance than the best Sauvignon Blanc.  What you get is a broad range of styles from unoaked quaffers to really complex distinctly Burgundian Chardonnays – but there are too few examples of the latter.

When you arrive at Gisborne airport a sign welcomes you: New Zealand’s Chardonnay capital.  This is home to cheaper supermarket Kiwi Chardonnays where fertile soils produce fruit-driven styles – but North Island’s east coast Gisborne region has fallen from favour since Marlborough’s rise to fame.  Marlborough (and Hawkes Bay) have the largest Chardonnay plantings with 1,000 hectares a piece – with Gisborne now in third place with 664 hectares, with some growers struggling to sell Chardonnay grapes here.

You have to look elsewhere for high quality Chardonnay to rival Burgundy.  My current favourite regions for the sleekest styles are Kumeu River near Auckland in North Island – and Nelson in South Island: both regions have small Chardonnay plantings of 90 and 96 hectares respectively.

It might seem strange to find a top Chardonnay specialist near Auckland, when so many wineries headed south in the 1980’s to Hawkes Bay or Marlborough.  But Michael Brajovich MW and his family, originally from Croatia, have stayed put – and now make New Zealand’s best Chardonnays, on gently undulating slopes just out of urban sprawl an hour from Auckland city centre. 

When I visited Kumeu River, Michael’s charming mother Melba, one of the industry’s pioneers with her late husband Mate, took me through their Chardonnays explaining why their site is unique.  Cool ocean breezes and cloudy summers are two factors the Brajovich point to for their success – which gives their Chardonnays a combination of fresh high acidity and an elegant long finish.  Frost can be a risk, in 2015 vintage yields were significantly reduced.

Like the Brajkovichs, Judy and Tim Finn at Neudorf in Nelson also planted their first Chardonnays, from imported Mendoza clones, in the late 1970’s – but admit that there was little viticultural knowledge in those early days so choosing where to plant Chardonnay was a big risk.

“Tim wanted a north-facing clay based site, so our search brought us to a mixed farm set up by German settlers back in 1840’s in Nelson on land which benefitted from high sunshine hours, long warm summers and cool autumn nights”, says Judy Finn (pictured right).

The site the Finns chose, nestled in lush rolling hills near Nelson, gives their Chardonnays an amazing vibrancy and purity of fruit not found elsewhere in New Zealand.  Their organic Moutere and Rosie’s Block, are both dry-farmed; the clay gravels on these hill sites lend a beautiful minerality to their wines. 

Two further notable Chardonnay regions are Hawkes Bay in North Island – producing rich nutty styles with full ripe fruits from notable producers here such as Trinity Hill and Craggy Range – and on South Island in Central Otago, Nigel Greening at Felton Road makes exceptionally well focused bright fruited Chardonnay alongside his Pinot Noirs. Burgundy lovers should take note. 

In my opinion the very best examples of Kiwi Chardonnays from the likes of Neudorf and Kumeu River are as good as some Premier Cru level Burgundies.  Many New Zealand Chardonnays are screwcapped, so you do not have the potential ‘corked’ issue as you do with Burgundy.  They can also age well and are on offer at far more attractive prices than some overpriced Meursaults.

(14%; £14.95  Superb well priced example from a specific clone and vineyard selected exclusively for The Wine Society: surprisingly pungent, zesty, leesy, subtle light oak with a long finish.

(13.5%; £6.99 Waitrose)  Overt ripe style bursting with juicy nectarine flavours – simple quaffing unoaked example.

(13%; £8.50 Marks & Spencer)  Peachy blossomy with a velvety smooth texture and smoky hint of oak

(13%; £22.99 Markinch Wine Gallery; NZ House of Wine; Fine Wine Musselburgh)  Very toasty nutty aromas with tight structured palate – refined oak notes from 12 months in 500 litre puncheon; 2015 was a particularly good vintage here.

(13.5%; £9.99/£13.99 Majestic Wine)  Two vineyard Wairau and Brancott valley blend from Brent Marris; popular for its price, almondy character and creamy mid-palate; subtle ageing in large French oak.

(13.5%; £26.99 Fine Wine Musselburgh; Valvona & Crolla; Lockett Bros)  Another rich toasty leesy Chardonnay with a lovely soft texture; quite prominent oak (40% new oak fo 10 months).

(14%; £25.95 Berry Bros; £28  Beautiful Chardonnay; sleek, complex and minerally with wonderful purity of fruit and seamlessly integrated oak: fermented in oak (15% new).

Join Rose’s Burgundy v New Zealand tasting on Thursday 28 September, Edinburgh £45

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