What’s even weirder when you stop and consider it, is that Chardonnay is considered a Burgundian variety, and Cabernet a Bordeaux variety, and yet New Zealand has cut its chops with Pinot Noir, the other Burgundian variety, and Sauvignon Blanc, the other Bordeaux variety. Looks like we’re dealing with a nation of contrarians. Contrary or not, New Zealand does produce great Chardonnay and compelling Cabernet-based wines!
The truth is that most regions well suited for Pinot Noir are, not surprisingly, also well suited for Chardonnay. The two grapes work in a complementary fashion in Burgundy, so it’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Chardonnay in Burgundy is generally appreciated for the wine’s finesse, depth and ability to age. It may come as a surprise to many that New Zealand’s Chardonnays share these attributes.
While it constitutes only some 4% of the vines in New Zealand, Chardonnay is the second most-widely planted grape in the country. With such a small production, it’s easy to make some generalizations about New Zealand Chardonnay, particularly the wines coming from quality-minded producers.
The first “modern” -- and by that I mean barrel-fermented, of all things -- New Zealand Chardonnay dates to only 1979. While many tend to think of barrel fermentation as one of the evils of modern Chardonnay, the truth is that barrel fermentation, when properly used, is the key to unlocking the beauty in many a Chardonnay; the other key being malolactic fermentation.
New Zealand’s cool climate and poor soils has resulted in a style of Chardonnay that is relatively high in acid. The overall young average vine age contributes to this lean style; a style that demands malolactic fermentation to help round out the sharp edges, yet one that results in a wine that is always nervous, and taut, retaining freshness after malo and never turning buttery or creamy as warmer climate wines may tend to.
This naturally lean and sculpted wine benefits from the added depth and richness barrel fermentation brings to the equation. Another factor that keeps the wines lean is the light in New Zealand. The relatively intense UV light of New Zealand can present problems, particularly with Chardonnay. While hang-time can be a very important factor in grape maturity, over-exposure to UV light can deaden Chardonnay’s flavors.
New Zealand’s producers have learned much in the 30 years since that first barrel-fermented Chardonnay hit the shelves. If one would want a shortlist of additional factors that makes New Zealand Chardonnay so attractive, consider that virtually all premium New Zealand Chardonnays are:
- Bottled under Stelvin
- Whole berry pressed
- Hand picked
- Bottled with little of no fining and minimal filtering.
Next time, we’ll take a look at New Zealand’s latest sweetheart: Cabernet!