Is bigger better for Chardonnay?

Cue the drum roll for a new wave of big buttery New Zealand Chardonnays, which have all the bells and whistles but more balance and acidity than in decades gone by

(PS: Since this blog went live 30 minutes ago, I have added notes to explain that I am not endorsing old fashioned big buttery Chardonnays. These notes are due to comments received, which I address in the first few paragraphs. Now I am off to enjoy a smooth, elegant and creamy glass of 12% alcohol Chardonnay… )

Big buttery Chardonnay rocks and there isn’t enough of it around, right?

It all depends who you’re talking to. Wine critics, makers and many others in the industry are championing restraint in Chardonnay while a vast number of retailers – and wine drinkers – say they want big and buttery. This was borne out by the sell-out numbers at the Big Buttery Chardonnay tasting I led in Wellington last month. To judge by the fact we had to significantly add to the numbers attending, the answer to whether wine drinkers want big and buttery is ‘yes, yes, yes’ (cue Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally). (The tasting was held at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington.)

I am not saying that old fashioned big buttery Chardonnays are reappearing but, rather, that big, noticeably creamy flavours are making a recognisable comeback in a new wave of balanced, big, beautiful Chardonnays. The four wines in this blog are the tip of a vast number of wines made by thoughtful winemakers who want to champion and promote softness and richness to wine drinkers but to do so at lower alcohol levels (the 2015 Family Chardonnay) with higher acidity (Rod McDonald’s 2015 Trademark Chardonnay) and more restraint (Tony Bish’s 2015 Golden Egg Chardonnay).

For many people, Chardonnay has become a polarising drink. One person’s big and buttery can be another person’s idea of Chablis, if you know what I mean – Chablis is that steely dry Chardonnay from the town of the same name in the north of Burgundy in France. It usually tastes creamy but it’s not the biggest buttery number on Earth. Wine drinkers’ preferences for Chardonnay styles is polarised, as one tasting after another shows, but that’s because the range of Chardonnays made globally is more diverse than ever.

The biggest creamiest Chardonnays tend to come from  warm climates, which is ironic because the creaminess is not due to anything in the Chardonnay grape. It is the result of a winemaking technique called malolactic fermentation, which was traditionally used to soften the high acidity found in Chardonnay grown in cool climates.

Malolactic fermentation is often abbreviated to mlf or malo’. It is the conversion of sharp tasting malic acids (naturally present in grapes and more pronounced in cool climates like Chablis) into softer, creamy tasting lactic acids, such as those found in milk – hence, ‘lactic’.

Butter, cream, yoghurt and milk flavours in full bodied, golden coloured Chardonnays were all the rage in the 1980s when bigger was better in everything from shoes to Chardonnay, but wines like this have fallen from grace with some winemakers and critics because they can lack the balancing acidity that Chardonnay’s already high volume soft, ripe peachy flavours can need.

For this reason, many winemakers have dialed down Chardonnay’s buttery bells but you know what they say about what goes around?

Right now there’s a bunch of big buttery newcomers coming back around. In my view, they are way better than any of the big buttery numbers I personally loved and drank in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A catch up with winemaker Rod McDonald in Wellington last week proved the point.

He was on a road trip to launch his new 2015 Rod McDonald Trademark Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay and 2013 Trademark Hawke’s Bay Syrah.

There were 130 cases made of the Chardonnay (1,560 bottles – not much, in other words). It’s from a single vineyard where the grapes are grown on two separate river terraces at Maraekakaho in Hawke’s Bay. One terrace is 100 metres above the river, which has a significant impact on night time temperatures, dropping them lower than many other areas in the Bay and enabling McDonald to produce Chardonnay with high acidity, which tastes refreshing, reminding me of lemon flavours and that indefinable feeling of smelling rain falling on warm stones, but then its full body (13% alcohol) and rich creamy texture kick in.

This wine was 100% barrel fermented and McDonald uses three to four different coopers (barrel makers). He did not add yeast or sulphur, preferring to let the yeasts lurking in the winery’s atmosphere do the wild thing when they were ready. Ditto sulphur – he added none, preferring to trust that the wine would take care of itself and not need the protection that sulphur can offer, until bottling. He fined the wine with bentonite – a protein rich clay, whose particles attract proteins floating in the wine; these were then gently filtered out. He then added a little sulphur, as is standard practice, prior to bottling.


The 2013 Rod McDonald Trademark Syrah surprised me with its soft tannins because Syrah can be a huge brooding red wine, especially when recently bottled.

“We don’t need to make big and dense Syrahs,” says McDonald, who sourced the grapes from 10 year old vines grown in Hawke’s Bay. This wine is soft but it needs to spend another few years in bottle to put its smoothest foot forward.

There are many perks to writing about wine (late nights, trips to the dentist and lots of free time aren’t among them), but hanging out with winemakers is because the best of them don’t stick to recipe winemaking like glue. They learn the rules, then gently set about bending them as far as they can go. I think the wines below successfully achieve just that.


Try these…


2015 Rod McDonald Trademark Chardonnay – this dry, full bodied Chardonnay has refreshing, zingy high acidity and flavours that remind of me fresh lemons and that indefinable feeling of smelling rain falling on warm stones. It’s rich and creamy with a long life ahead; it will improve for up to a decade (possibly longer), if cellared in a cool dark place where you can resist the urge to open it.

2015 Skeetfield Vineyard Chardonnay – made from dry farmed Chardonnay grapes which are intensely concentrated in flavour, not least due to being 100% barrel fermented, which means this wine has been a labour of handwork and hard work. It delivers big time with rich stonefruit and fresh nutty flavours; winemaker Tony Bish says of this wine that it’s: “Probably one of the best Chardonnays I have had the pleasure to make.”

2015 The Family Company Chardonnay – a big and beautifully peachy new Chardonnay from Gisborne’s Thorpe family; John Thorpe made this soft and smooth Chardonnay, which contains a modest 12% alcohol, although it tastes significantly richer than this low figure implies.

2015 Tony Bish Golden Egg Chardonnay – a babe in the bottle, this is full bodied, dry and flinty tasting with savoury flavours driving its nervy core to a memorable finish.

The Big Buttery Chardonnay tasting I hosted was at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington, where I will be this Saturday 9 July from 12 noon for a tasting of big reds made from Shiraz (aka Syrah), Grenache and their usual playmate, Mourvedre – a free in store tasting of wines from around the world.






Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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