If you’re a sucker for a big buttery Chardonnay, Gisborne was the place to be this Labour Weekend.

Steve and Eileen Voysey, winemakers, founders and owners of Spade Oak Wines

And not only in Gisborne but on board the W165 – the last train of its type in operation in New Zealand today. If you haven’t heard of the W165, you’re not alone  because it’s usually safely ensconced under cover of darkness to protect the massive restoration job done by a group of Gisborne train spotters. This Labour Weekend (last month), the W165 was wheeled out, renamed The Chardonnay Express and commandeered by a bunch of Gisborne Chardonnay makers, who hosted over 100 people who paid to enjoy eight Big Buttery Chardonnays (let’s call them BBCs) with eight matching morsels of food on a half day ride that took us from the centre of town across the airport runway out to Muriwai on the coast.

It was the first time the Chardonnay Express has run, but hopefully won’t be the last.

The ride was the highlight of a Chardonnay-themed weekend, which was a collaboration between winemakers, tourism operators and Air New Zealand – which came on board, if you’ll excuse the pun, to subsidise flight packages to lure as many people as possible to Gisborne for the event.

Gisborne winemaker Steve Voysey hopes this wine tourism package will prove successful enough to take place again, hopefully several times a year. It’s partly about attracting more people to Gisborne; partly about upping the profile of the region’s wines. Production of which has declined significantly over the past decade, as statistics highlight – there were 2,142 hectares of grapes planted in the region in 2008 compared to 1,371 hectares today. That’s a pretty big drop, by anyone’s measure.

It’s a balance between making money from selling to a defined market and over production, which does no one any favours, says Voysey, who has a foot in both camps. He makes wine for his own relatively small volume wine brand, Spade Oak, when he founded and co-owns with his life and work partner, Eileen Voysey. And he is also a consultant to Indevin and LeaderBrand; two large volume wine production companies based in Gisborne.

Like most of New Zealand, Gisborne has a maritime climate, but its northern location means that sunshine hours are not only long, but the climate is generally warmer, which, in turn, means grapes tend to have lower acidity than they do further south. This means Gisborne Chardonnay can taste very ripe in flavour, full bodied and soft. And, when treated to a little malolactic fermentation (the conversion of malic acid in grapes into softer lactic acid), it can taste very rich and creamy.

These styles of Chardonnays remain extremely popular in New Zealand today, despite a strong swing, by some winemakers, towards crisper, lighter bodied, less creamy dry whites made from the Chardonnay grape. And while that can be potentially confusing for lovers of BBCs, variety is the spice of many of life’s best things, including wine, so, in my view, Chardonnay has never been better. Modern Chardonnay offers wines at both stylistic extremes, with many welcome shades of grey in between.

Speaking of which, Gisborne has other strings to its wine bow nowadays too. It’s true that its overall volume has declined, but there’s never been so much diversity, thanks to unusual varieties such as Albarino, Chenin Blanc, Marsanne and Vermentino, which are all made in Gisborne today thanks to Riversun Nurseries – New Zealand’s biggest vine nursery which just so happens to be the gateway to New Zealand for new and improved as well as experimental grapes, which winemakers have embraced with enthusiasm.

Chardonnay remains numero uno in Gisborne and it is what this region does best.

About that train… The Chardonnay Express

The W165 is the last remaining train of its type in operation in New Zealand. It was the first of 11 WA Class locomotives to be built in Dunedin in 1897 and put into service in 1898 it was put into service in Wellington, later transferring to Palmerston North, Taihape and Napier, with stints of shunting duties in Putaruru, Huntly, Te Kuiti and Frankton, before being finally retired to Gisborne in 1960. It spent decades rusting in Young Nick’s Playground in Awapuni Road, Gisborne, before being restored by a group of Gisborne rail enthusiasts in 1985. Their aim was to restore the train to its original condition and in 1999 they put it back on the track in a fully restored condition.

 

Gisborne Chardonnay Group

Oak Barrel Fermented Chardonnay production is a must for those who belong to this group because they highlight the strongest wine style for this region – “We are focussing on what Gisborne does best at a premium but affordable level.”

Oak adds a significant cost to wine production but also adds a tangible taste to the wines.

The list… Big Buttery Chardonnays from Gisborne

The BBCs served aboard the W165 for its inaugural journey as the Chardonnay Express this year were:

In the interests of appealing to those who would like to buy BBCs and are keen on ratings, mine are out of 20 and appear beside each wine.

 

2016 Matawhero Irwin Chardonnay 18.5/20

The new flagship wine from one of Gisborne’s oldest wineries, which has a new lease of life thanks to Kirsten and Richard Searle who bought the brand from wine pioneer Denis Irwin.
This is nice and nutty, big on body, balanced on the oak front (a combo of 30% new American and Hungarian, both of which provide plenty of spicy taste appeal).
It’s named after both the late Bill Irwin (Denis’ father) and Denis – a homage to both these wine pioneers, whose Matawhero Gewürztraminer was one of the first modern wines to make drinkers sit up and take notice of Gisborne as a region capable of high quality wine.

 

2016 Waimata Vineyards Cognoscenti Chardonnay  17.5/20

Full bodied, dry and, more importantly, big and buttery with softness, smooth texture and strong creamy flavours.

 

2015 Bushmere Estate Classic Chardonnay 16.5/20

If you’re a fan of a little crisp freshness with your creamy Chardonnay, then here it is – a modern buttery number that successfully straddles vibrant freshness with softness too.

 

2015 Stone Bridge Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 17/20

As its name implies, this wine was fermented entirely in oak barrels and it’s a soft, big buttery wine with loads of spice flavour too.

 

2015 Le Pont Chardonnay 16.5/20

Soft, creamy, medium bodied and buttery; this wine was made from hand harvested grapes then fermented with wild yeasts, which add a lovely savoury complexity to the wine.

 

2015 Spade Oak Vigneron Chardonnay 18.5/20

This “vigneron” label is the top range of Spade Oak wines and in this case it was made from hand harvested grapes, wild yeast fermented and went through 100% malolactic fermentation. It’s full bodied, has a beautiful balance of big smooth creamy roundness, tempered by vibrant acidity which adds a sense of freshness and length to the wine.

 

2015 Wrights Reserve Chardonnay 18.5/20

Geoff and Nicola Wright’s full bodied Chardonnay has organic certification from AsureQuality and did exceptionally well in Cuisine magazine’s tasting this year, cruising into the top five. This is smooth with pronounced fruit concentration – think ripe yellow fruit flavours with nutty, yeasty and creamy aromas and long finish.

 

2014 TW Reserve Chardonnay 17.5/20

Big, buttery and noticeably oak-influenced, thanks to an equal combo of French, American and Hungarian oak barrels, in which the wine was aged. This is a great style for those who like bigger-is-better Chardonnays…

Bravo, Gisborne Chardonnay producers… bring them on.