Joelle Thomson

Writer, author, journalist

Month: February 2019 (page 1 of 3)

Fashion fades but style is eternal… Chardonnay’s decline not all bad news

Chardonnay is the third most popular grape in New Zealand, in terms of the number of vines planted, so why has it declined in this country by a massive 25 per cent over the past decade?

It’s a significant decline and a question with a variety of answers, which a trio of winemakers attempted to address at a tasting last week, which I co-led, called Chardonnay in all its Glory.

The tasting was held in central Wellington under the banner of the independent wine store, Regional Wines & Spirits, which I consult to. It sold out quickly.

That’s always the way with Chardonnay. There is no question about its popularity. Big, creamy Chardonnays are the most popular at tastings and the ones customers most frequently ask for when shopping for wine.

So, why has Chardonnay declined from 3911 hectares 10 years ago to just over 3000 hectares today?

Three winemakers were invited to the Chardonnay in all its Glory tasting to talk about this popular wine and its increasingly diverse range of styles.

Paul Mason from Martinborough Vineyards, Paul Dawick from Mills Reef and Kirsten Searle (co-owner) of Matawhero Vineyards showed nearly 40 people a diverse range of Chardonnays from the relatively warm Gisborne region to the cooler Hawke’s Bay to the much cooler Martinborough. Climate plays a huge role in the taste of Chardonnay with warmer regions producing more peachy flavours and cooler areas giving more citrus flavours.

“Chardonnay is the most diverse and the most divisive wine of all those that we make,” said Martinborough Vineyards winemaker Paul Mason, who brought three Chardonnays along to prove the point.

The winery he works for, Martinborough Vineyards, is now owned by Foley Family Vineyards, which also owns a number of other New Zealand wineries, such as Te Kairanga in Martinborough.

“There’s no other wine that leads to as much division in opinion about how to make it as Chardonnay does. We have major disagreements over styles and I’m a fan of many different styles, but there are so many winemaking  choices, so it’s always a robust debate.”

All Chardonnay grapes are hand harvested at Martinborough Vineyards. And Paul describes his Chardonnay philosophy as traditional.

“What that means to us is that the grapes are hand picked, whole bunch pressed, then put into barrel that night. Nearly all the wines go through natural yeast fermentation, with only a little added yeast. Ferments are relatively warm at 24-25 degrees in barrel and we only use French oak.”

He is a big fan of malolactic fermentation. He is not a fan of reductive flavours.

Mason sees the role of malolactic being to create more weight to Chardonnay, using it as a tool to lower acidity and add depth of flavour.

He has also pulled back from 35-40% new oak to 25% new oak, on average, and is giving his Chardonnays a longer time in oak than in the past.

Why has Chardonnay declined?

Winemaker Paul Mason says a lot of Martinborough Vineyards’ vines were attacked by the vine eating aphid, phylloxera, so had to be ripped out.

Many vineyards around New Zealand have suffered the same fate, not all of them being replaced with Chardonnay.

Mills Reef winemaker Paul Dawick explained the problems of leaf roll virus  on Chardonnay in the Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay, where vines were ripped out to prevent the spread of this virus.

Vines ripped out

Mendoza clone Chardonnay was one of the first grapes planted at Martinborough Vineyards in 1980. The Mendoza clone is also often called ‘hen and chicken’ and it’s easy to see why when looking at a bunch of these grapes, which are characterised by an incredible lack of uniformity in size. Tiny grapes with higher acidity add nervy flavours to wine while larger grapes add softer flavours.

The majority of Chardonnay vines that have been replanted are with newer, more modern clones, such as the clone 95 Chardonnay, which ripens more consistently than the Mendoza clone.

But wait, there’s more

It is not only vine disease and phylloxera that have led to the removal of Chardonnay in vineyards around the country.

Winemakers in some regions have replaced Chardonnay with the increasingly popular Pinot Gris grape.

It may seem a shame to lovers of big, bold, creamy Chardonnays, but fashions come and go.

And as Coco Chanel once wisely said, fashion fades, but style is eternal.

Wine of the week – big, bold, brand new Chardonnay

Father-son winemaking team Willy (left) and John Hancock launch their first family brand, Hancock & Sons

Here’s a new brand from an old hand, namely John Hancock and his sons, who have grown up and joined their winemaking father – well, one of them has, namely, Willy Hancock, pictured above.

The father and son winemaking team have released two new wines under their brand banner, Hancock & Sons Their concept is to work with grape growers from a range of regions in New Zealand, utilising the grape varieties best suited to each place.

The winemaking duo released their first two wines with a website to support sales and marketing for the dry, full bodied Chardonnay and the fresh, pale, dry rosé. Quantities are small, to date, and the wines are made at Moana Park Winery where John Hancock also works as winemaker.
Willy Hancock is a winemaker at Church Road Winery.

The Chardonnay was my pick of the first pair in the new launch and grapes for this wine were hand picked from a three hectare, organically farmed vineyard at Paritua in Bridge Pa, Hawke’s Bay. Soils in this sub region are sandy loam over red metal, which is warm and free draining. These factors, allied to the inland area in the Bay mean that the location warmer than coastal areas in the region. Cool nights mean the grapes can retain their  acidity, which  comes through in the two new wines and adds great balance to the Chardonnay, which is my wine of the week – for last week, that is.

This blog is published later than usual, due to heavy writing commitments last week, which included obituaries for wine scribe, Raymond Chan, who passed away on 10 February. His passing is a great loss for the New Zealand wine industry and will be marked with a wake in Martinborough on Friday 1 March.

Today marks another great loss for New Zealand with the passing of writer Peter Wells. He leaves a significant literary legacy for all New Zealanders. Here is a toast to both men.

Wine of the week

2018 Hancock & Sons Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay

4.5 stars

The Chardonnay was made from clone 95, which was whole bunch pressed and settled overnight to minimise any struck match character. Pre fermentation oxidative handling of the juice was used to further reduce any hint of this character and father-son winemakers John and Willy Hancock then added a malic acid utilising yeast to convert most of the malic acids in the grapes while retaining low pH in the wine. It was aged one third in barrel and two thirds in stainless steel; both on yeast lees for seven months with approximately 15% of the oak being new 225 litre French barrels.

More online at

Tasting note…

Dry, nutty, full bodied and lingering, this Chardonnay has all the recognisable big bells – it’s dry, full bodied and nutty, with fresh lingering flavours, thanks to vibrant balanced acidity. 4.5 stars

Joelle Thomson


About the Hancocks…

Australian born John Hancock is a 1973 graduate from Roseworthy College in Adelaide. He worked in the Barossa Valley, Riverland and Rutherglen, Victoria, before moving to New Zealand where he became known as Mr Chardonnay for the big, buttery, barrel fermented Chardonnays he made at Morton Estate and Delegats before establishing Trinity Hill Winery in the Gimblett Gravels area in 1996. He has also worked vintages in the Rhone Valley and Burgundy.
His son, Willy Hancock, is a graduate in winemaking and viticulture from  Plumpton College. He has worked vintages in Sancerre, Bordeaux, California and California.
The new Hancock & Sons brand is family owned and is mostly available online with small amounts also going into the restaurant trade and retail.

Great reads… from the master of darkness to a powerful parable

If good books are hard to find, great ones are even rarer, so it’s refreshing to discover these powerful page turners. They all deserve to be devoured  with a glass of wine in hand.

Root Cause , A novel by Steven Laine, Turner Publishing, RRP $19.99

It’s easy to escape into Steven Laine’s new book about Philomena – the intentionally mis-spelt name for the vine louse, phylloxera, which wiped out two thirds of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s.

It’s a novel concept to bring back phylloxera as a new, more deadly threat to the global wine world, and the author does a good job, even if I have spotted a couple of typos in the uncorrected proof sent for review. Laine gives one of his lead characters a strong billing as the man who would have become the world’s youngest ever Master of Wine, aged 27, but he obviously doesn’t know New Zealander Stephen Bennett, who took that title in the mid 1990s aged even younger. Minor niggles such as this aside, Root Cause is a surprisingly good read which succeeds where no other wine novels have, for me at least. It has mystery, romance, humour and is accurate about indepth wine facts. And it’s a fun read. I love fiction that weaves quirky facts into the story, something Laine does well in Root Cause, such as when he talks about the challenges of harvesting grapes in Canada for ice wine. Don’t wear gloves or anything to keep your fingers warm because it will melt the ice on the grapes. There’s plenty in here to keep the reader interested and it’s easy to chomp through these words. An easy read equals good writing, in my book.

Highly recommended.


A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, edited by Jay McInerney

Grove Press UK, 381 pages, RRP $40

If you haven’t read Bright Lights, Big City, read it. In the meantime, try this collection of great writing out for size. It is a great collection, put together in a fantastic order too by Bright Lights… author Jay McInerney.

The book begins with a tale by the master of darkness, Roald Dahl, who shares his ideas on what happens when you bargain with things that aren’t yours to give away in the outstandingly funny story, Taste.

This is a quirky collection. Many of them are classics, others lesser known. I’d already read many of both several times but having them in this hard cover anthology is a real step up for wine publishing.

McInerney includes great writers as well as literary wine scribes. Roger Scruton (great on both counts), A J Liebling (ditto) and Auberon Waugh (Perils of Being a Wine Writer) are my favourites in this book. Jancis Robinson and Matt Kramer add a serious side to these pages while Kermit Lynch writes the best essay I’ve ever read on the Northern Rhone. Each paragraph is an exquisite detailing of this drop dead gorgeous wine region, packed with precision and exceptional writing. And one of the most refreshing stories here is Remystifying Wine by Terry Theise, a North American wine importer and author of Reading Between the Wines.

He suggests that we’ve had what seems like a hundred books purporting to “demystify” wine, yet wine is more mysterious than ever. “Not that the technocrat-enologist complex hasn’t been furiously laboring to remove every pesky variable from wine – damn that nature! – and Lord knows we’re ever more inundated with all manner of mass-produced industrial swill, but true wine is supposed to be complex, and if you think you know it all, well, pal, you don’t know nuthin’.”

The poor hapless consumer, he writes, is faced with groaning shelves of wine bottles with gobbledygook on the labels, or the Talmudic opacity of some eight-pound document called the restaurant wine list – what can we do to help this innocent waif, terrified he’ll pick the “wrong” wine?

The first thing to remind him is the nature of the risk – compared to buying a car, he says, the mistake in buying the “wrong” wine is likely to be about twenty bucks. Not exactly a major disappointment.

It’s a small outlay that could open large new doors of flavour.

This essay, like the book, is funny, thought provoking and spell binding.

A must read.


The Little Snake by A L Kennedy, Cannongate Books, RRP $25

Purchased at Ekor bookstore and café in Wellington

This is one of the best books I have ever read.

I first fell in love with A L Kennedy’s writing when living in Scotland (where the author comes from) in 1993. She is one of those writers whose skill with words makes it a wonder that she isn’t better known.

This is a fable for all ages and is an easy read as well as an incredibly moving one. It has nothing to do with wine but is extremely satisfying with a glass of wine of it.

This calibre of writing begs to be read in a single sitting. It turns traditional story telling on its head because the denouement comes at the end. The most powerful pages are the last ones – and they only make sense after reading the whole book.

If climate change, war, famine and the current global political situation concern you at all, here is a stunning parable about all this and more.

Beautiful writing. Highly recommended.

« Older posts

© 2019 Joelle Thomson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑