Creme de la creme… Gisborne’s best big buttery Chardonnays

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.

Alternative Gisborne wines

Wines like Albarino and Petit Manseng not only sound like a foreign language (which they are to English speakers) but they are so unfamiliar to many New Zealanders that it can be difficult to get these wines into the mainstream. Unless… you also happen to have three Chardonnays that tick three different price boxes.

Enter Spade Oak Vineyard.

This Gisborne based wine brand is owned by Steve and Eileen Voysey, who are partners in wine and in life. Last week Steve was in the so-called windy capital city (on a sun drenched, windless day) and he popped by with his wine distributor, Sue Davies of Wine2Trade (her business) to taste his  wines.

We started with Albarino – a wine that may be offbeat in New Zealand but is very much on trend in the Northern Hemisphere right now where it is having a renaissance, along with all things Spanish relating to vino and food.

Albarino is made in a wide range of styles from fresh, flinty and green in taste to big, bold and creamy. Voysey likes to make (and to drink) the fresher style, avoiding using any malolactic conversion in his winemaking because, he feels, this makes the wine taste too heavy and big. Not that he’s adverse to using plenty of malolactic fermentation in his Chardonnays, of which we tasted three.

But first Albarino, which is originally from the maritime north west of Spain, most notably Rias Baixas DO, a defined wine production area north of the Portuguese border. Heading south into northern Portugal takes a visitor to  Vinho Verde, the region where the same grape is known as Alvarinho.

Both of these areas have relatively high rainfall, which makes fungal diseases one of their biggest issues when it comes to growing grapes. This means that thick skinned grapes, such as Albarino / Alvarinho can fit the bill  nicely. Many winemakers here in New Zealand can relate, which is why Albarino is working a treat, particularly in Gisborne, which is home to Riversun Nurseries – the biggest grapevine nursery in New Zealand and therefore the main gateway for disease-free grapevines which are certified in identity (important in a young wine country, such as this one).

The Voyseys are not the only ones making Albarino and Steve says it’s thanks to the biggest producers, such as Villa Maria Wines, that this grape is gaining ground in people’s minds.

Albarino is currently the most promising newcomer grape in New Zealand at the moment, in my view. Its thick skins, vibrant acidity and green flavours make it a natural fit for this cool, mostly maritime country. And I am impressed not only with the Voyseys’ version of Albarino, but with all of the other wines made from this white grape, given that I have been fortunate enough to try nearly all of them and several times alongside each other too. The other wineries making Albarino currently include Cooper’s Creek, Hihi, Matawhero, TW and Villa Maria and one that I have not yet tried, Tono.

It is not the only thing that Steve and Eileen Voysey are doing well. They  make three Chardonnays in different styles, and are also dabbling with Petit Manseng, which traditionally grows in Jurancon, south west of Bordeaux, where it makes some of France’s greatest but least known sweet wines.

Petit Manseng is a late ripening, high acid grape with small thick skinned berries, which tend to shrivel on the vines rather than be prone to the ‘noble’ fungus we call botrytis.

The following Spade Oak Vineyards wines were tasted by me with winemaker Steve Voysey in August this year.

2015 Spade Oak Vineyards Heart of Gold Albarino RRP $23ish

This is the fourth vintage of Albarino from Spade Oak’s one hectare of Albarino grapes, so volumes are pretty small and it’s still early days, despite which the style of the wine is one that winemaker Steve Voysey is consistent on. He picks the grapes for this wine slightly earlier than the other grapes he harvests, which enables him to make a wine that retains its fresh flavours and also cruises in with a lighter style at 12.5% alcohol.

Voysey has also been to Rias Baixas and tried a range of different Albarinos, including sparkling versions, higher alcohol and creamy styles  (made using malolactic fermentation) but he prefers to make (and drink) the fresh vibrant styles. Otherwise, he feels, the wine tends to lose the freshness that so distinctly marks out what he describes as “the New Zealandish white wine flavour and strong point”.

He prefers to save the big creamy bells and whistles for the variety where they are expected… Chardonnay.

My top wines from Spade Oak Vineyards, August 2016

2014 Spade Oak Vineyards Chardonnay $18-$19

This is a big, creamy crowd pleaser with all the soft, smooth Chardonnay bells and whistles, moderate acidity and a full body. It delivers good value at this price.

2014 Spade Oak Vineyards The Prospect Chardonnay Ormond $25

Machine picked grapes don’t usually tend to be treated to a full, 100% barrel fermentation because it’s a high cost winemaking technique, but it also results in an impressive, full bodied Chardonnay in this wine. It’s made from grapes grown on two historically important Gisborne Chardonnay vineyards (both formerly owned by Montana Wines and, later, by Pernod Ricard, but now owned by the contract winemaking facility, Indevin). This wine is a blend of grapes grown on both sites; Ormond Vineyard is warmer at night, has an earlier for harvest and adds the softness and roundness to the wine whereas Patutahi tends to provide grapes with a little more acidity and freshness due to higher day-night temperature variation.

2015 Spade Oak Vineyards Vigneron Chardonnay Gisborne $33

This is the flagship Chardonnay from Spade Oak wines and is the youngest of the trio here, made from hand harvested grapes and given full malolactic fermentation (which means 100% of the wine went through a second fermentation to soften the sharp malic acid into softer lactic acidity). It’s an impressive full bodied Chardonnay which is more about savoury flavours than buttery appeal, but successfully straddles both, thanks to wild yeast fermentation, which can tend to accentuate savoury flavours. This wine has rich flavours, a full body and a long finish.


2013 Spade Oak Vineyards Petit Manseng $32, 375ml (half bottle)

Four long rows grapes is a minuscule .4 of a hectare (in case you didn’t see the dot, that’s less than half a hectare) of very small grapes, which grow in very loose bunches and develop their pronounced ripe yellow raison-like flavours purely from hanging on the vines long after all other grapes have been harvested. Petit Manseng grapes have very thick skins, so they do not tend to develop fungal diseases and therefore they shrivel, which reduces their moisture, resulting in tropical fruit flavours of mango, pineapple and dried fruit flavours of figs and raisons. This grape was picked at 30-32 prix (high high high) and it still had 9-10 grams of natural acidity at harvest, which helps to balance its intense richness. It was my absolute favourite of this tasting, due to the balancing freshness of that impressive acidity, which stretches out the wine to a long finish.

Voysey has made four vintages of Petit Manseng and released two so there are two more in the pipeline.

This wine will drink well with tasty hard cheeses and will cellar for up to a decade, possibly beyond because its acidity lends it a long life.

2015 Spade Oak Vineyards Late Harvest Viognier RRP $32, 375ml (half bottle)

Saving the treacliest wine till last, this has a deep golden colour with intense orange and spice-like flavours and a medium plus finish. It’s like liquid honey in texture and will drink well with sweet creamy desserts.