Big wine regions often get a bad rap but where would we be without them? Last week I visited Marlborough with a group of New Zealanders who work with wine (from the Hamilton Beer & Wine Company and Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington). And we were all staggered by this region’s heavy reliance on Sauvignon Blanc. Even when you do expect it, the stats can be a tad overwhelming. Here they are…
Marlborough in a snapshot
85% of Marlborough’s wine production is Sauvignon Blanc
3 subregions account for plantings of this white grape
45% of grapes grown in the Wairau Valley
25% of grapes grown in the Southern Valley
30% of grapes grown in the Awatere Valley
Pinot Noir… there’s of it in Marlborough than in Central Otago
Chardonnay… there’s plenty and it’s very good but totally eclipsed
So, there we were visiting Astrolabe, Whitehaven Wines and Nautilus Estate, marvelling at the outstanding taste and modest prices of the Chardonnays ($26, $22 and $35, respectively) only to discover that these wines account for less than 5% of the overall production at both Whitehaven and Nautilus. Percentages weren’t discussed at Astrolabe, but winemaker Simon Waghorn’s firmest focus is naturally on Sauvignon Blanc and he makes a wide range from different vineyards, sub-regions, single vineyards and blends.
There are good reasons for this a focus. New Zealand wine is now the fifth biggest export earner for the country, and Sauvignon Blanc makes up about 85% of this.
But still, it’s surprising how good New Zealand Chardonnay is today and how small its profile is. So, why is Chardonnay overlooked?
Is it because of the big buttery numbers that ruled in roost back in the 1980s and ’90s? Or the heavily oaked versions that followed? Or the easier, non oaky charms of Pinot Gris, which is nibbling at Chardonnay’s heels in New Zealand’s national vineyard today?
Ten years ago, I remember a blind date telling me unequivocally that there was no way he would drink a Marlborough Chardonnay because they simply weren’t any good. I tried to persuade a little open mindedness because back then there were some exceptional Marlborough Chardonnays, but he wasn’t having a bar of it. Needless to say, he didn’t last longer than five minutes.
Today, Marlborough is emerging as one of New Zealand’s most promising Chardonnay regions, even if it’s still only making a relative trickle of wine made from this perennially popular white grape. Large oak puncheons (500 litres) are favoured by Whitehaven winemaker Sam Smail and large 3000 litre cuves are often used for fermentation by Nautilus Estate winemaker Clive Jones, who has reduced the amount of Chardonnay he makes in order to focus on better quality. When opening old Nautilus Chardonnays a couple of years ago, Jones was as amazed as the rest of us at the youthfulness and consistency of these wines under screwcap. They might have been nudging eight years of bottle age, but they were as fresh as a daisy and looked like they had only been in bottle for about two years, due to their pale lemon colour.
It’s nearly the weekend, or perhaps yours has already started, but sitting on my desk are two Chardonnays from another great, under rated Chardonnay region – Margaret River in Western Australia. As we in print media, watch this space for notes on Vasse Felix Chardonnays, made at a winery which turns 50 years young this year. You don’t need to convince me that 1967 was a good year to be born.