What is the most important white grape in New Zealand? Chardonnay probably doesn’t spring to mind, given that it pales in significance with its embarrassingly modest 3,167 hectares of grapes nationwide compared with Sauvignon Blanc with 24,037 hectares. Numbers aren’t everything anyway as one of New Zealand’s most experienced winemakers has shown by devoting his own brand entirely to Chardonnay.
Tony Bish’s name has been synonymous with Sacred Hill Wines for a large part of his career but he has now turned his attention to the great white Chardonnay grape, devoting his Urban Winery in Hawke’s Bay to its production. Fat ‘n Sassy was the first cab off his Chardonnay ranks there and he is now delving deeper into what Chardonnay is capable of in the Bay area. This month he released two new wines, which I tasted last week alongside other new local Chardonnays. In isolation all of the wines tasted youthful but when put up against one another side by side, identities concealed, it was interesting to see where my rankings fell then. I’ve always admired Tony’s winemaking throughout my wine writing career (a long time now since I began in 1994) but these new Chardonnays are drawing me back into the fold of the great white that ignited the wine flame in me even further back.
2019 Tony Bish Heartwood Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay $39.99
Skeetfield Vineyard is one of the oldest in Hawke’s Bay and planted in both Mendoza clone and Clone 15, which is the sole ingredient in this full bodied, dry, smooth and complex Chardonnay. It’s named after the heart of the Quercus robur, the Latin name for the noble French oak trees used to make wine barrels. This wine drinks well now but can age and will unfold into a lusher, fuller bodied wine with time in the bottle and patience in the drinker.
2019 Tony Bish Zen Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay $139.99
Tony Bish has forged a reputation as one of New Zealand’s key Chardonnay producers at his Urban Winery in Hawke’s Bay where he produces the high priced Zen Chardonnay solely from the highly prized Mendoza clone which is dry farmed on the Skeetfield Vineyard. This ranks number one for him, even though Mendoza is renowned for highly variable berry (grape) size with small grapes providing higher acidity and greater freshness while larger ones contribute rounded and ripe white peach flavours. This wine is youthful, dry, fresh and will become more expressive with time, but if you’re searching for something special right now, here it is.
Zen is fermented and aged in a large oak egg shaped vessel called an ovum. The surface area of the oak egg provides greater contact with the fermenting juice, which Bish says adds complexity to this, his top wine.