Posted 30 October 2023
To say that Chardonnay is on a global roll again is to make a wild understatement. It is the world’s most popular grape today, if plantings globally are any indication. And it has a long history of styles, which meet a confluence today of flinty, full bodied and creamy through to wines that take some of our palates back to Chardonnay’s heyday in the 1980s when bigger was better (from shoulder pads in clothing to flavours in wine). Back then, a Chardonnay wasn’t considered to be serious, unless it had full throttle malolactic expression, also known as an overt creamy texture and taste as well as pronounced oak flavours. These flavours fell from grace and saw many unoaked, lighter bodied Chardonnays trying to steal the limelight previously owned by big, bold, rich styles. That trend never took off, unsurprisingly, but it did lead to more experimentation with Chardonnay, especially in places where winemakers were unencumbered with tradition, such as New Zealand and, in particular, Hawke’s Bay, where winemaker Tony Bish has taken on the mantel of the region’s King of Chardonnay (my own description) when he created the Urban Winery at Ahuriri.
He makes wine from one grape only, Chardonnay. The styles he creates are diverse and express this most popular of all white grapes in a number of deliciously different ways.
What I like about Tony Bish's take on Chardonnay today is that he is not pushing buttery flavours to the extreme (great on a sliver of fresh sourdough but not in my wine glass, please). He uses the winemaking technique of malolactic fermentation to add a smooth mouthfeel rather than to dial up caramel and buttery flavours. Malolactic fermentation is technically a method used to soften hard malice acid in cool climate Chardonnays and, like so many flavour techniques, it can be overdone. It is kept in check in these two new releases.
2022 Tony Bish Skeetfield Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay RRP $79.99
This powerful new take on the full bodied Chardonnay theme is made entirely from dry grown Mendoza Chardonnay grapes from the Skeetfield Vineyard, which is home to 30+ year old grapevines, all unirrigated. This potentially provides greater concentration and balance in the grapes, which have to do it hard and grow without the benefit of added water in dry years. This wine certainly expresses great concentration of flavour and also the beautiful depths of ageing in Taransaud French oak with lees stirring adding complex oatmeal and fresh nutty aromas. It shows a beautiful balance of smooth mouthfeel, dry flavours and richness. One of Hawke's Bay's great Chardonnays.
2022 Tony Bish Heartwood Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay RRP $39.99
Hawke’s Bay’s king of Chardonnay Tony Bish’s fresh new vintage of Heartwood is, in his words, a meeting of two terroirs. Old oak trees from France meet hand picked Mendoza (aka hen and chicken) Chardonnay grapes from Hawke’s Bay. The result is a beautiful integration of subtle white peach, savoury aromas of cedar, a gentle smoky touch with a creamy texture lending weight to every satisfying mouthful. Whole bunch pressing and 100% barrel fermentation both add complexity and retain flavour interest through several glasses of a youthful Chardonnay with potential for ageing for four to five years.