Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Cyclone's heartbreak highlights wine community's warmth

May you live in interesting times is one of those phrases that is often attributed to ancient Chinese wisdom but which apparently originally came from an American politician called Frederic Coudert, in 1939. If he was alive today, he would've made a fortune on merchandise, social media and possibly even in mainstream media too. 

We are certainly living in interesting times.

For many, the interesting bit is a euphemism for not great and that is the story of the 2023 vintage in Hawke's Bay where winemakers were fortunate to make any wine at all. It all depended where their vineyards were and how badly the cyclone's devastation impacted them.

With exactly this thought in mind, Chardonnay maker (aka the Chardonnista of the Bay - my words) Tony Bish looked elsewhere for grapes to make his 2023 edition of Fat & Sassy. 

"We have very high picking standards and, as such, we rejected or lost 80% of our grapes to flood damage in 2023. Tough indeed on growers and ourselves. We made a small amount of Heartwood and an even smaller amount of Golden Egg. They are looking good, due to massively selective hand picking allowing us to pull a couple of blocks through," Bish told me this month. 

For those who follow the fortunes of this Chardonnay devotee winemaker, there was no Skeetfield Chardonnay made in 2023 and the newly released 2023 Fat & Sassy is not 100% Hawke's Bay fruit as it usually is.

"Cyclone Gabrielle left a trail of vineyard and infrastructure destruction across the region. The rain kept coming for a period after the cyclone adding misery to woe for many vineyards as botrytis became rampant."

It is a tale of heartbreak as much as it is one of a community pulling together through extremely tough times. And not only the Hawke's Bay community but many thoughtful members of the New Zealand and the global wine community, who gave time, fermented juice and winery facilities to enable many of this country's most talented winemakers to produce wine in 2023. 

Top drop under $25

Chardonnay of the week


2023 Fat & Sassy Chardonnay RRP $23.99 

The writing was on the wall for an extremely challenging season after Cyclone Gabrielle visited Hawke's Bay in February 2023 so Chardonnista Tony Bish looked further afield to Marlborough to source grapes for his beloved Fat & Sassy. The blend is 75% Marlborough and 25% Hawke's Bay Chardonnay in this wine, which play nicely together in this rendition of Fat & Sass', which tastes zesty with citrusy purity and a rounded fleshy note on the finish. It has noticeably higher acidity and a smidgeon less fat than typically.

I find it delicious and superb value. This wine is a great reason to raise a glass to the collegial warmth, generosity and spirit of sharing that, in my experience, characterises the wine industry above all. 

May you live in interesting times indeed.