Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Is Central Otago Chardonnay the Chablis of the Southern Hemisphere?

Central Otago Chardonnay has doubled in volume in the last five years but how’s it tracking in style and quality?

The biggest Central Otago Chardonnay tasting ever held was last week at Felton Road Winery in Bannockburn. I attended, along with four other wine writers to put the wines to the road test. We tasted 38 wines at Felton Road winery in Bannockburn, Central Otago. All wines’ identities were concealed. I rated the wines out of 20 with 18.5 being a gold medal winner and 17.5 silver. All tasting notes of the gold and silver scoring wines are below the story, scroll down to learn more...

When was the last time a Central Otago Chardonnay made you sit up and take notice? It’s a question that led winemaker Blair Walter of Felton Road to put together the region’s biggest ever Chardonnay tasting last week for a handful of wine scribes who were invited down to the world’s southernmost wine region to taste 38 Central Otago Chardonnays. All wines had their identities concealed in order to give them the chance to put their best foot forward, without the look of labels swaying opinions. It was an impressive tasting. With few exceptions, the wines bore a close resemblance to Chablis, which is a benchmark cool climate Chardonnay style. Full body, silky mouthfeel, textural weight and interest without over the top oak, lees influence or even the dreaded reductive qualities that can flatten fruit appeal in wines for many years, confusing wine consumers about what it is they are tasting.

Central Otago is a cool climate wine region but warmer vintages were a hot topic of discussion, if you’ll excuse the pun. Warmer weather is having a significant impact on harvest dates and also on how fast grapes are picked each year, both of which are having what Walter describes as an “undoubtable benefit” on Pinot Noir but which, he hopes, will not be to the detriment of Chardonnay in this southern region. Fellow winemakers Chris Keys of Gibbston Valley and Sarah-Kate Dineen of Mt Maude both agreed, noting that they are both increasing the volume of Chardonnay plantings in vineyards they manage with the plan of making more of this great white.

The numbers… Chardonnay in Central Otago

There were 55 hectares of Chardonnay planted in Central Otago in 2016, which has grown to 95 hectares today, representing close to double the amount, whereas the rest of the country’s Chardonnay plantings are relatively static. The statistics are from the annual New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vintage Survey.

Felton Road winery has a higher proportion of Chardonnay that any other winery in Central Otago with 20% of its production devoted to this white grape. It currently has 6.5 hectares of Chardonnay vines out of its total of 34 hectares overall. Of the winery’s original plantings, 40% was Chardonnay but Pinot Noir and Riesling have grown since the early days and in 2015, Felton Road made 18 per cent of Central Otago Chardonnay.

“Plantings of Chardonnay in the region are on the increase and it struck me that we had never looked comprehensively at the wines as a regional group of wines. This tasting is not a complete list of all Chardonnays made in Central Otago but we have about 90 per cent of the region’s Chardonnays here,” said Walter.

Winemaker Sarah-Kate Dineen of Mt Maude says there are about 30,000 tonnes of Chardonnay grapes crushed nation wide each year in New Zealand, of which Central Otago Chardonnay would make up about 400 tonnes in a vintage with robust volume, significantly less when harvests are smaller because they are impacted by weather.

Chardonnay growth in Central

Both Mt Maude and Gibbston Valley Wines are intentionally increasing their Chardonnay production. Gibbston Valley currently devotes about 10 per cent of its overall production to Chardonnay, with some of this going into sparkling wines.
“Gibbston Valley Wines is intentionally aiming to grow Chardonnay as part of its overall production because we run out perennially and have just planted a new vineyard in Pisa with Chardonnay. The growth overall is significant but it’s like riding the wave of a ripple because current volumes are so small in terms of the region’s overall focus,” says Keys.
Mt Maude Winery currently has .75 of a hectare of Chardonnay and will soon have an additional four hectares of Chardonnay grapes from a new vineyard planted in Queensberry, near to Lake Wanaka.
About 20 to 30 per cent of Central’s Chardonnay finds its way into sparkling wine production each year, sometimes an even higher proportion, depending on the volume of grapes harvested.

“We’re riding the wave of a ripple because Chardonnay is punching above its weight in terms of impact,” says Christopher Keys of Gibbston Valley.

“The style of Chardonnay in this region has a delicate fruit profile which comes through as floral, citrus and especially lemon. I think our calling card is the humility of the fruit character being delicate, lighter and fragrant. It’s a more Chablis-like flavour than a fuller bodied expression of Chardonnay from warmer regions," says Blair Walter of Felton Road.

The tasting

Top Central Otago Chardonnays

Top wine of the tasting and the six gold medal scoring wines

2021 Nanny Goat Single Vineyard Queensberry Chardonnay 
Now we’re talking. Elegant, silky mouthfeel, high but balanced acidity adds freshness and depth, driving the citrusy flavours to a long finish. This beautiful stood head and shoulders above many with its ripe fruit, stone and citrus notes as well having a delicious creamy mouthfeel and smooth texture.
18.5+ / 20

2021 Chard Farm Judge and Jury Chardonnay
Lively citrus aromas and great acidity on the front and mid palate; lovely backbone to this wine. Fresh and refreshing, full bodied, creamy textural wine with great body and length.

2021 Te Kano Northburn Chardonnay
Powerful nose with notes of citrus and strong savoury aromas leading into ripe lemon curd and zest flavours, a medium body and lingering finish… beautiful ripe fruit flavours and smooth texture. Could do with a little time to mellow but otherwise impressive, full and long.

2021 Felton Road Chardonnay Bannockburn
Lightness and beauty. I love this wine's honesty and lack of pretension with its smooth, creamy texture, lively acidity, great concentration of lemon citrus curd and zest, a long finish. Very powerful without relying on oak or malo for its character. Lovely style.

2021 Mount Edward Chardonnay
Lemon zest on speed with freshness, silky smooth textural notes and a lovely lightness with depth style. The finish is long and smooth with a silky character elevating this wine’s appeal.

2020 Domaine Rewa Chardonnay
Smooth, silky, seamless style; great acidity and fruit weight. Really lovely integration of all aspects of Chardonnay, as a grape and the winemaking which sits in the background.

Silver medal scoring wines

2021 Maude Chardonnay
Lemon, macadamias, almonds, citrus and fresh nutty aromas leading into a medium body and lingering finish. Very pretty cool climate Chardonnay characters with freshness and lovely integration of flavours.

2021 Nanny Goat Vineyard Chardonnay
Ripe lemon and citrus aromas in a smooth silky wine with a medium body, lingering finish and youthful style, which can age further for sure… five plus years.

2021 Carrick Bannockburn Chardonnay
Creamy powerful style with edgy youthful acidity and weight from both the citrusy flavours and spicy oak notes coming through. Will mellow over the next six months to two years. A lively, satisfying style with presence. 

2021 Moko Hills Chardonnay
Cool climate citrus aromas of lemons and lemon zest with high but balanced acidity adding length to the body of the wine. Tight focus with great length of flavour that lingers with every sip. Very good quality with lively depth and layers of flavour from stonefruit nectarines to citrus.

2022 Chard Farm Closeburn Chardonnay
Here's a wine rocking a deliciously fresh flavour vibe in every succulent sip with its pronounced lemon zest aromas and flavours captured in a wine with a medium body and lingering finish. This is a very youthful wine with time up its sleeve.

2020 Quartz Reef Chardonnay
Lemon curd and lemon custard aromas add delicious fresh appeal, succulent depth and length. Really nice use of malolactic fermentation adds softness without dominating. Love this style's youthful freshness and it will develop further with time into an even lovelier drink; an especially good match with seafood.

2020 Mount Edward Chardonnay
Lovely lemony flavour profile with spicy notes and a silky mouthfeel adding balance to its zesty style. Has plenty of time up its sleeve and also drinks beautifully now - would taste amazing with seafood.

2021 Gibbston Valley China Terrace 95 Chardonnay
Lighter style of Chardonnay with citrus aromas of limes and lemons and a slight green apple note adding textural interest. 

2019 Wooing Tree Chardonnay
Lovely ripe tastes of citrus in a cream smooth wine with a full body and lively long finish. Very good quality.

2022 Rabbit Ranch Chardonnay
Super expressive aromas and flavours of baked lemon and apple pasty aromas leading into a wine with firm acidity, a medium body and lovely balance. A lighter finish but very tasty.

2021 Felton Road Block 6 Chardonnay
Powerful expressive note on this creamy, citrusy wine with its complex notes of caramel and spice. Medium body, light finish and still youthful in its crisp mouthfeel, suggesting it has a long life ahead.

2021 Mt Maude Chardonnay
Spicy notes lead this youthful wine's aromas and flavours at this stage. Its full body and lingering citrus aromas suggest it's youthful and will become more integrated, thanks to its creamy mouthfeel and long finish.