Best new release, 19 May 2021, 2019 Zen Chardonnay

Tony Bish is, for many, the Hawke’s Bay king of Chardonnay. Not that he is alone in producing superlative dry whites in New Zealand’s second biggest wine region.

He has earnt the mantle as King of Chardonnay because he has dedicated his Urban Winery (a bar, restaurant and working winery) entirely to Chardonnay; the world’s most popular wine grape. The wine at the top of his Chardonnay tree is called Zen and it’s not cheap. A single bottle goes for $139.99, give or take, depending on where you shop. Its named Zen because that’s how Tony felt when he was making this wine and it was fermenting in the French oak egg that he used to produce it.

Zen is made from dry farmed old vine Mendoza clone Chardonnay grapes grown on the Skeetfield Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay. I tasted it with five others in the weekend, including wine lovers and professionals. We all found it to be a wine that wowed us. It is a full bodied, creamy textured, silky expression of Chardonnay with a weighty body, ripe citrus and stone fruit flavours, zesty acidity to add freshness and a long finish. Whatever it is that maturation in a French oak egg does to a wine, it certainly gives this stunningly textural full bodied Chardonnay the X factor.

19/20

2019 Tony Bish Zen Chardonnay $139.99
I can’t say it better than this: Zen is a full bodied, creamy textured, silky expression of Chardonnay with a weighty body, ripe citrus and stone fruit flavours, zesty acidity to add freshness and a long finish. Whatever it is that maturation in a French oak egg does to a wine, it certainly gives this stunningly textural full bodied Chardonnay the X factor. If you thought you liked Chardonnay beforehand, you’re bound to love it after drinking Zen.

  • The bottle of Zen that I tasted (and yes, also enjoyed drinking) was 1666 of 2450 bottles produced from the 2019 vintage.
  • In an increasing bid to make this website more relevant, I am writing the first of what I hope will be many Best new releases, to be published when time permits in the life of a full time writer and wine adviser.

First International Viognier Day launches

It’s big, it’s bold, it’s voluptuous and it nearly died out last century, but now Viognier has its own international day.

The first International Viognier Day was launched this year by Yalumba Wines. This South Australian winery has done much to revive this grape’s flagging fortunes by working on Viognier clonal selection and setting up the first ever Viognier Symposium in 2002 as well as encouraging other wineries to produce this full bodied, flavoursome white wine, which has distinctive intense peachy aromas and tends to lend itself to high alcohol, viscous (high glycerol) dry white wines. There are now (at last count) at least 500 Australian wineries making Viognier and at least 4,395 hectares of Viognier grown around the world, according to the Wine Grapes encyclopedia. There are 299 hectares of Viognier growing on record in New Zealand, which may not sound like much but which is also a far cry from the miniscule 14 hectares which were grown world wide in the mid 20th Century, all of them on the steep right bank of the northern Rhone Valley in France.

“Viognier first caught the eye of the family owned Yalumba Wines in the early 1970s. At the time, plantings were limited to the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Côte Rôtie, France,” says Robert Hill-Smith, of Yalumba.

In 1980, Yalumba planted 1.2 hectares of Viognier vines in Eden Valley, which represented the first significant plantings of Viognier in Australia. These plantings are now amongst the oldest in Australia.

There are now four Viogniers produced by Yalumba. The top wine is Virgilius, named from the vineyard of the same name in the Eden Valley in South Australia. www.internationalviognierday.com

Homage to Cabernet Franc

It’s not exactly the green turtle or the reptilian hawksbill turtle (both now in sanctuary in the Philippines, a rare success story) but Cabernet Franc is one of the rarer great red grape varieties in the world and it has now declined by nearly 50% over the past 10 years in New Zealand. Is it because it has never been ranked as highly as Cabernet Sauvignon, which has also dropped to 219 hectares from 519; a more understandable decline since it is so tough to ripen Cab’ Sauv’. French winemakers in Bordeaux don’t tend to regard Cab’ Franc as highly as they do Cab’ Sauv’. As in France, it is in New Zealand.

Is it too hard to encourage wine drinkers to try something new? I, for one, would love to know why Cabernet Franc has dropped by nearly 50% in the past decade. Is it the same reason that Chenin Blanc has had an even sadder decline, albeit from a smaller base of about 50 hectares nationwide to only 20 odd hectares today?

I know these lesser known wine grapes don’t rank up there with endangered turtle species but they are plant life, nonetheless, and their decline makes me wonder if it represents our homo sapien tendency to go for the easiest thing, sometimes at the expense of the better one.

18.5/20

2019 Smith & Sheth Cru Heretaunga Cabernet Franc $38ish
Smith & Sheth Cabernet Franc is made from the Howell Vineyard in Bridge Pa, Hawke’s Bay, and tastes of soft, smooth vanilla, impressive rich dark blueberries and blackberries. It’s one of those wines with great concentration and fantastic length, a full body that suggests fabulous potential to age, but who knows? How often do we get to taste aged Cabernet Franc, after all? Here’s a good reason to stash some under the bed for 10 years to find out.