Hawkes Bay Chardonnay Versus the World

Hello from the land of the Kiwi. As some of you know, I’m down here at the bottom of the world exploring the wines of New Zealand for a couple of weeks. It’s been about 8 years since I’ve been to New Zealand, and I’m quite excited to see how the industry has changed and evolved. New Zealand was the first wine region I visited after beginning my odyssey as a wine writer, and I’m sure I’ve changed a lot, too. I’ve tasted a good bit of New Zealand wine in the intervening years, but if feels good to be getting reacquainted face-to-face, so to speak,

The first portion of my trip has been spent in Hawkes Bay, at a bi-annual symposium focused on the region and its wines. We had two rather packed days of very interesting sessions, but one of the most interesting was a blind tasting of some Hawkes Bay Chardonnays alongside some examples from Burgundy and elsewhere.

Hawkes Bay has been known, certainly in New Zealand, and among those who follow its wines, as a consistent producer of good quality Chardonnay for some time. With the exception of a few renown bottlings, however, its reputation has never risen to the point of great acclaim. Or at the very least, that acclaim has certainly been overshadowed by the reputation of wines made from the Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec) as well as more recently, Syrah.

Indeed, the majority of the tastings and conversations over our two days in Hawkes Bay were focused on Bordeaux blends and Syrah, so it was at first a pleasant diversion to spend a morning blind tasting a few Chardonnays. But the exercise led to some serious contemplation about what the region is capable of in the hands of some of its best winemakers.

In short, Hawkes Bay Chardonnay is serious stuff. When made well, it has both the power and elegance of white Burgundy. Now that’s not to say it’s a perfect imitation. I was able to tell the difference between the Chardonnays from New Zealand and those from Burgundy (though I will admit that the Yabbie Lake wine completely threw me – it’s a dead ringer for Burgundy). But the Hawkes Bay Chardonnays had many of the most admirable qualities that I look for in white Burgundy: deep minerality, bright acidity, gorgeous texture, and a combination of citrus, saline, and toasted flavors that make the mouth water for more. Which is to say, they were good. Damn good. In some cases better than the (very expensive) white Burgundies on offer.

While there are some Hawkes Bay Chardonnays that still linger in the land of big and buttery, the prevailing style (as far as my tasting over the past few days) seems to be much more restrained. They use less oak, have more acidity, and are less tropical than many of their brethren around the world.

I haven’t tasted anywhere close to all the Chardonnays available in Hawkes Bay, but this small tasting made me want to try a lot more of them. And if you enjoy this grape, you should too.

Here are my scores and tasting notes (made in fully blind conditions). The notes have been spell checked and corrected for grammar, but other than that the scores and notes have not been altered from what I recorded at the time of tasting.

I’ve provided links to the wines that I could find available for sale online (to US customers), but alas, many of the New Zealand wines are not available in the States, or if they are, they are not being sold by online merchants.

2010 Trinity Hill Chardonnay, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream, buttered popcorn and lemon curd with a hint of new oak. In the mouth, appley and pineapple flavors mix with a lightly creamy and buttery quality. Nice texture, decent acidity and some length that brings out lemon and grapefruit notes in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35.

hbchardonnay-7.jpg2009 Paul Pillot “Clos St. Jean” Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France
Palest greenish gold in the glass with some visible tartrate crystals, this wine smells of white flowers, wet chalkboard and lemon zest. In the mouth, beautiful bright lemon zest, white flowers, and a slightly resinous quality pervade the wine. Bright and juicy, with a lovely texture and length. The tiniest hint of toasted bread lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

hbchardonnay-6.jpg2010 Te Mata “Elston” Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon and wet stones with a hint of green apple. In the mouth lemon zest, lemon juice, and a wonderful sour green apple flavor which lingers through the finish are all brightened with excellent acidity. Nice balance and lift to the wine. Score:9. Cost: $35.

hbchardonnay-5.jpg2010 Sileni “The Lodge” Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Light gold in color, this wine smells of golden delicious apples, cold cream and buttered sourdough. In the mouth, pineapple and other tropical fruits mix with apple and lemon curd in a rich, silky package. Decent acidity, but could be higher, especially given the faint hint of sweetness in the wine. Quite ripe. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $35.

hbchardonnay-4.jpg2010 Etienne Sauzet Premier Cru Les Perrieres, Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France
Light greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of buttered sourdough toast and lemon curd. In the mouth toasty vanilla-scented oak matches with lemon curd and a nice underlying minerality, but there’s some alcoholic heat to this wine. Combined with the oak it has a bit of a high toned quality that I don’t particularly care for. Having said that, the fruit is good and the acidity reasonably balanced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $95. click to buy.

hbchardonnay-3.jpg2010 Yabby Lake “Single Vineyard” Chardonnay, Mornington Penninsula, Victoria, Australia
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of toasted sourdough bread, lemon curd and cold cream. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and cold cream have a nicely seamless complexion and a great richness, with well integrated oak. Rich and ripe without being overlwhelming, this is an extremely well made wine. A hint of salinity lingers in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55.

hbchardonnay-2.jpg2009 Domaine Latour-Giraud Premier Cru Les Genevriers, Meursault, Burgundy, France
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck match and lemon curd. In the mouth, flavors of lemon curd have a hint of lime and green apple to them as well, along with a bright wet stone quality. Good acidity and a great length. Linear and not expansive, but quite tasty. 13.5% alcohol. Score:around 9. Cost: $110. click to buy.

hbchardonnay.jpg2011 Vidal “Legacy Series” Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of butter biscuits and lemon curd with a hint of green olive and new oak. In the mouth nicely saline flavors of lemon curd, candied grapefruit and wet stones have a very pretty complexion. Nice acidity and good balance, with a sour and salty finish that is quite tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $50.