Friday, 22 December 2023 15:25

Chardonnay Symposium: Stories from the coalface of New Zealand Chardonnay

Written by  Emma Jenkins MW
Dr Rebecca Deed. Photo Richard Briggs Dr Rebecca Deed. Photo Richard Briggs

The Aotearoa New Zealand Chardonnay Symposium, held in Hawke’s Bay in early October, was a thought-provoking two days that drew a sold-out crowd.

The joint event between the New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology (NZSVO) and Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers (HBW) focused on the current state of New Zealand Chardonnay and where it might be heading, via a series of local and international guest speakers and tastings.

Traversing the practical and theoretical, it was rich in stories from the coalface of New Zealand Chardonnay and peppered with well-chosen (and delicious) wines that ably illustrated the concepts being discussed. Many of the wines are currently unavailable here, and the diverse array of international examples showed brilliantly that Chardonnay might be a winemaker’s variety, but it is equally good at faithfully reflecting its place in the world.

Day One was NZSVO’s remit, a technical workshop on Australasian Chardonnay through the lens of viticulturists and winemakers. Craggy Range’s Julian Grounds and Giant Steps’ Steve Flamsteed kicked things off with a wide-ranging discussion on style as it pertains to ripeness, covering changing viticulture, winemaking, consumer and critical interest in wines. On both sides of the ditch, there has been a shift from the big, golden, more-is-more Chardonnay to what they described as “green and ripe”. But it is certainly no one-size-fits-all dynamic, as their accompanying tasting demonstrated. Flamsteed noted when you’re starting from scratch in a vineyard, you have to figure it all out as you go along, in terms of which variety to plant and getting the best out of it: “You’re the vineyard’s custodian, growing and evolving together.” This may seem a harder path to travel than that of established regions such as Burgundy, which have the luxury of centuries of refinement, but Julian made the good point that climate change is increasingly upending these norms – new frontiers are now to be found everywhere.

Next up was a deep dive into wine chemistry. Dr Tracey Siebert of the Australian Wine Research Institute explored the molecular drivers for flinty/struck match/smoky notes, while Dr Rebecca Deed of The University of Auckland looked at sulphur interactions with biological/yeast agents and their potential impact. They did an excellent job of distilling complex chemistry into layman’s terms, acquainting us well with phenylmethanethiols and furfural.

The afternoon session, ‘Touring New Zealand’, had eloquent, entertaining speakers from five regions. Chris Scott and Claire Pinker of Church Road gave a detailed overview of the cost implications of viticultural and winemaking choices when producing Chardonnay at three different price points; Greystone Wines’ Dom Maxwell and Mike Saunders gave thoughtful and amusing insight into their organic management (including a novel approach to trellising that looked familiar to those who saw Kelly Mulville of Paicines Ranch’s session at the Organic and Biodynamic Conference in June). Mahi’s Brian Bicknell was as hilarious as he was honest in outlining the ups and downs of making wine from single vineyard sites (pro tip: avoid vineyards whose owners divorce and change their names). Neudorf Vineyards may already have 43 years of making Chardonnay under its belt, but the camaraderie and mutual respect of Todd Stevens and Rosie Finn, and their clear-eyed vision for the future, left one feeling this pioneering winery is entering its second generation in very good hands. Paul Mason wrapped up with an honest and humorous appraisal of the benefits outside investment can bring, particularly when managing older vineyards.

Day Two brought an international perspective. Elizabeth Kelly MW, wine buyer at Majestic, gave insightful commentary on what New Zealand producers need to be heeding when pitching their wines in this mature, possibly even slightly jaded, market. She was positive about what New Zealand has to offer but unflinching in describing both how competitive this shelf space is, and how naive or unprepared many were when approaching it. Elizabeth gave a raft of practical advice, which essentially boiled down to: Do Your Homework – understand to whom you will be speaking, what is already on their shelves, what your wine offers that might fill an untapped niche, and have your story ready to tell. This might seem obvious, but Elizabeth was emphatic that far too many still neglect the basics. The brilliant selection of international Chardonnays she chose to accompany her session occupy the same space in the UK market that New Zealand wines do, underscoring just how broad and deep the competition is, and how important it is to come prepared.

The energetic Wine Enthusiast writer Christina Pickard was a well-chosen bookend to Elizabeth, as while the US market might be very different, the fundamentals were very similar – “Sauvignon Blanc is still the gateway drug to New Zealand for consumers”, so the foot is in the door, but producers have to tell their stories well to get consumers to take the next step. Christina emphasised authenticity and having the courage of your convictions, leveraging any existing relationships and using social media channels to your advantage. Being able to tell your story to the buyers who will sell your wine, and the journalists who will tell that story to consumers on your behalf, is key.

Steve Flamsteed outlined the confidence Australians have in their Chardonnay. He commented that by comparison it seemed New Zealand was well ahead in viticultural practices but around 10 years behind in winemaking, with a lot of experimentation still going on in style, and a tendency to follow trends still quite common (all three speakers were very lukewarm about the degree of reduction still seen in many New Zealand wine, seeing it as too obscuring of the fruit quality). Steve was excited by the degree of openness and collaboration within New Zealand’s industry, seeing that as a huge benefit. He highlighted models such as Two Terraces Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay, where around 15 producers source fruit. He was also a persuasive proponent of allowing young winemakers their ‘side hustles’, outlining the benefits to both parties.

Jenny Dobson FBTW

Jenny Dobson tasting at the symposium. Photo credit: Richard Briggs.

Chardonnay is currently around 6% of New Zealand’s production, but just 2% of exports. There is obvious potential, but despite the New Zealand Winegrowers presentation arguing the opportunities for growth in the US market, there are still a few headwinds in place. Sauvignon Blanc might indeed open the doors, but it’s less clear if the consumers of those US$12 bottles will actually trade up to premium Chardonnay (or other varieties). There are also production roadblocks. For example, Cloudy Bay has a successful UK channel for their Chardonnay but can’t source more fruit to expand. Marlborough Chardonnay vineyards are being uprooted in favour of Sauvignon Blanc, and Riversun’s grafting program is currently 90% Sauvignon Blanc. Our door-opener might also be our roadblock.

But we do have fabulous raw material, clever viti and vini teams, and growing interest from international gatekeepers. Chardonnay might be grown everywhere in the world, but only we can grow and make New Zealand Chardonnay. Our vineyards are unique and they are the path forward. Andrew Jefford once wrote it was important to “spend less time thinking about grape varieties, and pay more attention to the places wine comes from and the cultures in which they come into being. All the grape variety does is present a spectrum of opportunities.”

The Chardonnay Symposium was a brilliant chance to consider these topics, and it is exciting that HBW intends for this to be just the start of a conversation - two more annual events are planned. NZSVO will also host the 2026 International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS), a future opportunity for Chardonnay to shine.

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