This year, for just the second time, saw the release of a Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay Collection. Now, a year after the wines were picked, and a few months since they arrived on my doorstep, I’m finally writing about them.
It’s been a big year at Graham HQ.
What’s more, this is a great initiative, so it’s not for lack of enthusiasm. I kept looking at the box of Kiwi goodies thinking ‘can’t wait to open them’ without actually opening them. Life is like that sometimes.
Anyway, run by Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers (the regional association), the Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay Collection 2021 sees 12 wines – in this edition, all from the ‘highly anticipated’ 2020 vintage – selected in a blind tasting from 57 submissions. Kiwi writer/somm/good guy Cameron Douglas MS is the man with the selection hat on, aiming for 12 wines that ‘represent the breadth of terroir expressions and winemaking styles to be found in the Hawke’s Bay region’.
Great. For someone like me, who might see some of these Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay in isolation, a snapshot like this is instructive for style, vintage flavours, maker’s intentions – the whole gamut. Like a wine show, but with the lesser wines dropped off!
For some context, Hawke’s Bay is inarguably home to New Zealand’s best Syrah & Cabernet blends. Yet Chardonnay is a big player here, too, with easily the most white grape cache (although plenty of Sauvignon Blanc & Pinot Gris is planted here). Locally, the Chardonnay style is about opulence – as you’ll see glancing down at the alcohol figures, these are ripe wines, to the point of excess in some cases. 2020 was a hot, dry, early vintage too, and you can see it writ large in these big beauties.
I think the best Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay in this lineup has this golden, nutty yellow peach sunny opulence and layers of complexity, yet without feeling overwrought. Power, well-handled. By contrast, I thought a few wines below could have been picked half a baume earlier and would have lost little power and retained some freshness.
There are many in my family who love old school ‘buttery Chardonnay’, and man, these Hawke’s Bay wines nail the style.
I tasted these in small brackets for clarity. Order here is best wines first, lesser wines last. Notes are as written on the day, extra bits in italics. I tasted without knowing the pricing, which was fascinating given that price and quality didn’t necessarily match up.
Thanks, again, to the good people at Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers for shipping these to me, especially given my tardiness writing it up.
Elephant Hill Salomé Chardonnay 2020
Wine of the box. I love the Elephant Hill Syrah, so why not fall in love with the Chard hey?
Evocative, rich and chunky white peach fruit, it never feels overweight, but the layers are just excellent. Powerful ripe fruit, oak plays a part with some golden flavour, but the palate just keeps on keeping on with that peachy volume. Great viscosity to this it’s full throttle yellow fruit, whipped butter, some figs, but then just enough acidity. A smidgen warm to finish, but not enough to hurt. Great wine. Best drinking: good now or over the next five years. Don’t wait. 18.7/20, 95/100. 14%, NZ$75. Elephant Hill website.
Clearview Reserve Chardonnay 2020
I always look for the taste of the ocean in this wine, because the vineyard is right there on the water. Handpicked fruit, matured in 46% new oak.
Opulent nose – figs, a little caramel, nougat, brioche. The full Chardonnay kit bag. It’s a ripe wine, too, with white peach and grilled nuts and flavour. It threatens to be warm, the alcohol dips into the finish too, but there is just a real opulence to this – an almost chewy power and compact flavour without being flab. High quality and just an excellent sense of power, contained. Best drinking: lovely now and for the next five years. 18.5/20, 94/100. 13.5%, NZ$45. Clearview Estate website.
Villa Maria Keltern Chardonnay 2020
Villa Maria’s top dog, drawn from the Keltern vineyard near the western edge of the Bridge Pa Triangle. From the earliest Keltern Chardonnay harvest on record. Wild ferment, matured in newish oak for 11 months. In my mind this is the Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay archetype.
Straw with a little green. Grand grilled nuts nose, grandiose palate too. Feels complete, though – the creamed yellow peach nose leads into a creamed yellow peach palate. Acid well kept. This is engrossing Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay, even if it’s a bit full throttle. Best drinking: good now, or again short term. 18.5/20, 94/100. 14%, NZ$80. Villa Maria website.
Bilancia Tiratore Chardonnay 2020
Sourced from the La Collina vineyard itself, and the handpicked/wild ferment/11 months in oak treatment here, with no additions sans sulphur. All it needs is time.
Complex nose – a real amalgam of oak and fruit. A tight wine though – it feels oak shrouded and restrained, despite the obvious richness. Quality, but wait until the fruit surmounts the oak. Complexity of flavour awaits. Best drinking: from two years time and for five after that no probs. 18/20, 93/100+.13.5%, NZ$90. Bilancia website.
Helio Chardonnay 2020
The only wine sealed in cork (and with a yellow wax top for good measure). A new name to me and a nice wine. Sourced from a 25yo vineyard on the Heretaunga plains, whole bunch pressed to old barrels, fermented wild, with just a little sulphur at bottling.
Golden straw green. A ripe ‘yellow’ wine, but a complex one. Golden yellow peach and buttered pumpkin scones, the yellow peach palate has some oxidative edges, but that adds some interest. I kept thinking about how this reminded me of top Macon, which is really interesting for an analogue) This has a lovely core of yellow flavour (for the synesthetes) – the acid is a bit low, but undoubtedly enjoyable generosity. Enjoyable all the way. Best drinking: now. 18/20, 93/100. 13.5%, NZ$35. Helio website.
Tony Bish Wines Heartwood Chardonnay 2020
The king of Chardonnay makes an entrance! All Mendoza clone for this white, with some wild and some cultured yeast ferment. 11 months in oak, no additions bar some sulphur.
Light greenish straw. One of the lighter-coloured wines in the lineup. It leads with the fig and nougat nose, with some worked struck match reduction and mealy lees. A plush sort of thing underneath, all milky butter oak, yellow fruit, shafts of funk, and an expansive palate. It’s quite seamless really – maybe a little fat through the middle, but such enjoyment. Well played. Best drinking: now, but will live for the short term. 18/20, 93/100. 13.5%, NZ$35. Tony Bish Wines website.
Trinity Hill 125 Gimblett Chardonnay 2020
One of the select few wines from the Gimblett Gravels. Fermented in 100% new French oak, bottled in March 21 (so circa 11 months in barrel).
Green gold. No short on impact on the nose – golden peach and grilled nuts with ripe fruit, plenty of funk that cascades onto the palate. A big statement. For all the initial impact, the palate is a bit muted – the acid kicks in and cuts off some back palate generosity. Still, an impressive initial hit and I think this might just need some time in bottle to really hit super heights (and certainly quality). Best drinking: from next year, and it will go until the end of the decade, you’d think. 18/20, 93/100. 14%, NZ$80. Trinity Hill website.
Askerne Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2020
From the lower terraces on the Askerne Vineyard in Havelock North. Handpicked, whole bunch pressed, some wild and some cultured ferments, matured for 12 months in 40% new, 60% second fill oak. Barrel selection for this reserve blend.
Greenish straw. Nice layers to this wine – it suggests something more chunky and forward, but the nectarine fruit and layers of creamy oak give this complexity. Just a little bit heavy towards the back, despite the injection of nectarine fruit sweetness, and the acid then feels like a clunk too. Certainly ambitious, if a little bulky. Best drinking: now. 17.7/20, 92/100. 14%, NZ$35. Askerne Estate website.
Cooper’s Creek Swamp Reserve Chardonnay 2020
Back at the turn of the century when I had just started working in wine, we were churning through four or five year old bottles of the Swamp Reserve. I have no idea where the fruit for that wine came from, but that was a formidable wine – on the very edge of thick, oaky, buttery, cut-it-with-a-knife Chardonnay. Man it was popular (as reflecting the very end of that Chardonnay era). Good to see an iteration here. Sourced from the Middle Road vineyard, 40% new oak barrel ferment.
Green straw. Oak is a prominent player, with vanilla bean paste on nose and palate. There is a flow of yellow fruit underneath, but it feels like it’s still unfurling. Some oak tannins to finish. I want to see this in another year as it integrates more as the oak is too prominent (and there is so much to come. Best drinking: from 2023, and maybe 2024. 17.7/20, 92/100+. 13%, NZ$40. Coopers Creek website.
Collaboration Wines Aurulent Chardonnay 2020
From ‘select’ vineyards (Askerne, Ascot & Kokako are listed, but I’m unsure of exacts). Handpicked, whole bunch pressed, 8 months in 1/3 new oak.
Golden green straw. Just a little forward, with bay and golden citrus oak bay on the nose. The oak drives the palate too – hessian, grilled nuts, golden pineapple. Oak tannins too. Plenty of ripe yellow peach fruit here, but there is an oaky bluntness to this wine that dulls the edges a little. Has flavour though. Best drinking: nowish. 17.5/20, 91/100. 13.5%, NZ$35. Collabaration Wines website.
Squawking Magpie Gravels Chardonnay 2020
Fruit source unknown – just ‘Hawke’s Bay’. Handpicked fruit, 12 months in new and second fill oak.
Pale straw. Forward and chunky, with hay and melon and hessian and a little melon. Huge volume of chunky, golden, custard pie and oatmeal and cooked white peach fruit. I find this a bit much – it’s developing fast and the fruit feels secondary, despite the big flavour. Best drinking: now. 16.5/20, 88/100. 14.5%, NZ$34. Squawking Magpie website.
Te Awanga Estate Quarter Acre Chardonnay 2020
I swirled, I swirled, I swirled, and I still couldn’t get past the reductive nose. I came back later in the day, and it was better, but still the dominant character (and I couldn’t drink it). Handpicked fruit, from three vineyards across Hawke’s Bay, with 11 months in 15% new oak.
Green straw. Plenty of sulphur reduction to start. Concentrated fruit underneath, but I can’t get past the reduction, which gives sensorial hardness too. It’s definitely interesting, but the sulphides have gone too far. No. Best drinking: reduction can get much better (or worse) in bottle. Report back if you keep some. 15/20, 83/100. 13.5%, NZ$40. Te Awanga Estate website.