Hawke’s Bay, the large and important region around the towns of Napier and Hastings on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, has long been regarded as home to some of country’s finest red wines, particularly the Syrahs and Bordeaux blends from vineyards sited on deep gravel soils formed from old river beds. But in recent years the quality of Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay has been gaining global recognition, and from my trip there in January 2020 I reported on many excellent examples.
The 2019 vintage is seen as a great one for Hawke’s Bay and for Chardonnay in particular, and to celebrate this, Hawke’s Bay producers invited local Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas to pick his top 12 wines, which were subsequently sent out to to some key wine writers both domestically and around the world. I was delighted to be among the invited journalists to receive the wines just before Christmas. I have to say it is a really impressive selection, which although it includes some of the most expensive Chardonnays in New Zealand, does also feature some more affordable wines.
Stylistically there’s a broad palette here, many of the wines showing the on-trend ‘flinty’ notes of reductive winemaking, others more in the ‘golden Chardonnay’ spectrum of full ripeness and more obvious oak influence, but across the dozen examples the fruit quality is exemplary, and there’s a wonderfully pure line of both fruit and acidity that makes for extremely well balanced, vibrant wines that can deliver both straightforward pleasure and more subtle complexity. From my recent experiences there is no doubt Hawke’s Bay is one of the world’s prime Chardonnay regions.
(2021) Launched with the 2018 vintage, this is Askerne's top Chardonnay, grown on stoney, sandy soils with yields lowered, whole bunch and barrel-fermented, all French oak and 45 % new, where it aged on the lees for 11 months. What a lovely nose, smoky and nutty, creamy and suffused with ripe stone fruits, and a beautifully judged gunflint aspect that is quite Burgundian. In the mouth I really like the balance, with a great lemony cut of acidity scything through that burgeoning ripe fruit, but the oak and that flinty minerality always squeezing and propelling the wine forward. My first experience with this producer, and a hugely impressive one.
(2021) This single vineyard Chardonnay comes from the La Collina vineyard, planted in 2001, and it is a taut, mineral-flecked example, for me very nicely pitched as an elegant, intense wine, with just a touch of flintiness on one hand, and just a touch of ripe tropicality on the other, but while showing facets of both, neither dominates as creamy almond and savoury apple and lemon fruit push through a long finish.
(2021) Made from the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay, 95% was fermented in French oak barrels, 5% in a French oak 'egg'. It then spent a year in barrel with regular lees stirring, 25% new barrels. The colour is emerald with a glint of gold, the oak on the nose subtle and understated, a little light earthiness and orchard fruits come through. Quite a natural feel to this, the palate also relatively reserved, juicy lemon and ripe apple, a nice saline note to the acidity, and a composed and long finish, crisply defined and with nothing out of place.
(2021) Named after legendary winemaker Tom McDonald, this is made only in the best years, this is whole-bunch pressed and aged in French oak, about half of which was new. You have to like an overtly flinty, struck-match character here, with swirling smokiness, toast and intense preserved lemon and wild mint, a little peachier note. The palate has terrific freshness, with an oyster shell salt and mineral character slicing through that zesty lemon but ripe and succulent mid-palate fruit. No UK stockists at time of review.
(2021) From the Te Awanga sub-region close to the coast, this is made from the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay and fermented and aged in French oak. There's a bit of flint here, but bags of juicy and intense grapefruit, some buttery, quite Meursault-like characters. On the palate the partial ferementation with wild yeasts adds a lightly earthy, creamy layer, the fruit is very ripe but more in the juicy ripe apple and stone-fruit spectrum, some toastiness and again that fresh creamery butter touch into a long finish. No UK retail listing at time of review.
(2021) The cuvée's name means 'gold', and indeed there is a pale gold colour with flecks of green to this Chardonnay, whole bunch pressed into French oak, with fermentation with indigenous yeasts followed by 11 months in barrel with bâtonnage. There's a distinctive flintiness and creamy Brazil nut oakiness, but the fruit is cool and precise - more orchard fruit than tropical for sure. In the mouth a Seville orange or even orange bitters bite to this is set against quite a ripe, fleshy mid-palate fruit, that buttery and nutty oak reasserting in the finish, though matched by the freshness. Impressive stuff from winemaker Julianne Brogden, who works with selected grape growers to craft her small batch wines. No UK retail stockist at time of review.
(2021) From the Limeworks block, this was feremented and spent around 11 months in oak barrels (20% of which was new American oak). Cashew, crushed almond and oatmeal on the nose, there's a generosity and inviting ripeness to this, only 12.5% alcohol, but a peachy fruit character as well as lime. On the palate the oak is very nicely handled, just adding a nutty and creamy flavour and texture, but the freshness and poise of the fruit is elegant and quite delicious. No UK retail listing at time of review.
(2021) Fruit is sourced from the seaside Te Awanga and gravelly Bridge Pa, the wine spending one year in French oak, around one-third new. The nose of this pale green/straw-coloured wine is very Burgundian, hints of stones and flint, citrus and a little apple pie note of buttery pastry and fruit, some hazelnut too. In the mouth very good energy and thrust, confit lemon and juicy, bright orchard fruits, hints of more tropical mango and lychee, but then the sandwich of creamy oak and crisp acidity completes the finish. No UK stockists listed at time of review.
(2021) A lovely Chardonnay this, if one of the more straightforward in the line-up. Fermented and aged in new and 1- to 2-year-old French oak barrels. centered around citrus and oatmeal on the nose, the palate has sweetly ripe fruit and medium body, a nice juiciness to the finish. Not available in UK retail at time of review.
(2021) There's no mistaking the barrel fermentation and 10 months in new French oak here, toast, Brazil nuts and coffee, butter and golden ripe fruit to the fore. In the mouth there's citrus and fleshy nectarine, a grapefruit and orange zest pushing the finish. It's well made and a confident style, though for me the oak is slightly too prominent - at this stage at least. Price and UK stockist quoted is for an older vintage at time of review.
(2021) Ungrafted vines of the Mendoza Chardonnay clone were whole-bunch pressed and fermented in French oak barrels, 80% of which were new. The lees were stirred regularly over 12 months ageing in barrel. What a truly delightful nose this has, buttery and Brazil nut creaminess, fat lemony fruit and, some exotic spicy smokiness and a lovely sense of depth. In the mouth it is mouth-filling and full-textured, a glycerine rich weight of fruit concentration, but always agile, always bright and defined beautifully by its acidity, more of that butteriness into the finish. Gorgeous wine, generous and giving, but never over-stepping the mark. No UK retail stockists listed at time of review.
(2021) What a lovely wine this is from Villa Maria, from a vineyard planted in 1999, the nose is not shy of almond and oatmeal creamy oak, but the definite flinty character is well judged against grapefruit and more tropical, peachy fruit. On the palate racing acidity scythes a path through the buttery and nutty oak and the intense concentration of fruit. Glittering and concentrated stuff.