New Zealand chardonnay named a world-beater, and it's not from Marlborough

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:06am

Influential wine publication Decanter delivered a surprise when it released its annual World Wine Awards on June 14.

The International Trophy for Chardonnay priced over £15 (HK$180) didn't go to a French winemaker in Burgundy or an estate in California. Instead, the gold trophy was awarded to "a distinctly modern New Zealand chardonnay", 2012 Vidal Legacy Chardonnay.

What's particularly notable is that Vidal Estate isn't in the Marlborough region, which produces the bulk of the country's wine, particularly white. The 110-year-old winery is on North Island, in Hawke's Bay halfway up the east coast between Auckland and Wellington.

Hawke's Bay is New Zealand's oldest wine region and second-largest producer, yet it's overshadowed by the might of the Marlborough, on the northern tip of South Island.

"It's a slow burn in Hawke's Bay," says Hugh Crichton, Vidal's award-winning winemaker. "It doesn't jump out at you like Marlborough wine; it's a bit more discreet, a bit more elegant."

New Zealand can be chilly, but the maritime climate around Hawke's Bay, with warm, reasonably dry summers, makes for ideal grape-growing conditions. There's a patchwork of small growers, with a solid community of winemakers and food producers.

"Not all wine areas can make restrained, elegant wines because the climate is too hot," says Crichton. "But we're lucky here in Hawke's Bay. As long as we pick at the right time, we're more restrained in our winemaking."

The region produces about 85 per cent of New Zealand's full-bodied reds, particularly cabernet-merlot blends and shiraz/syrah.

Crichton has a soft spot for chardonnay. His wines, however, are a departure from the very big buttery variety that New Zealand and Australia were once known for - ones that Crichton calls "knife-and-fork wines, kind of a meal in itself".

Crichton spent morethan a decade honing his craft while living in Britain, learning about viticulture and winemaking before returning to New Zealand in 2003 to continue his oenological studies. He joined Vidal in 2004.

"The biggest plus for me coming back to New Zealand was the palate experience I'd had from drinking so many varied wines," says Crichton.

The European influence is apparent as Crichton points to a massive outdoor tank, where litres of rich crimson liquid gushes out into an open vat. In the tank is merlot in the early stages of fermentation.

The purple skins float to the top and start to dry out, so three times a day the juice is released and fed back in to wet the cap and extract more flavour. Crichton says it's a traditional Bordeaux method called pumping over. "We take tradition when we see the benefit," he says.

Nearby, a cavernous former stable houses hundreds of French oak barrels that hold wine at various stages of maturation. Walking through, Crichton points out the ones that show promise as a Legacy release - Vidal's highest category of wine, which attracted Decanter's attention this year.

Late last year, the 2013 Legacy Chardonnay won the country's most prestigious prize, the Air New Zealand Wine Awards' champion wine of the show. Other Vidal wines are placed in the Reserve or the more casual Estate range.

For the Vidal team, the key to their winemaking process is natural grape quality.

"I'd rather keep it as natural as possible and try and get the quality of the grape the best I can," says Crichton.

Vidal tries to minimise additions and relies on natural fermentation where possible. "For us the wine should speak about where it's from and the people that have been a part of it," Crichton says.

That means placing an emphasis on the timing of grape picking. "I can normally tell on the vine when I'm tasting it. So we're making picking decisions based on flavour," he says.

The flavour of a grape naturally changes the longer it's left on the vine. In reds, says Crichton, the grapes become more plummy and prune-like, losing some of their floral aspects. As chardonnay ripens, the citrus and grapefruit make way for stone fruit and peaches. "We're trying to capture those flavours a bit earlier," he says.

Of course, the capriciousness of nature makes that process different every year. There are seasonable variables, for instance, when summer lingers or autumn arrives early.

"Winemaking is very simple," says Crichton. "The challenge is to make good wine in tough years. In tough years, good vineyards stand up and do well."