I decided to take this Top 10 Tasting on the road this time, after the success of our away fixture doing the ‘Other Whites’ across town at Nigel’s Wine Cave. This was an altogether larger affair though, with one of out more popular varietals drawing quite a large quantity of entries. It does surprise me that whilst I seem to be able to winkle some pretty iconic wines out of wineries (see the list of top ten wines that follows…), that many choose not to enter into the tasting. If you’re not in, you can’t win it.
I got so many high quality entries that it seemed logical – since I had the time and space – to do the tasting over two sessions. There was a discussion amongst the tasting group that we could split the wines up into sub-$30 and over-$30 classes, but to be honest, I like the idea that any wine could win this judging. I also don’t want to say to any wine “there’s your box – you go in there” or that they don’t deserve to be at the same table as another wine, due to RRP? However, I will think about producing a follow-up article later this month in which i’ll show a list of what I’d consider to be the ‘bargain buys’ – whether the made the Top 10 list or not. Comment below if you have any thoughts on this?
I’ll also be writing about New Zealand Chardonnay in general. The same question was asked of me three times during the week – about what i thought of NZ Chardonnay as a whole, or where a particular region might fit in. I keep an eye on ‘the world of wine’ and have definitely seen an uptake in interest in our best wines. The idea that Hawke’s Bay wine had – to send out a box of the dozen best Chardonnays of the vintage is definitely getting attention globally. It is noteworthy that often only a few examples are mentioned. Each of our regions do seem to have a handful of headline producers, with many others following closely behind.
Speaking of which – the wines sent in for this tasting covered all bases, from Waitaki, Central Otago, North Canterbury, Nelson and Marlborough on the mainland; to Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Waikato, Auckland and Northland in the North island. A few wines had corks, but mostly under screwcap. I ask for ‘current vintage’ and tend to receive a wide-ish range of vintages – this time, mostly 2020s.
As you’ll see, many of the wines that made our list are iconic – they could show against the best of the world’s Chardonnays. The list is simply made up by adding up the collective marks (out of 100) and dividing them. This tasting produced the highest aggregate scores of any we’ve done. It could be a factor that for a couple of us, Chardonnay is our favourite varietal – but even taking into account that bias, the scores were high – very high. Judging was myself, Gabor Sareczky and Gregory Collinge; and we also had a handful of senior wine show judges and award-winning winemakers taste through our top 30 wine selections after we’d scored.
Onto the wines:
#1 – Kumeu River Matés Vineyard Chardonnay 2021
At the very end of July, I went to the launch of the new Kumeu River releases, and talked Paul Brajkovich into entering a bottle of Matés Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 into the tasting. I’m pleased I did, as this benchmark New Zealand Chardonnay won top spot. I sometimes describe this wine as ‘beautiful chaos’ on release. The 2021 we tried is dense and rich, with praline and pear on the nose. Concentrated and brooding. A precise, electric acidity and nutty, noteworthy oak. A mineral edge and a pithy, lemon-rind note – partially coming from a fruit tannin that also contributes to the texture and personality in this epic wine.
Michael Brajkovich, the winemaker of this wonder describes it as ‘having more stuff in it’. I made the 2020 vintage my top white wine of last year, with a score of 98/100 and I see no reason to lower that score this year.
#2 – Radburnd Cellars Chardonnay 2020
A great nose – smoky, and complex with blood orange, dried pineapple, lemon curd and white nectarine. Superbly balanced, equal parts weight and complexity, flow and grace. The oak is supporting, the presence discretely framing the core with a subtle touch. Such finesse – a ‘deluxe version’ according to the judges.
#3 – Helio Chardonnay 2021
“Sensational” was the first word noted on two judges sheets. Bold, with a beautiful and immediate snap of citrus acidity – saline and bright. A lean, balanced oak note adds depth to the core. “Great movement” and “Stealth-like” also tells you about the drive and flow that is in the palate here. This young gun is worth discovering – sitting justifiably amongst some established stars in our Top 10.
#4 – Dry River Chardonnay 2020
Delicate and restrained on the nose. Leaving room to manouvre and although not lacking concentration, it’s not so tight that there’s not room to discover the layers of intrigue. Generous on the palate, where a vibrant acidity also gives dynamic drive into the ripe tropical nectarine, melon and citrus flavours. A long lingering finish.
#5 – Clearview Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2021
Perfumes of roast cashew, golden peach, green olive, pink grapefruit and comice pear. Excellent, rich and bright with stonefruit and citrus in abundance. No lack of body – this has weight… but balance and finesse with the power. A muscular core of oak, acidity and spicy fruit.
#6 – Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2019
Very classy – “a complete wine” was noted. Subtle flintyness on the nose then bold and oaky as; with a little funk and a resolutely ‘old school’ feel through the palate. A ripe richness, reminiscent of lemon marmalade, with a drier, grapefruit-pithy finish.
#7 – Church Road TOM Chardonnay 2020
Massive but classy. With elegance and an assured swagger. a delicate muesli-like mealy texture adds to the richness and complexity through many layers including a generous, toasty thread of oak. “Ripe, rich – seamless” in our notes.
#8 – Villa Maria Hawke’s Bay Reserve Chardonnay 2020
Some herbal and white pepper notes on the nose and through the palate. Nicely balanced, with a core of saline acidity, toasty oak, a nibble of reductivity and ripe, juicy fruit. Texturally lush and sumptuous but with a mineral intensity.
#9 – Clearview Estate Endeavour Chardonnay 2018
Caramel, with bright citrus – “good juice” was noted – to offset the big oak and balance this out. Still quite huge though, and unashamedly so. Has a ripe, sensual fullness in the texture and finish.
#10 – The Landing Chardonnay 2020
Complex and nuanced, with great length and harmony. “The oak is ace” is a frank note from one sheet. Rich and ripe without going OTT. Spiced with cinnamon and vanilla, and with a nougat-like note to the finish.