Who’s afraid of new-wave chardon­nay? Quite a few of us, finds as oaky in­creas­ingly makes way for flinty.


To re­think chardon­nay as John Saker ex­plains why the old and oaky makes way for the new and flinty #Cheers

CHARDON­NAY LOVERS – some of them, any­way – are as mad as hell. They open bot­tles bear­ing la­bels marked “Chardon­nay” and find inside a liq­uid that bears scant re­sem­blance to the wine they fell in love with years ago. Where once there was a rich, soft, golden elixir, laced with a so­phis­ti­cated some­thing they knew to be oak, now there is a drink that often seems down­right per­verse. It’s nervy and light, at times al­most briny, with flavours that are green-edged. But above all there is this smoky, slightly sul­phury char­ac­ter. Some­times there’s just a wisp of it; at oth­ers it’s far more overt. I once heard an out­raged chardon­nista liken the sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence he was get­ting from a re­cently re­leased chardon­nay to be­ing on the lower gun deck of HMS Vic­tory mid­way through the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar.

Wel­come to wine’s own “shock of the new”. No other New Zealand wine style has un­der­gone a rev­o­lu­tion quite like the one that has rocked chardon­nay over re­cent years. And in the eyes (and noses) of many, what has re­ally spiked the punch is the pres­ence of what wine in­sid­ers call “sul­phides”, or “pos­i­tive re­duc­tion”.

We wine writ­ers often de­scribe this trait as “flinty”, “smoky”, “gun­flint”, “struck match”, even “oys­ter shell”, and quite often “funk­i­ness”. That’s mainly due to a con­cern that the word “sul­phide” will be mis­con­strued, and get con­sumers think­ing the wine may have larger than usual lev­els of added sul­phur. Al­most every wine re­ceives doses of sul­phur in the course of its mak­ing. The results of these in­cur­sions are called “sul­fites”. Newwave chardon­nay’s flinti­ness comes from a dif­fer­ent place en­tirely.

Sul­phides oc­cur nat­u­rally dur­ing fer­men­ta­tion when yeasts are starved of ni­tro­gen. Most wine­mak­ers will tell you that for this to hap­pen, there must be a wild fer­ment (ie one where nat­u­ral yeasts are at play) and that the pres­ence of solids (mainly grape­skins) in the fer­ment is im­por­tant. But there is also a level of mys­tery sur­round­ing it. Some vine­yards are sim­ply more sul­phide­prone than oth­ers, as are some vin­tages.

Any grape va­ri­ety is sus­cep­ti­ble, but chardon­nay, which has al­ways been open-hearted and ac­com­mo­dat­ing to­wards out­side in­flu­ences, has be­come a sul­phide ral­ly­ing point. New Zealand pro­duc­ers that have shown a propen­sity for lac­ing a sul­phide thread through their chardon­nays in­clude Kumeu River, Villa Maria, Vidal Estate and Esk Val­ley (both also part of the Villa group), Dog Point, Greywacke, Church Road,

Trin­ity Hill and Giesen. The list grows all the time. Judg­ing at Cui­sine’s lat­est chardon­nay tast­ing, which features in this is­sue, I felt the sul­phide char­ac­ter was more in ev­i­dence than ever be­fore.

And not ev­ery­one’s im­pressed. “We’ve had peo­ple coming back into stores, re­turn­ing sul­phidey wines,” de­clares Glen­garry gen­eral man­ager Liz Wheadon. “When it is too overt and not in bal­ance, it’s a po­lar­is­ing char­ac­ter, some­thing that is hard for con­sumers to un­der­stand and hard for staff to ex­plain.”

Kings­ley Wood of the First Glass wine store on Auckland’s North Shore re­ports that “a lot more peo­ple walk in and ask for some­thing fleshy and old-fash­ioned than for a new-style chardon­nay. I quite like the [flinty] style but I have one big is­sue with it: most of them are ba­si­cally un­drink­able for quite a long time. For peo­ple want­ing im­me­di­ate sat­is­fac­tion, that’s a prob­lem.”

It’s not just con­sumers. Wine in­sid­ers are di­vided on the is­sue as well. At a re­cent Air New Zealand wine awards din­ner, where the tro­phy-win­ning wines were in cir­cu­la­tion on most ta­bles, the top chardon­nay (a very smoky, flinty num­ber) was far from uni­ver­sally loved. “At my ta­ble, the ries­ling and – god for­bid – the pinot gris were in greater de­mand than the chardon­nay,” one at­tendee told me. “Peo­ple didn’t want to drink it.”

“Sul­phides are not what chardon­nay is about – or should be about,” says long-time judge and industry ob­server Geoff Kelly. “It’s a char­ac­ter that im­pairs the wine’s beauty, hid­ing all the del­i­cate aro­mas un­der a grey blan­ket of clog. It’s a fad.”

No wine­maker sets out to an­noy the peo­ple on whom he or she de­pends to make a liv­ing. So how can it be that some­thing that not so long ago was viewed by judges as a tech­ni­cal fault is now sud­denly so preva­lent?

First of all, it is not a uniquely New Zealand phe­nom­e­non. In Bur­gundy, chardon­nay’s home, re­duc­tive notes are hardly un­com­mon, es­pe­cially since the turn of the century. Closer to home, Aus­tralian chardon­nay has had a re­cent sul­phide surge of its own.

Its ar­rival in Aus­tralia and New Zealand is, I be­lieve, part of a nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion that is see­ing many of our wine­mak­ers be­come less en­am­oured with the squeaky clean wine styles that were once the hall­mark of New World wine coun­tries such as ours. Meth­ods and be­liefs de­rived from wine di­ploma text­books are be­ing ques­tioned. Wine­mak­ers have grown in con­fi­dence, and are more ready to go in search of new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Michael Bra­jkovich, chief wine­maker at Kumeu River, the estate syn­ony­mous with qual­ity New Zealand chardon­nay, doesn’t lay claim to be the first in New Zealand to pro­duce wines with a per­cep­ti­ble sul­phide in­flu­ence. But some of his 1990s chardon­nays, au­da­cious wines for their time, cer­tainly pro­vided an in­tro­duc­tion to the char­ac­ter for many in this coun­try. Cre­ator of award-win­ning chardon­nays at Vidal Estate, Hugh Crich­ton, cites those wines as in­flu­enc­ing the style he is cur­rently aim­ing for, and he isn’t alone.

Bra­jkovich points out that he has never set out to chase sul­phides. He de­scribes it as a by-prod­uct of the process he em­ploys to get more weight in his chardon­nays. But nor does he re­gard the char­ac­ter as col­lat­eral dam­age.

“A lit­tle bit of it can be very at­trac­tive. I like to call it flinty or min­er­ally and for me it evokes mem­o­ries of wines I’ve ad­mired, such as Coche-Dury [a white Bur­gundy] and wines from Ch­ablis.

“But as in all things, it’s a ques­tion of bal­ance. I think in New Zealand the pendulum has swung too far. Some pro­duc­ers seem to think that if a lit­tle is good, then a whole lot of it must be great, which used to be the think­ing that also ap­plied to oak. Re­duc­tive char­ac­ters were once re­garded as a fault for good rea­son – it can har­den and shorten the palate.”

Crich­ton agrees. “Some pro­duc­ers have dropped to the sul­phide style with­out un­der­stand­ing what needs to oc­cur in terms of fruit con­cen­tra­tion and bal­ance,” he says. Like Bra­jkovich, he doesn’t ac­tively try and man­u­fac­ture the char­ac­ter, but when he sees it in some bar­rels – “I em­brace it. It’s some­thing I love in chardon­nay, be­cause it pro­vides so much in­trigue. It adds another el­e­ment of in­ter­est and com­plex­ity.”

He’s keenly aware it’s a style that does not meet with universal adu­la­tion. But the ac­claim his chardon­nays are re­ceiv­ing, mea­sured by both wine awards and sales, is en­dorse­ment enough for him.

“All of a sud­den it’s an is­sue, when re­ally it’s about wine styles. I find but­tery, oaky chardon­nay bor­ing, but I’m fine with peo­ple mak­ing them. To each his or her own.”

The experienced Tony Bish, wine­maker at Sa­cred Hill, was once very much in the nay camp. That has re­cently changed. “My ac­cep­tance and tol­er­ance [for sul­phides] has in­creased over time. I feel I need to ex­plore it as a wine­maker, not put my head in the sand. I’m now see­ing it as a use­ful tool to have on your side, though I never want it to be the dom­i­nant fac­tor.”

Clearly, ev­ery­one I spoke to for this ar­ti­cle seeks “bal­ance”. When I asked some in­ter­vie­wees to name a chardon­nay in which they thought the sul­phides were too pro­nounced, a cou­ple men­tioned the Church Road TOM Chardon­nay 2013. Did its wine­maker, Chris Scott, think he went too far? “No, I’m happy with it. I do ac­cept it will po­larise peo­ple, but for me it’s in bal­ance – I never want to see the fruit over­whelmed or for the wine to lose its sense of place.” Ob­vi­ously, ev­ery­one’s idea of bal­ance is dif­fer­ent.

Re­mem­ber your first taste of co­rian­der? You were per­plexed by it, re­pelled even. Then you had it again, and again, each time in dif­fer­ent doses and in com­bi­na­tion with other tastes, and be­fore you knew it you were buy­ing co­rian­der every week.

Sul­phides in chardon­nay are like that. They’re a chal­leng­ing new sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence, not im­me­di­ately se­duc­tive (in the way of oak), but a fas­ci­nat­ing coun­ter­weight to sweet­ness. Al­ready they have be­come an es­tab­lished part of the new or­der, cre­at­ing greater diver­sity in the chardon­nay cat­e­gory. No one need be afraid. For those who never got to like co­rian­der at all, there will still be a chardon­nay for you.

“Sul­phides are not what chardon­nay is about – or should be about. It’s a char­ac­ter that im­pairs the wine’s beauty, hid­ing all the del­i­cate aro­mas un­der a grey blan­ket of clog. It’s a fad.” [GEOFF KELLY]

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