WHAT I’M LEARNING...
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]