The joyful paradox of non-icon wines and New Zealand chardonnay

Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore ubiquitous and boring. Everyone makes chardonnay. Chardonnay is therefore endlessly diverse and interesting. If you like chardonnay, you’re never going to run out of wines to try, and with just a little effort they’re all (okay; mostly all) going to taste different.

Having an iconic variety is good for marketing: consumers can latch onto a recognizable and rememberable identity that, once tried and liked, they can come back to over and over. Willamette Valley pinot noir. Napa cab. Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Without such a regional brand, wines have a harder time finding a place in consumers’ memories and, consequently, wine lists and store shelves. Washington state…riesling? Merlot? Syrah? 

But having an iconic wine brings on a paradoxically both-and problem and joy that looks a lot like the paradoxical both-and problem of chardonnay. Stand-out wines tend to overshadow other, very interesting but minor wines that remain less well-known. But because they’re less well-known, interested persons can enjoy all the loveliness of finding a hidden treasure that, frankly, would be less of a treasure were it not so hidden. Oregon chardonnay and it’s clamor-inducing annual symposium, despite chard being less than 10% of the state’s production, is an excellent case in point. So is New Zealand chardonnay.

None of the three New Zealand winegrowing regions I recently visited on my dissertation-data-collecting tour is especially well-known for chardonnay, but they’re are among the wines that interested me most everywhere. That’s not to discount the balance of some Hawke’s Bay syrahs (and even one or two pinots there), or the fun of non-standard Marlborough sauvignon blancs (and a few pinots there too), or the diverse pinot gris of Central Otago (and, yes, even some pinot noir in that iconic pinot region). But it is very much to say that Kiwi chardonnay can and should be “hidden treasures” worth digging under the icons to find.

The unsurprising problem remains that these wines are hard to find outside of New Zealand. The only good thing I can say about that is that were New Zealand churning out as much chardonnay as standard mass-market sauvignon blanc, it might develop into a similarly iconic style that would quench so much of the non-standard joy that seems to come through these wines.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2013 (Hawke’s Bay) – Elephant Hill is ripping gewürztraminer out of it’s coastal vineyard to make room for more chardonnay, which is a real shame — the last vintage of the gewürztraminer is beautifully rich with magnolia apricot jam and an unctuous finish — but makes sense when you try the chard. Writing about big zesty lemon flavors backed up by oak and vanilla with some pleasant green notes sandwiched in between sounds fairly ordinary, but this wine isn’t: it’s briny, extraordinarily fresh and zesty, but still full rather than sharp in the mouth.

Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Marlborough) – It’s hard to say too many good things about Fromm’s chardonnays. Savory, with lots of lime and some herbaceousness over a fairly big wine carried by enough oak that I’d appreciate seeing this again in a few more years. Great, long, lime zest-driven finish. The LaStrada remains complex and bordering on savory in a lighter style.

Felton Road chardonnay 2014 (Bannockburn, Central Otago; barrel tasting) – Some of the chardonnays I encountered in Central Otago felt disjointed, like someone was trying to tow the line mid-way between creamy weight and steely acidity and instead ended up making something with elements of each that didn’t quite fit together in the end. Felton Road’s tries and succeeds, with interesting and well-integrated acidity keeping from flabbiness a wine with definite mouth-filling creaminess and palate weight.

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