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.

Felton Road’s low-tech precision winemaking


Gareth King at Felton Road

“Precision viticulture” refers to a technology-laden mission to optimize and equalize grape quality at a local level, decreasing variability plot-by-plot, potentially even plant-by-plant. By collecting data on water use, vine vigor, temperature, soil conditions, and other parameters at multiple points across a vineyard, vignerons can understand how different areas of the vineyard are differing in their performance and, consequently, irrigate or fertilize or prune or harvest or what-have-you differently to suit. Affordable GPS systems, high-tech mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), and lots of spiffy little wireless sensors have made all of this possible and even reasonably practical for vineyards within the past several years (Australia’s national Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been notably pushing PV adoption in that country). Oddly enough, though, I hadn’t really thought about what an equivalent “precision winemaking” strategy might look like before a week or two ago.

A week or two ago I paid my first visit (of many, I expect) to Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, famous for pinot noir, Wild West-style scenery, and hordes of international backpackers. When I made arrangements to stop by Felton Road, I was warned that I wouldn’t be able to meet Blair Walter, the winemaker, because he planned to rack that day. (Rack = remove wine from one container to another, most often for the purpose of separating it from the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that collect at the bottom of the barrel or tank.)  When I learned how he was racking — he found a few minutes to come out and talk in between barrels — the first thing that came to mind was, “gosh, this sounds like precision winemaking.” If precision viticulture is approaching the vineyard on a vine-by-vine basis, then precision winemaking seems as though it should be approaching wine on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Far from technology-laden, though, Walter’s method is simple, elegant, and light on gadgetry.

Their pinot noir is made like this:

1. Crush grapes into stainless steel fermenter tanks. Ferment.

2. Press and transfer wine to barrel. Let wine sit in barrel until February (in Otago, that’s about ten months after harvest).

3. Rack wine off lees, out of barrel and into tanks.

4. Bottle.

Racking happens only once. Walter says that everything that comes out of the barrel during that single racking goes into the bottle. With that single control point before bottling, he sounds fairly obsessive about ensuring sure that he sees everything that comes out of those barrels. Unsurprisingly, he uses a Bulldog Pup, a clever little racking wand that  moves wine by positive displacement instead of active pumping. Positive displacement functionally pushes — “displaces” — the wine out of the barrel by filling the barrel with gas. The barrel is sealed save for a tube pushing the gas in and the tube letting the wine out so that pumping in gas increases the pressure inside the barrel; the wine has nowhere to go but out the exit tube. Bulldog Pups are far more gentle than any pump. They can also virtually eliminate oxygen exposure during racking when nitrogen or argon is used to do the pushing.

Neither of those is Walters’ main reason for using the Pup. He even uses plain-old forced atmospheric air, replete with oxygen, to push. After ten months undisturbed in barrel, the wine can use the oxygen exposure. His reason for racking this way is so that he can watch the wine as it comes up the tube (through a conveniently placed sight glass) and decide on a barrel-by-barrel basis what to leave behind. Bulldog Pups have a foot that will automatically shut off flow at a pre-set level: a winemaker can decide to leave four inches of lees in each barrel, set the foot appropriately, and then leave the cane to mind itself while his attention is elsewhere. Walters doesn’t automate, and the only person who racks is him.

Walters’ approach reminded me of what his colleague Gareth King, Felton Road’s viticulturist, said about how he practices precision viticulture. The man doesn’t seem to want for much, but when we encountered the harvest crew coming in from a morning vineyard walk, he said, “You know my best technology? They just walked past us.”

I can’t say what difference GPS sensors versus summer interns might make, but I can say that Felton Road’s pinots were among the best I tasted. Central Otago pinots can be a bit clunky, but Felton Road’s are texturally lighter and more elegant, with plenty of clean raspberry and strawberry aromas up front backed up with enough earthiness and tannins to keep things interesting. The 2012 Bannockburn and 2012 Cornish Point bottlings seemed to walk that balance of lightness and structure particularly well.

Precision viticulture is veritably new. It’s downright revolutionary, really, in terms of how it changes the way vignerons can think about vineyard management. But technology isn’t the only way to pay attention to details. The old-fashioned strategy of carefully and consistently observing what’s happening with individual vines isn’t an exact substitute for GPS-enabled water uptake meters: the technology is more precise and lets the vineyard manager put his eyes in a lot of different places at the same time — and collect data in his sleep or during family meals, which has to be a real boon. And I can imagine monitoring individual barrels with some kind of wireless oxygen sensor that can track and measure differences between how each barrel transmits oxygen — since every barrel is unique in this respect — and lets winemakers make corresponding individualized adjustments. No amount of careful personal attention could do that.

But Walters’ version of precision winemaking and King’s version of precision viticulture will serve as a good reminder for me every time I read a journal article or press release about some nifty new precision gadget. Some of the best technology comes on two legs.