Chardonnay Is New Zealand’s Most Exciting Wine Variety. Here’s Why

By Jo Burzynska
New Zealand’s chardonnay is now garnering wider international acclaim. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Wine editor Jo Burzynska is excited about New Zealand chardonnay, which has come a long way since the 80s and is now an elegant variety making waves internationally with its wide stylistic range and fresh, drinkable variations.

What grape is currently making some of the most enthralling and diverse white

It’s not our flagship variety. In fact, this is a grape many wine drinkers had written off. It’s chardonnay, and if you haven’t tried one lately, prepare to be surprised; maybe even seduced.

Aotearoa’s chardonnays have evolved into something as equally world-beating as our sauvignons, if not more, with a spectrum of flavours as vast as the vineyards that grow it from the top to the bottom of the country.

Testament to the current excitement around the variety was the inaugural Aotearoa New Zealand Chardonnay Symposium late last year. Local winemakers gathered in Hawke’s Bay to listen to and debate with international and local experts, and taste examples from New Zealand and beyond.

“Aotearoa chardonnay has the potential to be world-class fine wine, and the symposium’s goal was to help us achieve that,” explains Amy Hopkinson-Styles, chair of the symposium’s organising committee. “Through tasting and discussion, we looked to define what is unique to New Zealand’s chardonnay in a global context and explored our place in the world of fine chardonnay.”

Chardonnay grapes at Tony Bish.
Chardonnay grapes at Tony Bish.

Changing tastes

Records suggest New Zealand’s first chardonnays were made late in the modest 1950s. By the excessive 80s, they’d gained local fans, buttery characters and oak, becoming our most-planted white variety in the 1990s. But by the new millennium, chardonnay was falling out of fashion, ironically just as our examples were starting to get a whole lot better.

One of the world’s great white varieties in its heartland of France’s Burgundy, chardonnay has been showing its breathtaking colours for centuries. We don’t have that history, but early on the Burgundy blind tasting-beating chardonnays of Kumeu River demonstrated New Zealand’s potential from our comparably cool climate. Both established and a new generation of winemakers have continued to experiment and refine New Zealand chardonnay, which is now attracting wider international acclaim.

Here in New Zealand, it seems we’ve been slower to catch on. In the last year we may have spent more on chardonnay, but what’s driving its domestic growth is foreign bottles. I hope this reflects a nation of wine drinkers who are expanding their chardonnay horizons, and will consequently realise just how well our homegrown versions stack up.

A collection of New Zealand chardonnay.
A collection of New Zealand chardonnay.

Changing styles

What New Zealand is now making can be elegant or bursting with pure fruit, edgy or invitingly rich, fresh or savoury, or these appealing characters in combination. This wide stylistic range in part reflects the different approaches taken to a variety where winemaking choices have a significant impact on its flavours. However, what unites most local winemakers today is that less intervention is now more when it comes to making fresh and drinkable styles.

“We once thought higher alcohol and new oak would make impressive wines, but it didn’t mould into the wine with age,” notes Todd Stevens of Neudorf. “We’ve paired this back for precision and poise.”

“Chardonnay is all about the vessel,” states Tony Bish, who is so passionate about the variety it’s now all he makes. He’s been fermenting a number of his in large concrete egg-shaped vessels, whose shape, he says, creates convection currents that keep chardonnay fresh and preserve their aromatic intensity, and unlike oak, impart none of their own flavours. “They suit chardonnay so well.”

Complexity and texture are also being coaxed from our chardonnay as more winemakers embrace wild yeasts. At Church Road, Chris Scott notes that even his entry-level chardonnays now start with a wild fermentation. Harnessing these native yeasts, which are specific to individual regions and even vineyards, further imprints on the wine the distinct characteristics of the place where it’s grown.

Showcased most clearly through the growing array of single-vineyard chardonnays, and reiterated throughout the symposium, it’s place that gives New Zealand chardonnay its identity. No longer buried in oak and winemaking artifice, our unique land can be more clearly tasted in our chardonnay. An exciting new chapter in chardonnay is just beginning.

Four very different chardonnay expressions from around the country to try

Gateway chardonnay.

Tony Bish Wines Fat & Sassy Hawke’s Bay 2022

“A lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay, but they probably haven’t tasted any for 10 years,” says Tony Bish, who describes his Fat & Sassy as a “gateway drug” into the variety! Showcasing chardonnay as fun and contemporary, it’s certainly not fat like those buttery beasts of yore, just creamy-textured and full of ripe, mouthfilling stone fruit, with a touch of toasty oak and a fresh lemony edge. $23 from Liquorland, Countdown/Woolworths, Regional Wines, Caro’s, selected New Worlds.

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Amphora Nelson Chardonnay 2022

Neudorf is one of a small but growing number of local wineries making chardonnay in clay amphorae as an alternative to oak, which winemaker Todd Stevens likes for “texture”. This single-vineyard wine presents its Moutere clays site in all its unadorned glory. Full of energy and elegance, it’s crisp with a silky-soft texture, layers of pure lemon and stone fruits, and hints of herb and stone. $50 from Caro’s, Glengarry, Liquor Legends, By The Bottle.

Ashleigh Barrowman Queen of Swords Marlborough Chardonnay 2022

Inspired by her time working in France’s Jura, Ashleigh Barrowman thinks a little oxygen “can add layers of complexity to chardonnay”. Avoiding the new oak she feels “hides so much of chardonnay’s potential”, hers is a complex, richly textured and intriguing example. From the Wrekin Vineyard, its wonderfully savoury umami and salted nut character is joined by notes of apple and honey, and balanced by a bright freshness and minerality. $52 from By The Bottle, Siren Wine.

Prophet’s Rock Cuvee Aux Antipodes Blanc Central Otago 2020

This collaboration between Prophet’s Rock winemaker Paul Pujol and legendary Burgundian winemaker François Millet has resulted in a stunning chardonnay combining the finesse of great Burgundy with pure Central Otago fruit. Made from a block in Prophet’s Rock’s Pisa Kopuwai Delta vineyard, this elegantly intense chardonnay is propelled by a vibrant drive of grapefruit and mandarin citrus entwined with mineral, coursing through notes of pristine white fruits and flowers and hints of nut. $98 from Caro’s, Moore Wilson’s, Prophet’s Rock.

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