It's gained a bad rap over the years but chardonnay is staging a comeback - earning the top spot for white wine in the New World Wine Awards.

"While a record number of rosé wines entered the New World Wines Awards, it was the enduring chardonnay category that particularly pleased the judges this year," said chairman of judges Jim Harre.

"Chardonnay is one of those wines that, from a judging point of view, is always a really nice wine."

People tended to have pre-conceived ideas about the varietal, partly based on the way it swung between "big, huge, buttery" flavours and "lots and lots of oak" in previous decades, but Harre said it had now reached a good middle ground.

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"One of the things about chardonnay is it's one of those great varieties that is able to be developed quite a bit by winemakers. They can do all sorts of things to it," he said.

"It's not unusual to see it come through as a top wine. In terms of the change of style that's happened, that's a bit more unusual."

Winemakers discuss what makes a great chardonnay. / New World Wine Awards

Chardonnays from Hawke's Bay or Gisborne areas have "stonefruit characters", while South Island ones have more of an acidic grapefruit taste to them.

Harre said chardonnay was also great because it paired well with many meals.

"Now, we have well-managed wines that reflect the true quality of the chardonnay fruit, with a judicious use of oak, and a fine elegance brought about by considered winemaking. They are simply a delight to drink, and a must-try even for those who may not typically choose chardonnay."

The Wither Hills Marlborough Chardonnay 2017 was selected as the Champion White Wine for the whole competition and is amazing value. The judges noted it as a "superb food wine" and the one "that shows chardonnay matches nearly anything".

Winemaker Jack Cornes, whose Sacred Hill Hawke's Bay Chardonnay 2017 won one of the gold medals for the varietal, said the winning wine was the core chardonnay in its range.

"It's what we're most proud of, and we try to achieve consistency every year with that particular wine," he said.

"Chardonnay has gone through quite a voyage over the years . . . there's lots there for everybody now."

He believed New Zealand punched above its weight when it came to making chardonnay.

"I think we're spoilt here . . . consumers had a lot of fantastic choice there."

In previous years winemakers perhaps "relied on too much oak", but the process had been refined since then.

On top of that, vines and winemakers were older and more experienced, and had the opportunity to travel and see how winemakers in other countries did it.

"Watch this space with chardonnay in the future," he said.

What's the point of the gold sticker?

While wine buyers may see numerous stickers plastered across bottles in the supermarket, Harre said the New World Wine Awards in particular was one to be trusted.

"The sticker that goes on a bottle of wine shows that that wine is at the very highest calibre," he said.

Wines go through "rigorous" testing and are totally randomised. Judge can only know the variety, the country of origin, and when the grapes were harvested.

A gold-medal-winning wine ends up being tasted about 19 times, and a trophy wine will be tasted at least 36 times.

"I don't know of another product that enters in the supermarket as a product that's being endorsed by a group that's actually been tasted and assessed [that many times]," he said.

There were 17 independent experts involved in judging over the three-day event this year.

"The New World Wine Awards has a 16-year track record of connecting wine-lovers with the best-quality affordable wines," Harre said.

To be eligible for the competition, the wines must retail for $25 or less, meaning buyers can get an affordable bottle of wine and know it is still high quality.

The New World Wine Awards uses the internationally recognised 100-point system. Under this system, wines are benchmarked and scored against what a perfect wine should be like, rather than against each other.

The Champion Wines in the New World Wine Awards 2018
Champion Sauvignon Blanc: Vidal Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018
Champion Pinot Gris: Rapaura Springs Reserve Marlborough Pinot Gris 2018
Champion Aromatic: Mount Brown Estates North Canterbury Riesling 2018
Champion Chardonnay: Wither Hills Marlborough Chardonnay 2017​
Champion Sparkling Wine: Morton Estate Black Label Brut
Champion Rosé: Madam Sass Central Otago Pinot Noir Rosé 2018
Champion Pinot Noir: Shaky Bridge Pioneer Series Central Otago Pinot Noir 2017
Champion Single Varietal Red: Grant Burge Cameron Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
Champion Red Blend: Mo Sisters Red Blend 2016
Champion Shiraz & Syrah: Zonte's Footstep Chocolate Factory McLaren Vale Shiraz 2016