You’ve probably tried a few New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and maybe even dabbled in the occasional Pinot Noir, but have you taken a look at their Chardonnays? If you haven’t, you really need to. I should probably rephrase that. If you enjoy a leaner, crisper style of Chardonnay that manages to be ripe yet firm with vivid clarity, then it’s time for you to try New Zealand Chardonnay!

Several styles of Chardonnay are produced in New Zealand. Due to the rather unique growing conditions found there, the wines tend not to be cheap, even pricey, so if you’re going to be spending the money on one of these wines, you’ll probably want to find one that really expresses what New Zealand has to offer.

There are several reasons why New Zealand’s wines tend to be on the pricier side, ranging from the extreme distance shipping to terroir-driven issues like cool weather, wind and minimal rainfall.
If you travel through New Zealand visiting wineries, you’re bound to hear it over and over again: “We just can’t make cheap wine, except for…” 

I get it, I really do, and I’m not asking you to make cheap wine. I think what New Zealand is doing is just great, but at the same time if your expecting someone to pony up the bucks for one of the “not cheap” wines, please make it something special. Something that could only come from New Zealand. If you go off trying to compete with the world by making big, blowsy Chardonnay, you’re going to lose that game.

Thankfully, the vast majority of the Chardonnay I tried during my recent visit to New Zealand was anything but big and blowsy. The cool temperature, poor soils and challenging climatic conditions present through most of New Zealand’s wine regions have conspired to prevent that. Those factors seem to deliver a sort of Chablis-style wine that has lean, crisp nuances and is refreshing. Some folks like these wines and I count myself as one of them, others want something more.

I’m not sure what is going on with me. I used to look dubiously upon almost any Chardonnay, but the past few years have seen a real change in both my palate and my preferences. I am learning more and more to love Chardonnay, though ironically I usually love those Chardonnays that are showing a little less!

New Zealand’s Chard, as you might gather, excels at this. From north to south, I was faced with Chardonnay that defied my expectations. As a group, they were wines that were blessed with fine balance and a ripeness that delivered rich flavors, but were lean and rather firm in many cases. I made the Chablis comparison earlier, and while the expression of terroir is obviously different, I think it’s a very apt comparison. I doubt I’ll find many Burgundy drinkers who will convert full on to drinking these Chardonnays, but perhaps I am misjudging the market. For whatever reason, most likely soft demand due to limited exposure to these wines, prices for these New Zealand Chardonnays tend to be quite reasonable. In some cases, they are indeed quite cheap, protestation to the country aside.

So why should you try these wines? Because they are delicious! You are not going to impress many people by whipping out a bottle of Waipara Chardonnay, and you certainly will not find these wines to be some magical investment, but boy will you drink well. So try a few, I’ve got plenty to recommend here.

Please remember, some of these wines will not be available in your markets but might be for other readers. I was very lucky to try such a vast range of wines while on location, and while I know you might not be able to find some of these gems, I would be remiss had I not brought them to your attention!

After all, these wineries deserve some recognition too, even if they have yet to master the complex distribution chain that delivers delicious juice to our favorite retailers!



Auckland

Kumeu River- Tasting at Kumeu River

2009 Kumeu River Village Chardonnay

Earthy and perfumed with a gentle yet complex set of aromatics that are slightly herbal with some tea notes. Smooth, refined and bright on the palate, with a touch of lemon rind accenting the core of apple and pear fruit. There’s a nice mineral note on back end, leading to a refreshing, moderately long finish that shows a bit of orange pith with mineral accents. 88pts

2009 Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay

More oak-driven aromas of smoke and toasted nuts accent the core of dried fruit. Rich and a bit creamy up front with bright acids supporting a steely base. This is bright and clean with good depth and intensity, but remains elegant and medium-bodied in the mouth with lovely length. The finish is slightly oak-driven but zesty and pure, with nice inner mouth perfumes of apple skins and acacia on the finale. 90pts

2009 Kumeu River Coddington Chardonnay

Very low yielding, hen and chick high, 3 tons/acre, real richness, used to go in estate blend.

Aloe, quartzy soil, apple blossom and a hint of honey come together on the nose. This is fairly rich on entry, though bright acids kick in quickly to really firm this up on the mid-palate, delivering ripe apple and pear fruit. While remaining bright, this does have a fine nutty, hazelnut brittle edge to it that adds a slight nougat/honey note on the finish. The finish really shows great focus, it is a touch low though with good length and a firm feel, delivering a slight hay edge on the finale. 91pts

2009 Kumeu River Hunting Hill

Tight on the nose and reticent at first, with a touch of lip balm and some early berried fruit. On entry, this shows huge intensity as it rolls out across the palate with richness and depth, but it remains transparent. There is lovely intensity of pollen, apricot, apple and gentle wood tones, then lemon curd on the mid-palate. Huge length on the finish which shows of mineral, spice and orchard fruit flavors, with a huge mineral finale. Awesome wine. 95pts

2009 Mate's Vineyard

Aromatic and slightly spicy on the nose with a touch of honied character, candy corn and preserved lime fruit. Very round and supple in the mouth though with bright acids supporting a very fine mineral, toffee almond, dried citrus core of fruit, with just a touch of pineapple. Turns a bit more toffeed and nutty on the finish which also shows vibrant acids and mineral cut. Nice finale of pithy, almost grapefruit character. There's something innately Burgundian about this wine. Very clear finish with a bit of spice on finale. 93pts

2004 Mate's Vineyard

Quite pineapple and fleshy tropical-fruited on the nose with almond accents. This is opulent in the mouth, rich and slightly viscous, but with vibrant acids. A fine contrasting bitterness enlivens the apple peel notes on the lush mid-palate. This really explodes on the finish. Clear with tremendous height and clarity to the fruit then feathering out on a lean, precise, mineral and citrus pith finish. 93pts




Gisbourne

Millton – Tasting at Milton

2010 Millton Opou Chardonnay

Sweet and honeyed on the nose, dripping with pear fruit framed by light butterscotch and toasted almond notes along with hints of pollen and dried pressed flowers. Rather light-bodied at first with a touch of tannin adding texture to the fine apple fruit and honeyed mid-palate. There is lovely clarity and brightness to the fruit, though the back end does show a riper side to this with hints of quince paste that appear on the finish as well. 91pts

2009 Millton Clos de St. Anne Naboth’s Vineyard Chardonnay

Softly aromatic with earthy notes of dried oats, dried herb, hay and some stone. This is very subtle in the mouth. It is elegant with good richness and ripeness, but is not showing much as far as intensity goes The back end shows some growing brightness and leads to a very fine finish with real finesse and emerging notes of earth and spicy mineral notes that pop on the finish. This obviously needs time to reveal all that it has, but already exhibits exceptional balance. 90pts

Gisborne Regional Tasting

2011 Matawhero Gisborne Chardonnay

Fruit-driven on the nose with notes of tropical fruits and lemon custard, with just a touch of mineral, dusty soil tones. On entry, this seems a little sweet with an early touch of old wood and a weird mid-palate that loses focus. This does turn fairly viscous on the slightly candied mid-palate, which is not very fruity but quite ripe. The finish surprises with tons of minerality lending a steely edge to parry the ripe fig fruit on the finish. 85pts

2010 Kirkpatrick Reserve Chardonnay

Smoky with bacon on the nose and plenty of oak-induced, smoldering wood and marshmallow aromas. A bit big and blowsy on entry, though this does offer nice blend of fruit and minerality, with good depth to the core of apple fruit. There’s good length here with the obvious, fairly spicy oak imprint lying over some pineapple fruit on the finish before heavy coffee oak notes take over. 87pts




North Canterbury

Pyramid Valley – Tasting at Pyramid Valley

2009 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay

This opens with a distinct note of boiled peanuts on the nose, joined by layers of flowers, honeycomb and heirloom apple fruit aromas. In the mouth, this shows super fine balance with light honey and toasted almond accents framing the core of clear orchard fruit. Very transparent feeling with fine depth to the zesty mineral and fruit flavors. Bright acid on the back end drives the lovely vibrant finish, showing spice and lingering lemon verbena aromas. 92pts

Waipara – Regional Tasting

2010 Ataahua Chardonnay

This shows a lot of raw wood on the nose with toasted nut, toasted oak and butter aromas over rather hidden fruit. There’s a lot of wood on the palate as well sweetening things up quite a bit. Nice acids keep things bright, but the oak remains dominant and tops everything with a touch of honey. 83pts

2010 Black Estate Chardonnay

This is fairly nutty on the nose with rich aromas of oily wood and notes of barrel fermentation, wrapped around bright ripe peach and pear fruit. On entry this is quite lively, with bright acids adding a bit of cut to the clear and crisp orchard fruit palate. All in all, this is well balanced with nice inner mouth tension and a fine apricot-tinged finish. 88pts

2010 Black Estate Omihi Series Chardonnay

Gently oaky on the nose, allowing some nice mineral, green fruit and pollen aromas to emerge from the glass. On the palate, this is round and easy and seems a bit lazy, perhaps just a bit too ripe. The back end and finish are very aromatic and attractive, though the aromas are a bit yeast- and barrel-driven. 86pts

2009 Floating Mountain Chardonnay

This is very focused on the nose with fine mineral, steal and apple notes. On entry, this seems just a touch soft, though there is a core of clear fruit framed with an earthy, savory, leesy element. Very Burgundian but not entirely clean, so if you appreciate a bit of dirty complexity this might be more appealing to you. I enjoyed the fairly long mineral and savory toned finish. 88pts

2009 Main Divide Chardonnay

Fresh and clean on the nose though you have to wait for some sulfur to blow. Once it does, there are lovely notes of pithy citrus and white orchard fruits that are well defined and framed with nuanced hickory and oak notes. Fresh on the palate if a touch viscous, this remains nicely balanced with a fine expression of white peach and lemon fruit. Gains some nuttiness on the back end before finishing a bit short with a somewhat oily texture. 89pts

2008 Mountford Chardonnay

This is all gentle. Gentle mineral and barrel fermentation aromas accent the soft core of apricot fruit with flashes of dried lime zest and marzipan on the nose. On the palate this is very clear and precise. This is fresh and juicy while obviously quite ripe. The fruit sticks in the citrus end of the spectrum, with a nicely precise feel and cleansing zesty acidity. The finish returns to the gentle phase, nuanced with notes of barrel ferment and wood lingering just under the soft fruit. 91pts

2009 Muddy Water Chardonnay

With a big nose of smoke, almonds, spicy floral tones and dried fruit, this is a bit of an attention grabber. Very bright and rather vibrant and rich on the palate with nice depth. This is quite Burgundian with a nice balance of nutty oak and fruit on the finish. The fruit transitions from orchard fruits to citrus on the palate, with the finish showing zesty, bright lemon notes over a bed of smoky toast. 90pts

2008 Pegasus Bay Chardonnay

This is marked by smoky, tarry, toasty oak on the nose, though it does show nice heirloom apple tones with a touch of orange marmalade. In the mouth, this has nice cut and shows a really compelling blend of creamy marzipan notes and grilled fruit flavors. There’s an attractive sweet/tart thing going on here that is attractive, but the rather aggressive oak returns on the finish with more almond, marzipan notes. 89pts

2008 Pegasus Bay Virtuoso Chardonnay

This is very complex on the nose but smells a bit odd at the same time, with layers of green fruit, raw hazelnuts and barrel fermentation notes topped with an odd chemical note. On the palate, the fruit is caramelly and creamy and decidedly heavy, with a viscous mouth feel and some astringency on the long finish. N/R

2010 Pyramid Valley Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay

Very clean on the nose with a touch of reduction covering the fruit and leaving clean wood tones, mineral earth, some apple fruit and an intriguing hint of mint. On the palate this is round and well balanced, with a lovely integration of wood. The wine feels very fresh and supremely tense with bright acids. There is lovely interplay of mineral and fruit on the palate and superb persistence to the lemon and pear fruit, though the palate is also marred by light reductive tones at this time. This needs more air than I was able to give it but has the markings of something pretty terrific. 92pts

2010 Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay

Just slightly reductive on the nose, this offers up a big mineral note framed by lovely, earthy fennel pollen notes and soft peach and apricot aromas. In the mouth this is big, rich and structured. It’s a very firm expression of Chardonnay, even if it is quite ripe, with a fine background note of oak and lovely lemon curd fruit oozing out from the edges. The finish shows more earthy tones and fine, nutty oak elements that all lead to a succulent mineral finale. 93pts

2008 Sherwood Estate Chardonnay

This is very expressive on the nose with rather pure aromas of apple and oak, topped with a touch of flowers. Nothing is out of place on the palate, but it feels rather round, opulent and easy in a very accessible style that has little sense of place. 84pts

2011 Waipara Hills Chardonnay

With subtle oak, herb, floral and apricot aromas, this is nice on the nose in a gentle and fun style. In the mouth it’s a bit loose and easy, and noticeably sweet. A very by-the-glass program style of wine. 83pts

2010 Waipara Springs Chardonnay

Rather neutral on the nose, smelling mostly of mineral water. On the palate there’s not much more. This feels rather sterile though there is some nice brightness, and while this may be a touch sweet, it remains light on its feet and gains some tension from a dollop of tannin on the finish. 80pts

2010 Waipara Springs Premo Chardonnay

Rather fruity and sweet smelling with notes of heirloom apple and pears. On the palate this is a bit soft and formless. This is easy but uninteresting. 80pts

2007 Waipara West Chardonnay

Rather oaky on the nose with rich notes of butterscotch and crème brûlée. On the palate this is rather chunky and flat. Though bright acidity does emerge on the moderately long finish, it somehow fails to support the palate. Lots of caramel on the palate and that sweetness translates on to the finish as well. This just seems to fall flat. 82pts




Central Otago

Felton Road – Tasting at Felton Road

2010 Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay

Clean and light on the nose with a gentle blanket of barrel fermented aromas covering elegant stone fruits with soft mineral edges. Round, juicy and fleshy on the palate in a lean style, finding a happy medium between fruit and mineral. There’s firm if airy structure here and gentle, toasty biscuit accents on the back end, adding detail to the sweet apple fruit on the finish. The finish is quite strong here and is zesty and sapid with a touch of cleansing tannin. This is a baby with a bright future. 92pts

2010 Felton Road Block 2 Chardonnay

Light, leesy nose offers gentle wood spice along with bright notes of crystalline citrus fruit. Right off the bat this shows fine cut on the palate and a wonderfully pure expression of lime fruit, accented with a touch of peachy sweetness. This remains very fresh with a lovely dry fruit character and aromatic notes of acacia. There’s some dusty limestone on the finish which shows fine length and firm, clear notes of lacy fruit. Recalls crisp white peach, slightly creamy lime pith and a touch of pineapple on the finale. Today I prefer this to the Bannockburn, but it does lack some of that wine’s focus and tension. 93pts



Marlborough

Dog Point – Tasting at Dog Point

2009 Dog Point Chardonnay

This shows a bit of a honeyed character on the nose with floral accents and hints of clean lees over sweet cut lemon aromas. Lovey ripeness and weight on the palate, this manages to seem sweet without any sign of density. Beautifully balanced with fruit that remains transparent yet delivers great intensity of flavor of both orchard and citrus fruits, which echoe gently on the finish. This shows some nice minerality offering mouth grab, along with a fine acid wash on the finish adding to the citrussy quality. Very fresh. 90pts

2010 Dog Point Chardonnay

This smells of barrel ferment, It is tight and rich with butter and toasty notes and a bit of almond, all over rather fresh fruit. Very clear, tense even, with a lovely gentle, layered character. This is super vibrant and clear, with a touch of a honeyed quality and floral notes over ripe citron/citrus fruits. There’s a smoky overlay on the finish, which shows pretty purity of citrus with some pear accent notes, all in a detailed, vibrant and finely balanced package. 91pts

Highfield – Tasting at Highfield

2010 Highfield Chardonnay

Toasty nutty oak greets the nose along with a bit of bacon, dried lime and lemon peel, all over heirloom apple with a hint of apricot. Medium-scaled on the palate if in a pretty rich style, this shows a lot of leesy creaminess yet maintains some fine tension in the mouth. There is fine intensity on the back end and super well-integrated acids on the finish, with a nice hint of tannin that gives this some texture. The oak also emerges on the finale with a distinct wood spice note. 89pts

St. Clair – Tasting at St. Clair

2010 Saint Clair Pioneer Block 10 Twin Hills Chardonnay

This is quite expressive on the nose with plenty of lemon oil, butcher’s wax, toasted almond and smoke all accenting the core of crisp, green fruit. Round and opulent on the palate, there are fine notes of pastry, bread crust and wood spice all framing the fine orchard fruit, along with a nice edge of creamy vanillin. The finish shows a more aggressive wood profile, with toasty nut notes and a base of marzipan emerging from the orchard fruits. 88pts

2010 Saint Clair Omaka Reserve Chardonnay

This is very oak-driven on the nose with rich crème brûlée, wood spice and smoke notes topping the base of ripe fruit. On the palate there is much of the same, with a creamy, round and opulent mouth feel delivering spicy, toffee-framed apricot fruit. Reverts to more wood spice and cream on the moderately long finish. You gotta love oak to love this wine. 85pts

Brancott – Tasting at Brancott

2009 Brancott Living Land Chardonnay

This is gently fruity on the nose with soft apple and pineapple aromas. In the mouth, this offers a very easygoing nature that exhibits fine balance and nice tension. The fruit remains in the apple/pineapple range and while this is bright and fresh, there is a gentle creaminess rounding out the mouth feel and leading to an apple/cream note on the soft finish. 85pts

2010 Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Chardonnay

This is softly stony on the nose with a gentle oak sweetness adding richness to the core of peachy fruit. There’s some wood spice here as well and a touch of vanilla cream. On the palate, the oak spice pops early on, adding a bit of early sweetness that fades on the mid-palate as the acids kick in. The finish shows decent length and a nice balance between wood spice and apple fruit. 88pts



Nelson

Neudorf – Tasting at Neudorf

2010 Neudorf Nelson Chardonnay Nelson

Waxy yellow apple aromas emerge over toasty, vanilla cream and lightly gingery base notes. On the palate this is bright and intense with ripe fruit, but is light and focused. This does turn a little creamy on back end, but the wildly bright and vibrant nature of this is fleshed out a bit by that creaminess. This finishes with long, sapid, solid citrus fruits and a touch of peach. A lovely wine that manages to be rich and fruity without being too fruity. Tt remains transparent right through the gently quartzy finale. Long and very fine. 92pts

2010 Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay Nelson

This is low, and tight on the nose with slow to emerge notes of almond husk, dried apple fruit and a touch of toffee. The aromas are gentle but distinct and well balanced, lending this a fine, elegant feel. In the mouth, this is bright with real verve and energy. The oak is prominent but well integrated. Fruit that remains very much in the citrus end of the spectrum adds resin and stony notes on the finale with just a soft suggestion of vanilla. This is intensely flavored in a sort of extracted way, but the texture ends up feeling polished, round and frankly airy. Really a superb wine. 95pts

2009 Te Mania Chardonnay Nelson

Full barrel fermented nose here with lots of fresh oak-derived aromas accenting slightly roasted apple fruit. This is a touch buttermilky in the mouth with an opulent, soft texture and a supple, easy character. Notes of toasted bread dough on the mid-palate add some complexity that builds with layers of lime oil and red apple fruit on the back end. This finishes with nice length in a decidedly dry style, with good balance.  90pts



Martinborough

Escarpment – Tasting at Escarpment

2010 Escarpment Chardonnay Martinborough

The nose here is quite savory, starting off with some gentle toast notes and a fine edge of fresh nuttiness, reminding me of pignoli. There is some aromatic butcher’s wax and a hint of pollen that accents the dry, soft, peachy fruit on the nose. This is very light on the palate, showing an early bit of nuttiness and a stony texture under the cut orchard pie fruits. This is youthful, almost a bit mean, but is remarkably clear and pure with a long, lemon pith/lemon oil note on the chalky, almost dry woody finish. I could drink this all night. 91pts

Ata Rangi – Tasting at Ata Rangi

2009 Ata Rangi Chardonnay Martinborough

Wild yeast and old barrel nose with a bit of almond and rich, toasty aromas layered over smoky, earthy dried orchard fruits. This is rich and powerful in the mouth but remains fresh with a fine acid backbone. The flavors are decidedly old school. The fruit is rather delicate here, playing second fiddle to the fairly prominent oak notes which are intense but neither sweet nor weighty. This finishes with more earthy, toasty notes and a dusting of tannic mouthgrab. 88pts



Hawkes Bay

Hawkes Bay Regional Tasting

2010 Selaks Winemakers Reserve Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Fresh and clean on the nose with apple, accented by hints of yeast dough, a touch of butter and green apple peels. This is really dry and austere on entry with well-integrated acid. Though made in a very firm style, the light flavors offer good orchard fruit purity. The finish is short, chalky and dry. A stern wine which would benefit from the right food. 86pts

2009 Mission Estate Reserve Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Open on the nose with earthy, lightly foresty aromas under a hard mineral/steel note, accented apple fruit and topped with light smoke nuances. This is somehow intense but with a sence of delicacy. On the palate, there is lovely purity and cut. This offers up lightly earthy apple peel notes, firm citron pith and a touch of quince in a silky and refined package. Finishes with lovely spice notes to the fruit and elegant balance. There’s a deft touch at work here. 91pts

2009 Vidal Reserve Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Light and fresh on the nose with notes of mineral water, cactus leaf, spicy toasted oak and a hint of vanilla cream. This is nicely focused in the mouth, lean and fresh in a very drinkable style. The palate shows a nicely measured vanilla top note over fresh apple fruit, with a lithe texture. Elegant and fairly easy right through the finish, which is a touch drying and firm. 88pts

2009 Esk Valley Winemaker’s Reserve Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Cool and crisp on the nose with a touch of fresh grass over smoked almond base notes and sour lime fruit. This appears to be very restrained on the nose yet aromatic at the same time. On entry this is cool, low in the mouth and a bit soft. The wine shows rounded edges and a simple expression of fruit, with nice interplay of restrained wood treatment and gentle apple and lime flavors. The finish is moderately long with a little minerality on the finale. 87pts

2007 Matariki Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Some fairly pronounced wood on the nose with sandy soil tones, dried fruit and a little waxy note. This is nicely rich on entry but lacks a bit of mid-palate depth. There are plenty of toasty wood notes here along with rich, slightly dried apple fruit and almond on the back end. This develops nice complexity and with good power through the finish, marked by a bit of sweet spicy nutmeg. 88pts

2007 Villa Maria Keltern Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

Vanilla, pineapple, grass and buttered toast greet the nose with good intensity and freshness. This is nicely firm in the mouth, very well balanced with a brightness and roundness that is immediately appealing. This has excellent balance. The fruit is beautifully expressed, offering shades of ripe citrus, creamy pineapple and a touch of exotic kiwi flavor. Finishing with good drive and freshness in a more peach-driven vein of fruit that covers the present base of wood spice well. At peak and well rounded for drinking today. 92pts

Trinity Hill - Tasting at Trinity Hill

2010 Trinity Hill Chardonnay Hawkes Bay

This opens with a big creme brulée nose that is noticeably oaky, with notes of vanillin, wood spice, dried ginger and creamy pineapple. On entry this is rather refined and elegant with a sense of delicacy. Though young, this offers good clarity of flavor with wood spice, barely ripe pineapple, apple and a touch of nectarine fruit. The oak is fairly well integrated and fades nicely on the finish, which shows a touch of fig with a hint of stony minerality. 88pts

Craggy Range – Tasting at Craggy Range

2010 Craggy Range Kidnappers Chardonnay

This seems almost a touch malty on the nose with clean, leesy notes accenting pear and lemon oil fruit. On the palate this is light, fresh and juicy. Dances across the tongue with succulent acids lending a clean, snappy feel to the green apple and lime fruit. A bit of stony minerality lurk under under-ripe apricot fruit and lime zest flavors on the long finish. Snappy and stuffy. 88pts