If you’re still in the ‘anything but chardonnay’ camp, a look at a few very fine examples of the new style of cool climate chardonnay from Australia and New Zealand are likely to change your mind!

As winemaker Andrew Pirie reminded the audience at the Tasmania Unbottled masterclass, chardonnay, the white  wine variety of Burgundy, is actually a cool-climate grape that can be very expressive of its terroir when sensitively handled in the vineyard and winery.

A recent tasting, organised by Single Vineyard Sellers and held at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney, provided ample evidence that chardonnay can create wines that are balanced, refreshing, complex and elegant.  At a chardonnay  masterclass, winemakers Paddy Borthwick of Paddy Borthwick Winery in Wairarapa, New Zealand, James Kellie of Harewood Estate in the Great Southern and Becca Duffy of Holm Oak in Tamar Ridge guided us through a comparative tasting of their most recent releases.

What was abundantly clear from their comments was that getting the best out of chardonnay from a cool climate is hard work, requiring deft handling both in the vineyard and the winery!

The Borthwick vineyard is located in Wairarapa,  just north of Martinborough at the southern end of the North Island. The chardonnay vines, a mix of four different clones, are around 15 years old. Here the rainfall is low and the free-draining, stony alluvial soils encourage the vines to dig deep for sufficient nutrients and water. Borthwick explained that a flock of sheep are let loose in the vineyard to pluck off the vine leaves so the grape clusters receive more sun exposure – a practice that in this cool, fairly dry climate encourages more flavour concentration in the grapes.

The Paddy Borthwick Chardonnay 2010 is a beautifully structured wine with complex aromas of nectarine and pineapple subtly integrated into the oak. After a whole berry pressing, the juice is fermented with wild yeasts in a combination of French and American oak, about 20% new. Some malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur to soften the tannins, but the emphasis is on highlighting the crisp, clean flavours of the fruit. Monthly barrel stirring of the lees over an eight month period helps adds body and weight.

James Kellie of Harewood Estate also barrel ferments the free running grape juice for his Harewood Estate Denmark Chardonnay, using a mixture of new and second-use French oak barriques. Kellie explained  that his lightly charred barriques come from a Burgundian cooperage, which uses steam instead of fire to bend the staves of the barrels – a technique imparts a more subtle oak flavour in the wine. About 15% of the barriques are lees stirred weekly and allowed to undergo a secondary malolactic fermentation, which introduces a savoury note and textural complexity.

While Denmark is warmer in climate than Wairarapa or Tamar Ridge in Tasmania, the medium bodied 2011 Harewood Estate Denmark Chardonnay displayed the refreshing citrus aromas and clean, crisp flavours that are hallmarks of cool climate chardonnay.

Like Kellie of Harewood Estate, Becca Duffy of Holm Oak handpicks the fruit for the Holm Oak Chardonnay. The cool temperatures produce chardonnay grapes that are high in natural acidity and low in sugar, producing well-balanced, low alcohol wines. Citrus aromas of grapefruit and lemons sing through in this finely boned, medium body wine with mineral notes. Fermented with natural yeasts in barrels that are 20% new oak, about 60% of the 2011 vintage underwent a malolactic fermentation. Lees stirring is also regularly undertaken over the 10 month period to add weight and complexity to the wine.

Gary Walsh of The Wine Front summed up his 92 point review of the 2011 Holm Oak Chardonnay with the comment that “modest winemaker inputs – clarity of fruit and vineyard is the thing here.” True words indeed for all three of these superb wines. (The Wine Front, 22 July 2012)

Merrill Witt, Editor