Old school chardonnays are regarded as relics of the past but many wine drinkers still love big, buttery whites.
Words Joelle Thomson. Illustration Marlene Coote
If you drank wine in the 1980s or early 1990s, you may remember two types: sweet and not so sweet. Moselle Sauternes was sweet and came in a big box with a flash French name. It was a step up from Miami Wine Cooler (also sweet). The other style was big, buttery, creamy and dry. It was chardonnay and mostly came from Australia until winemakers such as John Hancock, Brent Marris and Michael Brajkovich started showing the world that New Zealand could make big bodied chardonnays too.
Their wines were a breath of fresh air. They tasted great with creamy fettucine, roast chicken and any bold, buttery flavour you could throw at them. Chardonnay was so popular that it quadrupled worldwide throughout the 1980s and became the most planted grape in New Zealand from 1992 until nearly a decade later when it was eclipsed by a savalanche (sauvignon blanc). It now makes up a hard-to-believe seven per cent of all grapes grown in this country and eight per cent of Kiwi wine exports. Chardonnay may lie in sauvignon blanc’s wake, but it is being finetuned by winemakers throughout New Zealand to be better than ever – and more diverse.
Chardonnay – the nitty gritty
Oak vs unoaked
orget looking for unoaked chardonnay, which was an unsuccessful fad that hasn’t lasted.
You’re better getting to know crisp styles such as chablis from specialist wine stores (usually low and possibly no oak). Good local examples are Nautilus Chardonnay (awesome and not noticeably oaky) and Kumeu Villages Chardonnay (has old oak but no woody flavour).
Big oaky numbers…
There’s no shortage of these. High priced and very nice are Neudorf Moutere, Tony Bish Skeetfield and Fromm Clayvin. Low priced and super are Tony Bish Fat n Sassy or Seifried Old Coach Road Chardonnay – a crowd pleaser for those stuck in the oak rut. These wines have all the bells and more elegant whistles than many wines from the 1980s.
What is malolactic fermentation?
Also known as ‘malo’, malolactic fermentation is the reason many chardonnays taste creamy and buttery. It’s the conversion of malic acid found in fruit (green, sharp; think Granny Smith apples) to softer lactic acids, such as in milk.
Why are chardonnays not all creamy any more?
Winemakers, writers and fanatics have tired of big soft wines and need diversity, so the creamy ones still exist, but are more balanced.
By all sorts of things; old oak to soften flavours rather than over the top malolactic. Acidity is enhanced and it’s important because it makes wines taste fresh – it’s what makes lemons succulent and it’s the reason many wine lovers adore riesling (high in acid). But that’s another story.
Find out more at Joëlle Thomson’s online wine guide, joellethomson.com