Chardonnay back on table

I was as surprised as radio personality Leighton Smith, himself a winegrower, to learn on air a couple of weeks ago that the Fine Wine Delivery Company in Auckland, the country's biggest single-store wine retailer, sells more of a Californian chardonnay than any other.

Such was my surprise, in fact, that I called the company in Auckland to check that the bloke I heard talking it up on the radio had not been spreading a bit of what the bull drops in the paddock.

I was told, rather bluntly, that he certainly was not.

And just to make the point, I was told that in in the two days since the arrival of the latest shipment of Sebastiani 2012 Sonoma Chardonnay, two pallets (1300 bottles) had been sold.

Next question: why?

Well, certainly not because of the Californian connection, says this bloke.

And that makes perfect sense, since it was the Californians and their clumsy chardonnays who were largely responsible for the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement which has taken the blame for sales of this classic white flat-lining for a decade or more.

Apparently, the punters are buying up large on Sebastiani because they like the price ($17.99 a bottle). And they like the taste, which is not the leaner, meaner, fruity recipe winemakers have been told for years they should be looking for, but a more refined version of the chardonnay taste that never really went away: vanilla, peaches, oak and caramel transported across the palate in a silky creamy mix that with time will fatten further.

Tony Bish, who produces some of New Zealand's finest chardonnays at Sacred Hill, in Hawke's Bay, is not surprised. In fact, he has some very definite views on the subject, most of which he communicated to others in the industry when he presented a paper to the New Zealand Society for Viticulture and Oenology in August last year.

Bish says New Zealand winemakers were influenced mostly by Australia's tightening- up of their blowzy chardonnays and the success of these new-wave wines, particularly in competition. But the truth is that wine-show judges, especially across the Tasman, probably liked these leaner, gun-flinty wines more than the punters.

It wasn't that the punters suddenly switched off. Their heads had also been turned by aromatic whites, including sauvignon blanc, which were cheaper and different; different because the tart malic acid in fermented chardonnay is usually transformed into buttery, creamy lactic acid by a undergoing a secondary fermentation.

Oak barrels are also used to influence the flavour and the feel of the finished wine.

Truth is, says Bish, the public has always wanted buttery, oaky chardonnays. It is just a question of degree and he is betting on a modern take on the old style, which are the wines driving the chardonnay revival; wines that are moderately oaked, with a creamy texture but not necessarily buttery.

A good illustration is the 2013 chardonnay he has just released under his own eponymous (Tony Bish) label. He has called it Fat'n Sassy, which speaks, I think, for itself.

The rest of the stylistic bases are covered by the five or six chardonnays he makes for Sacred Hill, including Virgin, a limited- edition example of the pure, fresh product of Chablis.

Among the others:

Sacred Hill 2013 Halo Hawke's Bay Chardonnay, $29.99
My kind of chardonnay. Fermented and aged in oak with malolactic fermentation doing the rest. Bold, rich ripe fruit flavours with that essential overlay of buttered toast, of meal and nuts. Luscious.

Sacred Hill 2013 Orange Label Chardonnay, $19.99
You won't find any fat on this. But oak inserted into the tanks, did provide the nuts and spice to go with the citrus and the stonefruit that drives the wine. Fresh and well-balanced. Good buying.

Sacred Hill 2010 Rifleman's Chardonnay, $70
This is one of New Zealand's finest chardonnays, named for a little native bird. A powerful and seamless wine with all the rich and complex characters and the creamy finish the maker strives to get.

The Southland Times