Opinions vary on whether chardonnay is the world’s most planted white grape variety, with some claiming that the nondescript Airén from Spain produces a higher grape tonnage, much of which is distilled into brandy. But insert the adjective “premium” or “prestigious” into a search engine and chardonnay becomes the clear winner. 

In this country, chardonnay is the second most planted white grape variety, with around 8% of the national vineyard, a long way behind sauvignon blanc, which has a massive 63% share. 

New Zealand can make truly world-class chardonnay. If you think that is an exaggeration, I suggest you watch the documentary A Seat at the Table, in which chardonnay from Kumeu River Wines outperformed a group of expensive French burgundies in a blind tasting. 

What should great chardonnay taste like?

Chardonnay has often been described as a blank canvas upon which the winemaker builds texture and taste complexity. Unoaked chardonnay can be fairly neutral, with flavours ranging from green apple and oyster shell to luscious ripe peach, depending on where it is grown, when it is harvested and the weather during the ripening period. Oak-fermented and matured chardonnay provides another layer of spice, nut, ginger and toast flavours as well as adding texture from decomposing yeasts and butter-like characters from a bacterial conversion known as malolactic fermentation. It is currently fashionable to encourage the development of struck flint and mineral reductive aromas. 

Which New Zealand region produces the best chardonnay?

Every wine region from Northland to Central Otago is capable of producing great chardonnay, albeit in different styles. In general terms, chardonnay tends to be richer and lusher in the north and edgier, finer and more vibrant in the south. If I were forced to pick a favourite region, it would be Hawke’s Bay. 

Does chardonnay improve with age?

Chardonnay changes with bottle age; whether it improves or not is a matter of personal taste. A couple of years in bottle seems to benefit most wines by integrating flavours and allowing them to become more mellow. Most should probably be enjoyed within five or six years of the vintage date, even with careful storage conditions. Only a handful of heroic chardonnays should be held for a decade or more, and then only if they have been stored under temperature-controlled conditions. 

What is the best food match?

Chardonnay is a food-friendly wine that can happily make a happy match with a wide range of dishes. Crisp, acidic, cool-climate chardonnay is a brilliant partner for freshly shucked oysters served with a squeeze of lime or lemon. It will suit most seafoods, preferably if they can be garnished with a squeeze of citrus. 

Richer, weightier chardonnay can be matched with roast pork or roast chicken. A friend, who is a chef, likes his chardonnay with roast lamb, but I am yet to be convinced. 

Five top chardonnays

2020 Dry River Chardonnay, Martinborough, $70
An exotic chardonnay with concentrated flavours including tropical fruit/mango, mandarin zest, peach, and spice/anise. Delicious, complex wine that is accessible now but has a promising future. Powerful wine with impressive purity.
Stockists: Moore Wilson’s, Wellington; Caro’s Wines, Auckland.

2020 Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay, Kumeū, $83
Weighty, textural chardonnay with an array of subtle citrus, oyster-shell and stone fruit flavours. Bold, complex wine with impressive drive and obvious longevity. Chardonnay with gravitas.
Stockists: Fine Wine Delivery Co, Auckland; Vino Fino, Christchurch.

2019 Dog Point Chardonnay, Marlborough, $42
Seductive chardonnay with white peach, citrus/grapefruit, oyster-shell and subtle spicy oak underpinned by delicious acidity. Intense wine with a lengthy finish. A little bottle age would do it no harm.
Stockist: Dog Point, Marlborough.

2019 Smith & Sheth CRU Howell Vineyard Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, $60
Power and purity combine to produce a bold, complex chardonnay with grapefruit, vanilla, tree fruit/peach/nectarine and hazelnut flavours. Vibrant, high-energy wine with refreshing acidity helping to drive a lengthy finish. Impressive.
Stockist: Smith & Sheth, Havelock North.

2017 Tatty Bogler Chardonnay, Waitaki Valley, $37
Remarkable chardonnay with power, purity and oyster-shell mineral character that reminds me very much of chablis. Delicious wine with a seamless texture and lingering finish. Taut, fruity acidity adds tension.
Stockists: Forrest Estate, Marlborough; The Winery (Arrowtown), Central Otago.

Top chardonnays under $35

2020 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, $17.99
Seamless chardonnay with appealing white peach, nectarine, toast, hazelnut and vanilla flavours. Clearly the product of a top vintage and sensitive winemaking. Harmonious wine – bone dry and with a lingering finish. Great value at this price.
Stockist: Wine Freedom, Otago.

2020 Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay, Kumeū, $34 
Rich, textural and silken chardonnay with tree fruit/peach/nectarine, toast and brioche flavours. Seamless wine with a backbone of bright acidity helping to drive a lengthy finish. Stylish, polished chardonnay.
Stockists: Whisky and More; Point Wines, Auckland.

2019 Leefield Station Chardonnay, Marlborough, $19.99
Rich, weighty, creamy-textured chardonnay with peach, grapefruit, hazelnut, ginger and spicy oak flavours. Crisp, dry wine with a backbone of vibrant acidity. Accessible wine that offers good value at this price.
Stockists: Treat Me Cellar, Auckland; Wine Central, Auckland.

2020 Nga Waka Chardonnay, Martinborough, $34
Rich, flavoursome chardonnay with peach, grapefruit, apple, hazelnut and spicy oak flavours. Robust, textural wine with a backbone of grainy acidity helping to drive a dry and lengthy finish.
Stockists: Point Wines, Auckland; Nga Waka Vineyard, Martinborough.

2019 Coopers Creek Limeworks Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, $25
Intense, tangy chardonnay with grapefruit, peach, saline/oyster-shell and toasted nut flavours. Rich, weighty wine with a pleasing, silken texture and restrained power. Should develop well with bottle age.
Stockists: Whisky and More; Wine Box, Auckland.

Read more from Bob at therealreview.com