Chardonnay grapes. Source: Vidal Estate
Winding north up the east coast of New Zealand from Martinborough you will come to the city of Hastings, the largest city in the Hawke’s Bay wine region. The weather here is gloriously sunny during the summer giving the region a true Mediterranean feel. Add to that the endless array of winery restaurants and cafés showcasing the region’s finest produce alongside the excellent wine made in this part of the country and you have a pretty good summer holiday!
Hawke’s Bay is a key area for Chardonnay in New Zealand and Chardonnay plantings account for approximately 20% of total plantings in the region at just under 1,000 ha. The style of wines produced here vary and cater to a wide range of tastes. We found many examples in keeping with a more restrained style of Chardonnay sitting alongside fuller, rounder and more fruit focussed expressions.
Our first tasting was with Warren Gibson and Lorraine Leheny of Bilancia wines. A wonderfully hot day atop Roys Hill behind the Trinity Hill cellar door (where Warren is also winemaker) was the setting for our tasting. We took shelter from the heat under an umbrella on a table laid out with wines for tasting as we looked out over the vines.
In addition to a stunning Chardonnay, Bilancia also produce the iconic La Collina Syrah (more on that in a later post), Pinot Gris and Viognier. Bilancia, is an Italian word meaning balance, equilibrium and harmony and this reflects the approach taken with winemaking.
The vineyard covers approximately 6 ha. of land on Roys Hill with the higher slopes and terraces devoted to Syrah and the lower land used for Chardonnay and Viognier. My tasting notes for the Chardonnay are below.
The Gimblett Gravels is a trademark of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association which was formed in 2001. The goal of the association and its members is to “define the important environmental factors responsible for wine quality and character in the area, notably soil type and its interaction with mesoclimatic conditions” and to combine “the French concept of terroir with modern day thinking to define, protect and market wine”. 
Gimblett Gravels covers 800 ha. and is delineated according to the gravel and silt soils laid down from the old riverbed of the Ngaruroro River. While the region is famed for the spectacular Syrahs produced here there are a number of producers creating Chardonnay that is gaining in reputation both domestically and internationally.
Stonecroft is a small operation owned by Dermot McCollum and Andria Monin. It was the first winery to be established in the Gimblett Gravels area and holds organic certification for the winery and the two original vineyards. A range of wines are produced in addition to their Chardonnay, which includes an excellent Syrah and, rather unusually for New Zealand, a Zinfandel that is well worth a look. (Tasting notes for the Chardonnay are below.)
Vidal Estate was established in Hawke’s Bay in 1905 and was the first winery in the country to open a restaurant at its cellar door in 1979. The portfolio from winemaker Hugh Crichton is varied and includes the highly awarded Legacy series, a premium range of Chardonnay, a Bordeaux style blend, Syrah and a noble Sémillon. My tasting notes for the Legacy Chardonnay can be found below, but I was also impressed with their entry level range which provides well made easy drinking wines at a very reasonable price point.
This was the final stop on our New Zealand Road Trip and what a trip it was. Clearly I am biased when it comes to home, but given I haven’t lived in New Zealand for a decade or two I can honestly say that the views we took in as we made our way south to north really did take your breath away. Add to that the warmth and generosity of the winemakers and industry professionals who shared their knowledge and enthusiasm with us and it all added up to a rather special trip.
Stay tuned for a look at the Chenin Blanc, sweeties and Syrah we also encountered – definitely something for everyone!
Bilancia Chardonnay 2013 – winemaker Warren Gibson
2013 marks the fourth vintage of this wine after a decision to top graft Viognier vines over to Chardonnay and later replant a portion of Viognier vines to the Chardonnay Clone 95. Sourced from grapes at their steeply terraced, north-facing vineyard overlooking Hawke’s Bay’s Gimblett Gravels, the wine undergoes fermentation using indigenous yeast. Full malolactic fermentation also takes place with sulphur being the only additive used.
A sophisticated wine showing elegance and restraint with aromas of citrus, white flowers, subtle struck match notes and a hint of new oak. A touch of creaminess on the palate with lots of fresh citrus and minerals leading to a very long finish. Delicious!
(Photo kindly provided by Bilancia)
Stonecroft Chardonnay 2014 – winemaker Dermot McCollum
Sourced from two of the three vineyards owned by Stonecroft, the Mare Road and Roy’s Hill vineyards, the grapes for this wine are a blend of the Mendoza clone planted in 1992 and Clone 15 planted in 2010. Clone 15 is from the University of California, Davis and was imported to New Zealand in the mid-1980s. Winemakers may select this clone to bring a richer more intense character to the wine.
After the grapes are harvested by hand they are pressed as whole bunches before fermentation. The wine undergoes full malolactic fermentation and lees stirring around twice a week before being matured in seasoned French oak for 6 months.
The wine showed lots of refreshing citrus notes, tangy acidity and white flowers wound around a lean structure and finishing with scrumptious notes of cashew nuts. (Photo kindly provided by Stonecroft)
Vidal Estate Legacy Chardonnay 2013 – winemaker Hugh Crichton
This wine is also a blend of the clones Mendoza and Clone 15. The grapes were hand harvested during the excellent 2013 vintage from three vineyards – the cooler Keltern and Kokako vineyards and the warmer Gimblett Gravels Lyons vineyard.
Whole bunch pressing takes place before fermentation begins in French oak barrels, which are a mixture of new (43%) and seasoned (57%) wood. The wine spends 12 months on lees and undergoes partial malolactic fermentation.
Winner of the Air New Zealand Champion of the Show Trophy and Champion Chardonnay, this is well-balanced wine that shows quality winemaking. It is slightly riper and fuller on the palate than previous examples tasted, showing good concentration of fruit sitting alongside refreshing acidity. Well-integrated oak leads to a very good length on the finish. (Photo kindly provided by Vidal Estate)
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