Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Shamefully Neglected Chardonnay

I must admit I’m ashamed of myself. 25 years ago, our winegrowers and winemakers could not be expected to make Chardonnay to last a quarter of a century of age. If one were honest, few burgundian vineyards and winemakers have it in them to do the same now. But here we were, cleaning out more remnants, this time New Zealand Chardonnays from 1987. At the time, these were much vaunted labels from some of the most exciting producers at the time. Of the five wines tried, four of the labels still exist, and that says something for stickability if the aspirations for achieving are there from the start. However, shameful on me, they should have been opened and enjoyed 20 years ago. The wines would have been fully mature, and I and my fellow drinkers would have seen them for what the industry could achieve at that time.

This was the time that Kumeu River, Morton ‘Black Label’, Babich ‘Irongate’ and Villa Maria ‘Barrique Fermented’ reigned supreme. All of the following showed orange colours with browning, though varying in depth. Also, oxidation was prevalent, again to varying degrees.

First up was the 1987 Coopers Creek ‘Swamp Road’ Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay. 13.0% alc. on the babel. This was also one of the hot wines with a history of winning gold medals. Fruit came from the real ‘Swamp Road’ then, and not from other sites away from the Gimblett Gravels bottled as ‘Swamp Reserve’ as it is now. This was lighter orange-brown, with a not particularly attractive earthy, rather unclean, funky nose. A little more air saw positive toasty oak and char characters emerge. Unfortunately, all vinous flavour had dried up and faded, leaving powerful oxidation and extremely high acidity. The ‘Swamp Reserve’ Chardies are all class nowadays, and this is due to Simon Nunns tightening up the style.

Next was the 1987 Ngatarawa ‘Alwyn’ Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay. Alwyn had founded Ngatarawa a few years earlier after coming back from UC Davis, and championed the variety. In many ways, he was the Hawke’s Bay ‘godfather’ with the academic background and credibility. This was a highly collectable label then, and the current release carry on the tradition. Light orange brown, with intense oxidation, but with a clarity and cleanliness. Bruised apples. Fully burnished with oxidation on palate, the wine still has a gentleness and harmony, like the man who made it. I love drinking Alwyn’s current releases as much as I did then.

The best wine of the line-up was the 1987 Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay. This was the first effort from Larry McKenna at this most exciting vineyard in a most exciting area. I was buoyed by reports that the 1988 MV Chardonnay recently tasted still was drinkable, and I remember Larry very pleased with that one at the time. Lighter golden brown, this was over-developed for sure, but fruit and oak, nuts and oxidation were showing with elegance. Again, blowsy on the palate, but very definably complex tropical fruits nutty notes, including merged oxidation, good acidity, and actually pleasantly drinkable. Well done Larry, your legacy at MV is carried on by Paul Mason.

Almuth Lorenz was an enigmatic and inspirational woman of great enthusiasm. She took a party of wine lovers, including the Real Mr Parker to her native Germany to meet stars such as Ernie Loosen. Almuth has disappeared from view now. This 1987 Merlen Marlborough Chardonnay was full-on at the time. It was notable for its dark colour and fulsome tropical fruit and oak flavours. Deep brown with mahogany now, this was lifted and had oxidation along with full, soft apricot notes. Very broad, but surprisingly lively from the acidity, the apricot notes spelt botrytis to me. The underlying oxidation really a bit too much. They say botrytis brings on premature development. It did, but there a point where not much else happens except falling off a cliff to oxidation death. This hasn’t quite got there yet.

The final wine was the 2007 Te Whare Ra ‘Duke of Marlborough’ Chardonnay, made by Allan and Joyce Hogan, boutique pioneers in the region. His Chardonnay was touted to be as exciting as his Rieslings, sweet wines and Bordeaux-style reds. So I bought some. The darkest of the set, and quite grubby and green. I suppose I saw it as Marlborough regionality combined with complexity. Some balanced textures, but the flavours are now too dirty to leave the wine in the mouth. Jason & Anna Floweday do a great job at TWR nowadays. But I probably wouldn’t leave their Chardonnay 25 years…

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