Chardonnay is a grape variety that is very misunderstood. It comes down to the fact it's very diverse in its styles. It can be lean, fresh and austere, with a zingy minerality, or big brash, buttery, nutty and oaky, and everything in between. No wonder it raises some strong opinions!
It is an early-ripening grape variety, so that's why it grows so well in colder climates, and can produce quite high yields. It also likes many different soil types, but perhaps favours limestone and clay soils best. Colder climates and years give more citrus flavours, and warmer climates and years will produce stone fruit flavours in the wine.
The two contrasting styles of Chardonnay can be found in its homeland, Burgundy in France; Chablis with the fresh style, and Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais with the oaky styles. In New Zealand we have both, but the style that dominates is the rich oak style, which leans heavily on lees contact, oak fermentation and/or maturation, and full malolactic fermentation, to give it a soft buttery character, with vanilla and popcorn notes. Most Hawke's Bay Chardonnays will steer along this line. Delicious with a nice bit of roast chicken.
In Central Otago, we tend to allow the fruit to take control more, and the wine style leans more toward the fresher Chablis-style characteristics, due to our climate, which brings out more of the grapes natural acidity.
Whichever style you like, there’s definitely something for everyone. That’s why Chardonnay is such an interesting grape variety in New Zealand - we love it!