This tasting of Australasian chardonnays from the 1986 vintage (one 1987) was presented to the Central Otago Winegrowers' Association, in the Lake Dunstan Boat Club building, September 2015. It was both intriguing, and delightful too, for the romantically-minded and those who love wine for itself. Some were doubtful such wines could even be alive, yet I think it is safe to say, all participants found some of the wines of great interest.
Invitation and Background to the Tasting:
The mid-1980s were an interesting time in New Zealand winemaking, as we made a start on catching up with Australia. The best vinifera-based table wines really started to meet international standards for wine. In chardonnay specifically, there had been odd unoaked wines from Corbans and McWilliams in the later 60s, and then more complex wines from Nick Nobilo in the 1970s. After an overly-oaky 1978, McWilliams had fragrant, lean but still impressive 1980 and 1981 wines, leading into the start of more complex / modern examples of the grape starting in the early '80s, via Mission Vineyards, and from John Hancock followed by Larry McKenna at Delegats. John Hancock moved to Morton Estate, and his famous barrel-fermented Black Label Chardonnay first appeared in 1984. In Marlborough, Kevin Judd was at Cloudy Bay, and Tony Jordan (Australia) was helping put Hunters on the map. At Kumeu River, Michael Brajkovich made New Zealand's first consciously-MLF-complexed chardonnay in 1985. By 1986 Kym Milne at Villa Maria wanted part of this action, and their first barrel-fermented Reserve Chardonnays arrived in 1986. Both the latter firms have become both well-known and pre-eminent for their chardonnays, now. Kumeu River in particular has consistently won high praise from Wine Spectator magazine, in America.
This 1986 chardonnay retrospective is therefore a chance to taste a slice of New Zealand wine history. One reason some of the wines have lasted so remarkably well is the absence of an MLF component. In offering the tasting, I thought that was particularly the case for the Australian ones, but Gary Farr kindly put me right on that one.
Part of the rationale for offering an old chardonnay tasting to the Central Otago Winegrowers' Association in September 2015 was the (not always deserved) reputation winemakers have for liking only young wines. So the invitation for the tasting started off along these lines: Old Chardonnay: Please don't summarily ignore / write-off this tasting ! The chances are good that (corks willing) at least one of the wines will be remarkable, if last year's bottles, opened alongside older Latour Corton-Charlemagne and Chevalier-Montrachet wines, are any guide. I then went on to say that the bottles for the tasting were absolutely the palest of those remaining in my collection for the year, so being cellared in Wellington, they should be as good as any available. I concluded by mentioning that if interested people absolutely hated cashew nuts, and think all chardonnays should be lemon in hue, preferably with a green wash, then please don't come, in case they spoiled it for the others. But it is true that most people adore cashews, and I hoped people would be able to both enjoy these wines, and maybe, be pleasantly surprised.
The notes went on to say: thus, in New Zealand the conventional wisdom is that chardonnay can be cellared for 3 – 5, maybe 8 years at the outside. In this tasting we will explore whether good chardonnay can in fact cellar for longer. At 29 years old, roughly, there will be no florals, and precious little stonefruit. Instead, the good ones will smell and taste more of good oatmeal, cashews, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, and even a touch of walnut maybe, and will show physical fruit which you can savour in mouth. Such wines can be wonderful with food, and despite their signs of age, pleasantly satisfying, if they have the body to be sustaining. So this is a tasting for people who love wine with food. It is not a tasting for those who derive their pleasure from finding faults in wines, where other more positive people would see complexity.
The twelve chardonnays in the tasting, showing colours ranging from two superb, to some worrying. Front row, from the left: 1986 C J Pask, trace maderisation, lacked body, 14; 1986 Hunters, highly varietal, faintly herbaceous, 16.5 +; 1986 Vidal, still works with food, drying, 15.5; 1986 Cooks Winemakers Reserve, much better than it looked, surprising body, see notes, 16; 1987 Kumeu River, dried peach notes, MLF apparent, 16.5; 1986 Villa Maria Gisborne Reserve, remarkable fruit, boisterous, 16.5+; Back row, from the left: 1986 Cloudy Bay, dried peach, slightly acid, 16 +; 1986 Bannockburn (Victoria), sensational colour, Meursault-like, TCA-impaired, score see text, 18.5; 1986 Martinborough Vineyard, herbaceous and acid, 13.5; 1986 Babich Irongate, ripe, sweet, hazel-nut-mealy, 17; 1986 Mountadam, remarkable fruit, mealy, marzipan complexity, 17.5 +; 1986 Tyrrell's Vat 47, sensational colour, absolutely benchmark chardonnay, remarkable, 18.5 +.
Incidental notes on the chardonnays of the era:
# It is astonishing if you take out half a dozen of the same old chardonnay, and examine them in a good light against a bright white background, that in no two bottles is the wine the same colour. This reflects the physical / structural variability of cork as a closure, and hence differential oxygen permeation, quite apart from cork solutes and cork taint. I showed three New Zealand chardonnays of similar and older (back to 1981) vintages to the judges at the Easter Show in 2012, partly to counter the thought expressed above (re winemakers and old wines), and they were both astonished, and some even (to their surprise) enchanted. I hoped therefore that participants would find some pretty exciting smells and flavours in this tasting, and would regard the tasting as an opportunity to embark on a little wine adventure.
# For this tasting, I scarcely attempted to document the wines. Most of the notes below are from memory, aided by comments kindly provided by Michael Brajkovich, Larry McKenna, Gary Farr, and Bruce Tyrrell. Not one of even the Australian wines is reviewed in robertparker.com or jancisrobinson.com, which must be some kind of record, nowadays. In general, prior to the 1980s, there was in effect no technical information for wine consumers. Wine writing was all romantic waffle, malolactic had never been heard of, and so on. For Australia, however, James Halliday started publishing books in the later 1970s, and he has become an unmatchable source of info. For the New Zealand wines, the 1980s are before Michael Cooper established his definitive annual Buyer's Guide, but Peter Saunders was active. For leading-edge wines we can assume some barrel fermentation with a significant percentage of new oak. I thought it was safe to assume no MLF for warmer-climate Australian chardonnays, but Gary Farr proved me wrong on that for his Geelong wine. In New Zealand the first commercial chardonnay to consciously be put through malolactic was the 1985 Kumeu River, though Denis Irwin's approach at Matawhero has not been documented, and wines such as his 1980 and 1983 Chardonnay may challenge that assessment. The barrel fermentation approach was first tried in New Zealand in the earliest 1980s. 1986 was a good year for white wines in Australasia.
# Tyrrell's can lay claim to creating Australasia's first international-calibre chardonnay, having adopted the barrel-ferment approach in 1973, Bruce Tyrrell advises.
# Morton Estate's Black Label Chardonnay was then (1984-on) the great wine of the day, John Hancock (initially at Delegats) along with Paul Mooney (Mission Vineyards) being the first to adopt barrel-ferment in New Zealand (Matawhero caveat, again). I checked all bottles I have of the 1986 Black Label, and thought even the palest looked too dark to bring. Barrel fermentation was then vigorously adopted by Villa's then chief winemaker, Kym Milne, the 1986 Villa Maria Gisborne Reserve Barrique-Ferment (again, now too dark to bring, I thought) being a multiple gold-medal winner of the day. His standard Gisborne Reserve is however included. Villa's success with the variety continues almost without interruption to the present day.
# Perspective on tasting old chardonnay: With chardonnay 29 years old, I took down more than the standard 12 wines for my library tastings, opened them all, and presented the best of them. Hence there are more than 12 reviews below – the others are included for the record, since few people assess old wine seriously in New Zealand. I have also included two contemporary wines in the reviews, simply because they add focus and reality to both the learning experience, and evaluating the older wines. But all the same, scoring chardonnays as old as these will always be totally a matter of individual preference and viewpoint. For those who love wine per se, and exploring its changing nuances over time, it is natural to be able to find virtues in wines long past their 'conventional' use-by date. But for your typical urbanite wine snob, wines like these are inconceivable. Such people are all too often more interested in labels than the actual wine, and seem to derive more satisfaction from telling you how they tipped such wines down the sink, thus bragging about their affluence and presumed taste superiority, rather than saying how they actually explored the sensory attributes of the remaining fruit, acid or oak balance, and to what extent the wine still achieved harmony. Pretty sad, really. I found the tail-ends of these bottles wonderful with food, in the following days, particularly for the richer wines with good dry extract. Being so old, once opened they deteriorated surprisingly slowly, having already achieved some kind of equilibrium.
Michael Brajkovich, Gary Farr, Bruce Tyrrell and Larry McKenna all helped with detail, much appreciated.
Brajkovich, Michael, 2015: Correspondence.
Farr, Gary, 2015: Correspondence.
Kelly, Geoff, 2012: New Zealand Chardonnay comes of age – some top wines and a little history: www.geoffkellywinereviews.co.nz/index.php?ArticleID=194
Halliday, James, 1985: The Australian Wine Compendium. Angus & Robertson, 576 p.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# No price is given for most, wine-searcher listing none of the 1986 wines below, thus faithfully reflecting the blinkered views of so many wine people.
Deep lemon, scarcely detectable straw, the lightest wine. Bouquet is benchmark clean straight chardonnay, with a faint fragrance reminiscent of fine Hunter Semillon of similar age, but as soon as you think of that, you have to cross it out, because this wine smells rich. Flavours are still youthful, yellow nectarine not as deep as mendoza, superb lees-autolysis of benchmark quality, with subtlest oak scarcely tasteable yet you would know instantly if it weren't there. This wine is altogether a benchmark experience, showing how far ahead of us the Australians were with chardonnay, in the 1980s. It stood absolutely equal with a 2007 Billaud-Simon Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru seen shortly after. Will hold some years. Top or second wine wine for five tasters. GK 09/15
Lemonstraw, faintly older than the Corton. Bouquet is very different from that wine, being sublimely pure, revealing the grape and nothing but the grape, no artefact beyond some lees-autolysis enhancement. It is both floral, acacia blossom comes to mind, and pure pale white nectarine-like stonefruit, plus a chalky minerality not based on threshold reduction. Palate shows pinpoint ripeness, great fruit, fresh yet not in any way assertive acid, the flavour lingering superbly on stonefruit including the stones (in the sense of sucking on the stones). A smaller wine than the Corton, but more beautiful. At a peak now, but will hold some years. Not part of the set tasting. GK 09/15
Lemon with the faintest straw wash, scarcely able to be differentiated from the Vat 47, the second palest wine. Bouquet on this bottle was (sadly) lightly TCA-affected, but at a level where one can still interpret the wine clearly. The structure of the wine was so compelling, I included it in the tasting - as a study wine. In the case of this note, evaluation is assisted by last year's tasting of this wine, against the same Vat 47, on which occasion the Bannockburn was even more astonishing for its fresh mealy Meursault or Corton-like elegance than the Tyrrell. Like it, there is still pale peach fruit of enchanting freshness and richness, beautiful barrel ferment and lees-autolysis complexity, and a long mealy palate hinting at cashew. Acid balance is fantastic, against the rich fruit: you would never suspect half the wine went through MLF, as Gary Farr now advises. Like the Tyrrell, this will hold some years. Even flawed, this wine ranked top or second for three tasters a great example of technical tasting skill. GK 09/15
Wonderful glowing lemon. Bouquet shows trace reduction, at about the maximum permissible for elegance, complexity, and being appropriately interpreted as 'mineral'. This level is a good deal less than the unwise faddists and wrong-headed wine judges who currently endorse chardonnay so reductive as to be unpleasant on bouquet and palate, and the moreso with food, this blinkered approach being justified within the oxymoron concept of 'noble sulphides'. Below lies mealy chardonnay fruit in an obvious Meursault styling, with impressive volume and purity. In mouth the wine is both rich with tactile body, yet still a little hard in youth, with a degree of pale penetrating grapefruity fruit and fine acid that is most impressive. Tasted later with the 1986 chardonnays, it confirms exactly how good the top Australian wines of the time were. Has the body to cellar many years, if you like older chardonnay, and the trace reduction will assist longevity. Cellar 10 25 years. Not part of the set tasting. GK 09/15
Straw, the third palest wine. Bouquet in this bottle is a little unusual. It shows powerful fruit with citrus inclinations, and a remarkable lack of aged characters, but there is a slightly heavy note hinting at marzipan, such as you often see in Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. It does not smell sweet, however. Palate is rich, very mealy, long and complex, a faint acridity presumably from oak (relative to the top two wines), but like them astonishing for its vigour. Definitely hazelnuts here, not cashews. No hurry with this wine, either. Top wine for two tasters. GK 09/15
Colour is medium gold, below midway in freshness / depth. Yet on bouquet there is scarcely any suggestion of untoward development. The wine is ripe, sweet and mealy, hazelnuts rather than cashew, totally out of kilter with the colour. Flavour is not as rich as the top two Australians, or several of the New Zealand wines, total acid therefore seems fractionally higher, but the length and relative richness of positive flavours is impressive. A wine living on borrowed time, I fear, since this much the palest of my bottles, and it is not as rich as some of the other New Zealand chardonnays. But it certainly reflects well on Joe Babich's pride in the wine at the time, and his conviction that lees-autolysis rather than MLF was the way to handle chardonnay. Top or second wine for seven tasters. GK 09/15
Straw with a faint gold wash, about midway in freshness. Bouquet is light, clean, and highly varietal, lighter and fresher than the Babich, showing some nectarine fruit and subtle barrel elevation. Palate is fresher than the Babich, possibly fractionally richer, but on close examination also reveals a faint herbaceous streak, which the Babich lacks completely, being from Hawkes Bay. This wine therefore highlights exactly what Australian wine judges mocked us for, in the 1980s, for awarding wines like this gold medals. Nonetheless, to be still so vital a wine 29 years later shows it had some merit. And not all tasters even agreed the wine showed some herbaceous characters. Gives the impression of a small malolactic component, on palate. Fully mature, naturally, but surprisingly, not as critically-so as the Babich. No votes for this wine. GK 09/15
Straw and gold with an old-gold wash, well below midway in freshness. But on bouquet, and even moreso on palate, the wine to a degree dispels the initial impression from colour. Fruit richness is still remarkable, though the flavours are now dried peach rather than fresh or bottled golden queen, and both oak and acid are a little unsubtle. The Babich wins points on these issues, being more harmonious all through. Yet the volume of fruit almost smoothes-over these factors, and the flavour lingers agreeably and long. Another wine living on borrowed time now, but the top wine for three people. GK 09/15
Straw with some gold, fractionally below the middle in depth. An exception was made for this wine, re the vintage. I opened both the 1986 and the 1987, and the latter was substituted since the colour was so much better, aided by the upgrading of corks from 44mm to 49mm in that year. The high MLF component is immediately apparent in this wine, several tasters commenting on it at the blind stage, butter and caramel being mentioned. This ties in with the winemaker's notes, in the 'admin' section. Behind that is an attractive mealy / nutty complexity on dried peach fruit. Flavours are subtler and more harmonious than the Gisborne Reserve, though weaker, with pleasant fruit and length for those who like old wines. One second-place vote, but importantly, no 'least' votes at all. A piece of New Zealand wine history, Michael Brajkovich being the first winemaker to demonstrate to the industry the role the MLF fermentation can play in temperate-climate chardonnay elevation. GK 09/15
Gold to old gold, the second to darkest. Bouquet is another one out of kilter with the colour, being fruity, mealy, and in a sense reasonably fresh, still. Palate is even fresher than the bouquet, showing dried peach fruit without the green thread of the Hunters, but the oak more assertive and the Marlborough acid tending firm, the wine not being as rich as the Hunters. Not as easy to drink as the Kumeu, or the Babich with its ripe-fruit profile, but still of interest. No votes. GK 09/15
Old gold, the deepest wine. On opening the 16 wines, my first thought was to leave this out, on colour alone. But as I smelt and tasted it, and remembered the overt American oak of its youth, and the off-dry finish that so seduced wine judges of the day, I kept it in. Like the herbaceous chardonnays, it is a vital part of / link in our chardonnay history. And despite the colour, tasters found positive ways of interpreting the wine. The neatest word-picture presented was: dry sauternes. Which given the botrytis issues of the 80s, with much less sophisticated canopy management than now, coupled with the trace residual, summed up the wine nicely. It still has the richness to smooth out the oak, and be surprisingly palatable. And it is ripe. The softness of the vanilla-laden American oak appealed in one sense, but the wine seemed less sophisticated than the Vidal Reserve. One top vote, and four rating it their second-favourite wine. GK 09/15
Straw and gold, below midway. This was one of the more spoken-about wines. Bouquet initially showed an almost golden-syrup harmony of fruit and oak in older age, but within that, a few tasters noted menthol / herbes notes, and then on palate, awkward acid. It did not taste herbaceous, so savoury herbes. The wine finishes dry, so the golden syrup idea is more for the bouquet rather than flavour. The aftertaste certainly goes a bit dry and woody, but it's not unpleasant. Still surprisingly good wine with food. Two votes for first or second place. GK 09/15
Straw with a wash of gold, right in the middle. With 16 wines, four had to be omitted: this was one of them. In one (positive) way, it is the most middling of all the wines, vanilla biscuit and dried peach on bouquet, initially seeming better than the Babich. But then on palate there is an acridity in the oak, and an herbaceous streak in the fruit, the latter exacerbated by elevated (maybe added ?) acid, which lets it down. Still perfectly drinkable, and being less rich / characterful than some of the wines, in a way more accessible. GK 09/15
Gold and old-gold, clearly much deeper than the 1987, so it was omitted in favour of the younger wine. But in all other respects, the two wines are extraordinarily alike. The 1986 is a little drier than the '87, and tastes older, but the same MLF comments would apply. Being drier / less fruit, the oak is now a little more apparent, but the wine is still perfectly acceptable with the right foods. In one sense the finish is the best part, with some fruit (and MLF) sweetness appearing to match the oak. Most bottles now would be too old, this one being much the best colour of my batch. GK 09/15
Straw with a touch of tan, yet one of the lighter. On bouquet however, by the time of the actual tasting, the wine had developed a slight manzanilla / acetaldehyde note, which let it down. Palate is small-scale, still some fruit and the oak nicely underdone to balance that, plus a hint of the marzipan character noted for the Mountadam. Still perfectly serviceable, but not an appropriate wine to present to winemakers. Decanting, tasting, deciding on and sequencing the 12 wines of necessity has to take place prior to and remote from the tasting venue, and the wine deteriorated in that interval. No top votes, but interestingly, no 'least' votes either. GK 09/15
Straw and gold, right in the middle for depth. Bouquet is clean and varietal, and initial impressions are good. Then you think, it really is very fresh, despite the colour, and second time round you realise there is a leafy component. Palate still shows good fruit, oak perhaps too prominent, but there is quite a stalky green quality right through the wine, with total acid up. So this too is very much a wine of its times, showing how much has been learnt about viticulture since then. Still perfectly serviceable. One top vote, one second place, but by a large margin the least-favoured wine, on the herbaceous streak. GK 09/15
Straw and a hint of gold, in the lighter half, just. If the Martinborough had a suggestion of leaf the second time you looked at it, this wine is so herbaceous as to smell like old sauvignon blanc. On palate it tastes even more like old, rank, sauvignon blanc, but with more body and oak. A major disappointment, having regard to the proprietor's extravagant claims for the wine at the time / point of release. Like the Martinborough, but even moreso, a vital illustration of one aspect of New Zealand's chardonnay evolution. This wine was omitted from the final tasting, since the point had been made more subtly with the Martinborough and Hunters wines. GK 09/15
Straw, like all the Australian wines, a good colour for its age, close to the Pask. Sadly, this wine opened profoundly TCA-affected. You couldn't see through it, at all. Some days later, once the TCA had dissipated in a ventilated sample, the fruit appears to be youthful and taut, and the oaking subtle. It gives the impression of fine lees-autolysis complexity. Scoring will have to await the next bottle. It is not as rich as the Mountadam, but a good bottle might be finer / subtler, so maybe a silver-medal wine. A fresh bottle is keenly awaited. GK 09/15