New Zealand Chardonnay is in a reduced state, at least that’s the opinion of the panel at the recent 2019 Chardonnay and Sparkling Symposium in Gisborne. Reductive characters in chardonnay have become a fashionable and divisive feature of this ever-changing and tantalisingly complex white wine.
The panel’s chair, Michael Brajkovich MW, said the trend toward reductive characters in chardonnay reminded him of the time when oaky chardonnay first became fashionable. “Winemakers thought that if a little bit of oak is good therefore a whole lot of oak must be better. It’s the same with reduction where the pendulum has gone to the extreme but is now coming back.”
But what is reduction? The Oxford Companion to Wine advises that reduction is “used as a convenient, but rather inaccurate, term to describe the formation of sulphur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans (thiols), which tend to form under reducing conditions.” Descriptors for these include rotten eggs, garlic, struck flint, cabbage, rubber and burnt rubber.
Winemakers talk about good sulfides (such as struck flint, although in my view it can be overdone to the detriment of wine) and bad sulfides (skunk is an example). It has become fashionable to encourage the formation of so-called good sulfides.
James Healy, winemaker and owner of Dog Point Vineyard, tells me the greatest chardonnays have a textural character they get from reduction.
“Of course it is possible to overdo the influence of reductive character which, when excessive, can give wine an unpleasantly hard texture. We have organic vineyards and therefore only use copper sulfate sprays. The level of sulphur on the grapes varies from vintage to vintage. If there is a high risk of powdery mildew we might increase the spray program and boost sulphur levels. Wet weather can wash sulphur off the fruit.
“The amount of juice settling before fermentation can be varied to compensate for the level of sulphur on the grapes. We press the grapes lightly to reduce the level of phenolics. We have reduced the amount of lees stirring to only twice in 18 months because too much air can prematurely age the wine.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Tony Bish, of Tony Bish Wines and Sacred Hill, explained to me why he dislikes sulfides in chardonnay.
“I have dabbled on the dark side but remain unconvinced about them, particularly after recently returning from a trip to Burgundy. Producers there feel that their chardonnay should reflect the character of the vineyard and that precious fingerprint should not be overridden by sulfides or excessive oak.
“I like to use high solids in the ferment and age my chardonnay in tight-grained, well-seasoned oak to maintain subtlety and length. Texture is a big thing for me which is why I’m excited about fermenting and ageing chardonnay in egg-shaped vessels made of concrete or oak.”
Brajkovich is well known for his attention-grabbing Kumeu River chardonnays and prefers sulfide levels somewhere between the two extremes above.
“I like a hint of reduction in my chardonnay – it helps to keep the wine fresh and demonstrate that it is not oxidised. I also like any reduction character to blow off when the bottle is opened. Sometimes it will do that when swirled in a glass or after being sloshed into a decanter. I want to make chardonnay with precision, freshness and the ability to age. When a wine smells like a sulphur-reeking vineyard worker, it is too reductive.
“Hand-harvesting and whole-bunch pressing are very important quality factors in chardonnay production. We settle juice to get rid of heavy solids which can lead to high levels of reduction. I like the light and fluffy solids but reject the darker solids which can be a source of spray residue, such as sulphur, leading to greater levels of reduction.
“We rely on indigenous yeasts for fermentation. Nutrient levels in our grapes are good. We never need to add yeast food such as diammonium phosphate which I call ‘yeast junk food’. Well-fed yeasts tend to result in lower sulfide levels.”
Where do I stand? I like a little flinty sulfide character but it must be subtle and should not dominate other characters in the wine. When wine drinkers are discussing a wine and all they can talk about are sulfide characters, then they are excessive.