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Chardonnay shaping up for a cracker

All the signs are pointing towards a landmark vintage for Hawke's Bay chardonnay,

Leading winemaker Hugh Crichton believes the 2014 chardonnay crop could produce the best vintage for the style yet seen in Hawke's Bay.

"All the signs are pointing towards a landmark vintage for Hawke's Bay chardonnay," he said yesterday while looking over what he and the winemaking team at Vidal Estate Winery in Hastings had produced, and which was now "resting".

"For us, it was exceptional quality as the fruit was ripe and very clean," he said.

"The weather gods were on our side and we picked earlier this year as the brix [sugar] levels, the indicator for ripeness, were ideal for producing balanced alcohol levels."

Mr Crichton said the Bay's winegrowers and producers had faced a string of challenges in recent years, including lower crop yields and tough price competition from cut-priced Marlborough sauvignon blanc. But the 2014 chardonnay vintage had clearly signalled a return to form and, with the style proving exceptionally popular in the burgeoning China market, the signs were good.

"Total crop volumes are looking much healthier than in recent years when colder, wetter summers increased disease pressure and we saw lower yields overall, which had a significant economic impact on local producers."

Mr Crichton believed the "stellar vintage" would be a major boost for the region's push into its main export markets.

"As well as 2014 wines being top notch in terms of taste, we'll have more of it to sell, which is really important as we continue to focus on growing our sales abroad, particularly in China," he said.

"Better wines produce more awards and better reviews, which are both big sales drivers there."

He said chardonnay was China's most popular white wine varietal, which was a huge advantage.

While Marlborough sauvignon blanc made up more than 80 per cent of New Zealand's wine exports chardonnay was "king" in Hawke's Bay.

"We need to play to that strength."

The 2014 vintage had produced top flavours and the lower brix levels had made them more balanced with a natural acidity and alcohol levels, which would not be too high. "More elegant - more restrained," was how Mr Crichton put it.

"It's still early but it's pretty exciting."

The Bay's weather had become the winemaker's best friend for the second vintage running, with the plaudits already emerging for the 2013 wines.

"The weather gods were on our side and ultimately the climate determines style and the Hawke's Bay climate has been unique."

The 2014 chardonnay was now "resting" and going through the stage the French call elevage which is "raising" - like taking a child through adolescence and into maturity.

"It is growing up," Mr Crichton said. He expects the first releases to be towards the end of the year while the Legacy series would likely be produced next January or February.

With warm and dry weather forecast to continue into April, the 2014 vintage was also looking promising for the merlot, syrah and sauvignon blanc harvest.

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Awatere Valley