Tony Bish Chardonnay | Tasting Review | August 2019

Tony Bish has rightly been called New Zealand’s “King of Chardonnay”.

With a winemaking career that extends back over 30+ years Tony is mostly known as a founding shareholder and winemaker for Sacred Hill. In 2013 Tony finally made the call to launch his own label producing only Chardonnay, starting with the Fat n Sassy. Progress has been swift and he now produces a range of six Hawkes Bay Chardonnays from his Napier base, The Urban Winery in Ahuriri.

Most notably, Tony has been a leader in New Zealand for his use of Egg Fermenters, getting a local concrete manufacturer on board to develop and manufacture Australasia’s first concrete eggs in 2015. Tony believes these egg- shaped fermenters give the wine an extra, positive textural element and depth of flavour. More recently Tony purchased a 2000 litre oak egg from French barrel maker Tarasaud, for his Zen Chardonnay. At a cost of around $80,000 this is some special barrel!

New Zealand Chardonnay is on the crest of a wave at the moment and with wine writer Jancis Robinson describing it as “the coming storm of great Kiwi Chardonnay”, we know Tony Bish will be at the forefront with his Chardonnays.

As befitting a Chardonnay specialist, this was a complete and special line-up of Chardonnays. We added in 3 others from overseas for contrast.

Butternut California Chardonnay 2017

Californian Chardonnay has proven very popular in recent years in the NZ market, especially around this price point. A ‘love it or not’ style. Some sweet vanilla notes, with pineapple, butterscotch, apple pie, ripe stonefruits. Creamy and rounded with sweetness evident. Quite Moorish if you like the style!

Tony Bish Fat n Sassy Chardonnay 2018

Tony describes this as his ‘gateway wine’ saying that it needs to over-deliver and provide an excellent introduction to his wines… It certainly achieves that.

Probably not as Fat n Sassy as the name suggests, but it does have class and style. Spice and nuts with freshness. Nothing too complex, but plenty to offer at the price.

Tony Bish Skin in the Game Chardonnay 2018

A new wine and this tasting was its first public showing. This is Tony’s version of a skin fermented wine – aka Orange wine, although a very clean one.

Grapes de-stemmed, fermented for a short time on skins then pressed into a concrete egg for a further 11 months. This shows great Chardonnay fruit and there is the added element of the skin component giving some palate grip and an exotic Marsanne/Rousanne pithy, orange peel, spice character. This wine succeeds in having the best of the skin contact element and purity of Chardonnay. Exciting wine.

Giesen Freres Bourgogne Blanc 2018

Produced by legendary Puligny Montrachet producer Jean Chartron for the Giesens (who have a property in the village). Medium bodied with a touch of savoriness and citrus flavours. There is some richness that builds on the back palate.

This is a good example of a ‘village’ white burgundy and at the price, very good value.

Tony Bish Heartwood Chardonnay 2018

A classical Hawkes Bay Chardonnay. Barrel fermented and aged in 30% new French oak.

A noticeable step up here and the oak is much more evident – it is very, very good oak and Tony has some of the best barrels around, from French cooper, Tarasaud. Ripe, golden fruits with creamy vanillin, caramel, cashew nut, butter and spice flavours. Reasonably full-on but very well balanced.

Tony Bish Golden Egg Chardonnay 2017

Tony was the first in New Zealand to use concrete eggs for fermentation. Inspired by Chapoutier in France who were the first to use the Egg. Tony got a local concrete maker to experimentally develop these with the first release from 2015.

A true egg shape, these 1600 litre vessels help the circulation of yeast cells during fermentation and showcase the fruit without oak. The most noticeable effect the egg fermentation seems to have is in the wine’s texture. There is a real sense of completeness with the flavours and wine filling the whole palate. This is rich, savoury and complex with a small hint of smokiness along with citrus notes. This has lovely energy and poise with acidity driving through the palate. This has another dimension which more than makes up for any absence of oak.

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2017

Long considered one of Margaret River’s top Chardonnays, this 2017 is a beauty.

This wine walks a fine line between funkiness and purity. Quite a hedonistic wine with seductive ripe fruit flavours mixing with toasted nuts and smoke. Mouth-filling with detailed complexity.

Tony Bish Skeetfield Chardonnay 2017

From the Gunn family’s famous ‘Skeetfield vineyard. 100% Old Vine Mendoza Chardonnay fermented in 60% new tight grained oak and a portion of Egg fermented. This is a suave, detailed wine with a real sense of power. Again spices, citrus, ripe golden peach but overall a sense of more of everything.

Tony Bish Zen Chardonnay 2017

Made using Tony’s stunning Taransaud French Oak ‘Ovum’ egg imported from France. An oak 2000 litre, egg shaped, fermentation barrel made without the use of any metal staves – a thing of beauty and craftsmanship.

And so is the wine. Fruit from the Skeetfield vineyard displays flavours of pure white peach, chalky, citrus. It is textural with smoky saline hints. Ethereal, classic detailed. UK wine scribe (and NZ fan) Jamie Goode described this as the best NZ Chardonnay he’d ever tasted. Who could argue?

This is very, very impressive.