‘For overall fruit quality, this is one of the best vintages I have experienced’ - Ivan Sutherland, co-founder of Dog Point Vineyard when discussing the 2020 vintage, the second successive five-star vintage for the region.
I have become a big Dog Point fan – I might as well come clean. In terms of Chardonnay of this quality at this price-point, it is a real stand-out. And nor is it a wine solely destined for early consumption; I just finished my last bottle of the 2011 in the last month, and I wish I had more.
As I have commented before, this New Zealand Chardonnay impressed many clients with its nod to a Burgundian style of winemaking. Jancis Robinson once commented ‘unusually for a NZ producer, (Dog Point) takes Chardonnay seriously’ and Dog Point is rated far more highly for its Chardonnay than for its Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, which is not the norm in a region that dominates the Sauvignon Blanc market.
Based on plantings first made in the 1970s, Dog Point is an organic estate situated where the Brancott and Omaka Valleys meet to the west of Blenheim. When I worked a vintage in Marlborough way back in 2000, I quickly learned the names of Ivan Sutherland and James Healy, partly as they were both major players in Marlborough and both played a role in the development of Cloudy Bay, but also as they had been purchasing vineyard just along from where I was staying. The Sutherlands and the Healys came together to found the ‘Dog Point’ label in 2004. The name comes from the fact that when the earliest Europeans settled in the area and kept sheep, boundary riders used dogs to protect their flocks. Some of the dogs ventured off and bred in the wild, attacking flocks to survive. Long after the dogs were removed, the area kept the name of ‘Dog Point’.
The Chardonnay vines date back to 1981 and are grown on silty clay loam soils. Given the founders' background and experience, it is no surprise that good Chardonnay clones were planted at the outset and cropping is kept low. The fruit is bunch-pressed and fermented in oak barrels, of which just 10% are new wood. This allows the lively fresh fruit to be well-expressed without being overshadowed. The wines rely on indigenous yeast to trigger fermentation and undergo malolactic fermentation in oak. The oak in Dog Point Chardonnay is never obtrusive, and is barely picked up on, instead it is the smoky mineral notes that add complexity to the fruit as well as that ‘struck match’ character that contributes to a particular Burgundian style.
A little more on the winemaking if you wanted to understand the approach….
This character, sometimes described by tasters as ‘struck match’, ‘struck flint’, ‘smoky bacon fat’ or ‘toasted nut’ is a by-product of what is known as ‘reductive winemaking’, which is an approach that seeks to exclude oxygen during ageing, resulting in these ‘reduced’ sulphide notes that we try to describe. The word ‘reduction’ in winemaking is the opposite of oxidation, in that it is a chemical reaction that involves a dissociation from oxygen. To produce a wine in a reductive Burgundian style, you choose older oak for ageing as the pores of the wood are closed to oxygen, and you do not rack the wine (empty the vessel and refill), nor do you practise lees-stirring or batonnage (when the fine yeasty deposit is agitated in the barrel). It is a less interventionist style of winemaking in many respects. Since issues concerning wines oxidising early have caused some concern with certain Burgundian estates, the general trend has certainly headed towards this style of winemaking. And it is not just Burgundians that employ these techniques; we have seen a whole host of New World producers adopt the same approach. It is a distinct stylistic decision that seeks to employ a technique that is widely used in Burgundy. It doesn’t always work well; I think the wines need to have a good structure for it to be successful and that means a taut minerally acidity. I have tasted some disappointing, loose-knit styles that fail to convince and come across as mere caricatures. However, the Dog Point Chardonnay is a particularly successful example of the reductive style and offers striking value for money.
I have included fellow MW, Rebecca Gibb’s note below, though I have personally never described a wine as having a ‘puppy-like’ exuberance before, and probably never will. My note follows too.