Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand (1) Tony Bish and the Urban Winery

chardonnay new zealand

Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand (1) Tony Bish and the Urban Winery

Tony Bish made his reputation as winemaker for Sacred Hill in Hawke’s Bay. While he remains a consultant and a shareholder in the company, his interests have moved away from the direction that Sacred Hill have taken (they now have a large focus on Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and crushed 7000 tons last vintage in the region). Tony has turned to his first love, Chardonnay, and is now making a stunning range of wines from an urban winery in Napier.

Inside the urban winery: the bar area

He started his own project in 2013. ‘I began with what I knew I could sell,’ he says. The first wine was a $20 called Fat and Sassy, and it was a hit. The first vintage was 500 cases, but next year he’ll be up to 5000, and he’s protected the brand by not doing grocery and never discounting.

Looking towards the Ovum

The impetus for going alone was a trip to South America with Rod Easthope and Warren Gibson. They’d all being discussing their ambitions on the trip, which solidified his desire to do his own thing. And meeting Alvaro Espinoza and seeing the results he had with locally made concrete eggs also piqued his interest.

So he began his own winery and also began experimenting with manufacturing concrete eggs, working with a local expert called Josh Winters. Now, using and selling concrete eggs is part of his business. They hold 1600 litres and cost NZ$14 000, which undercuts the imported rival Sonoma Cast Stone by $6000. ‘We are selling them across the country,’ says Tony, who says he has first-to-market advantage in selling and using eggs.

In pride of place in the winery is the Taransaud Ovum, a 2000 litre wooden egg. Tony’s yet-to-be-released Zen Chardonnay is the first Chardonnay in the world to have been made exclusively in an Ovum. The Zen Chardonnay is a profound wine that may be the best New Zealand Chardonnay I have tried.

Winemaking in this exclusively Chardonnay cellar is simple. The grapes are hand harvested and whole bunch pressed at Sacred Hill (although some of the Fat and Sassy fruit is machine harvested). Tony is at Sacred Hill every day during vintage so this works. Then he brings the juice back to the urban winery, which is a one-person winery.

With these sorts of wines, it won’t be long before the merits of Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay are more widely recognized.

Tony Bish Fat and Sassy Chardonnay 2017 Hawke’s Bay
First vintage did 500 cases, now up to 4200 cases. Lightly oaked Chardonnay with good palate weight. Fresh and expressive with nice citrus and pear fruit, and some cedar, clove and spice hints. Quite savoury and linear. Despite the name it’s not fat, but it has lovely fruit. They don’t sell in grocery and they never discount. 88/100

Tony Bish Golden Egg Chardonnay 2017 Hawke’s Bay
$40. Unoaked, fermented in concrete eggs. Textured and expressive with pear and citrus fruit and lovely texture. The fruit is at the fore with lovely stone fruit. There’s a lovely weight with some stoniness and a lovely long lemony finish. Has complexity and depth, but also a lightness and focus. 93/100

Tony Bish Heartwood Chardonnay 2017 Hawke’s Bay
$35. Barrel-fermented. 25% new oak. Fine and expressive with bright citrus and pear fruit with a delicacy and refinement. Subtle toasty oak right in the background adding a fine spiciness. Classic Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay with nice presence. 92/100

Tony Bish Skin Game Chardonnay 2018 (sample from egg)
Hand picked fruit put through a finger destemmer, whole berries into bins, foot trodden, and fermented in a chilled barrel room. Initially hand plunged, some delestage, and then pressed as soon as it finishes ferment to a concrete egg. This has an exotic nose of marmalade and rose petals, with a citrus drive on the palate

Tony Bish Skeetfield Chardonnay 2017 Hawke’s Bay
$60. Single vineyard just out of Fernhill. Old vine dry-farmed block, 25 years old. The owner is a skeet shooting champion, appropriately named Dennis Gunn. In 2005/6/7 Tony made Chardonnay under the Gunn label and won lots of trophies, and when Sacred Hill switched the attention to their Riflemans block, Tony got what he calls the Skeetfield fruit from Dennis. This is fermented in ovum (40%) and barrique (60%, new oak). Really fine and expressive with well integrated oak and a nice spiciness, as well as refined pear and white peach fruit. So harmonious with lovely weight and texture, and a long, fresh finish. A really classy wine. 95/100

Tony with the Zen in front of the Ovum

Tony Bish Zen Chardonnay 2017 Hawke’s Bay
$130. 100% ovum, first use. Skeetfield fruit, unfined and unfiltered. Beautiful nose with subtly mealy citrus fruit. The palate has beautiful texture and finesse. There’s a bright, lively citrus core with fine-grained structure. Such precision and detail with some spicy, mealy richness. There’s amazing intensity and balance here. There are layers of flavour, with lemons, saline notes, and some grapefruit notes. This is profound. Tony Bish says egg Chardonnays don’t need to age as long before release, and may not live as long as barrique aged ones, but can deliver profundity. 97/100

Sacred Hill Riflemans Chardonnay 2016
Lovely focus and weight here. Some compact citrus and pear fruit with some peachy richness. Nice oak integration with bright lemony notes holding things in tension. Nice weight and complexity, and lots of potential for future development. Mealy and spicy with mandarin and lemon on the finish. 94/100

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