Chardonnay continues to be the largest selling varietal by case value and volume on the market, amongst off-premise food and wine stores, according to The Nielsen Company, which measures such things,. With an 18.7 percent market share in sales as of September 9, 2018, Chardonnay is the most sold and consumed wine in America.
In 2017, California reported 93,452 planted acres and crushed 614,000 tons of Chardonnay. That equals a lot of bottles of Chardonnay. Apparently, the people who keep predicting that Chardonnay will go out of favor continue to be mistaken.
“It seems like every year I read about this or that trend being on the rise. But after 35-plus years in this business what I still see are people who want a wine that is made with integrity, that is delicious and memorable, and that they can confidently share and enjoy with people they care about,” said Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards.
In Napa and beyond, Chardonnay producers are offering many differing styles, and varying prices.
Matt Crafton, winemaker at Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena, said, “I think Chardonnay is popular because of its versatility in how it can conform and express quite beautifully in incredibly diverse places and winemaker’s hands. I don’t see that changing.”
And Megan O’Connor, senior brand manager at Beringer, said, “Chardonnay continues to be popular, at all price points, and in a wide array of styles. At Beringer, our Napa wines include three distinct Chardonnay expressions, for example, each with its own personality.”
What is happening now for this popular varietal? Are the big, buttery Chardonnays still around? After all, this style of wine is what helped create the California Chardonnay phenomenon in the first place.
“I believe that the consumers who have been drinking the big, buttery-oaky style for some time will likely continue to do so,” says David Tates, winemaker and general manager of Barnett Vineyards based in St. Helena.
Yet Jason Savage, wine director at St. Helen’s Goose & Gander restaurant said, “I do notice that majority of our guests still lean toward a richer, buttery style as opposed to a leaner, crisper style.
Tim Snider, president of Los Olivos’ Fess Parker Winery, said, “I think Chardonnay is being sourced from better, more appropriate vineyard sites, i.e. cooler climates, more and more. This is delivering more complete, balanced wines that are resonating with the consumer. “All of this equates to a strong future for the varietal.
“At Barnett Vineyards, we believe that there is a new generation of wine consumers who like the more elegant style with bright and layered fruit and less of butter/oak,” said David Tates. “We love making that style, and it gives us the chance to really express all the work that goes into the farming. The one thing I hear most after someone tries our Chardonnay is ‘I don’t like Chardonnay, but I love this’.”
I recently conducted a blind tasting of Chardonnays, 65 in all, mostly domestic but a few international ones as well. I had a few industry folks join me for an interesting evening. The prices stretched from $10 to $95 per bottle, with the majority in the $30-$35 range. All are commercially available on the market. Most, but not all, were good examples of the varietal.
Results: Stylistically, it seems that the big, bold, over-the-top butter bombs of the past have mostly faded away, with balance and structure happily, back in vogue. A few tended to be too lean and mean and some were as thin as water. The group found the tasting illustrative, showing us differing examples of quality Chardonnays available on the market.
Even the standard bearer of the “old” style, Rombauer Vineyards Chardonnay, (Carneros, $38) while still buttery-oaky, is more nuanced than in the past. (I enjoyed it more than expected and was surprised when it was revealed) To be sure, Rombauer still has legions of loyal fans, producing about 100,000 cases of chardonnay annually. We came up with one “winner” and four superb semi-finalists in my blind, Chardonnay taste-off.
The winner: Arius 2017 Chardonnay, California Appellation, $15. Wow, this wine from “North Coast” grapes, is a stunner at 98 percent Chardonnay grapes with 2 percent Chenin Blanc, beautifully balanced, exhibiting green apple and delicate stone fruit notes, with soft but ample tannins. This is a wine to enjoy every day yet will show well anytime. And a surprising bargain, especially compared to many of the wines sampled. An impressive and distinguished wine at any price.
The excellent runners up were (in alphabetical order):
B Cellars, 2015 Fire Heath Chardonnay, Walker Bay, South Africa, $33. Another surprise of sorts, but a blind tasting is a blind tasting. Named for a local red, hairy South African plant, this fetching, tasty Chardonnay, was whole cluster pressed from cool climate grapes. Luscious pear and citrus notes make for a delightful tasting experience.
Landmark 2016 Overlook Chardonnay, Sonoma County, $25. This great chard gets its fruit from a blend of 16 prime Sonoma County vineyards, whole cluster pressed, and no yeast added, fermented with only wild yeast. The wine is aged for 10 months sur lie. Landmark knows it Chardonnays and this is a masterpiece of the varietal.
Nicolson Jones, 2015 Wooden Dolly Vineyards, Carneros, $46. This wonderful wine sources its fruit from Napa’s Truchard “Dolly” Vineyards on the norther end of Carneros. Bright yellow in color, this wine displays a pleasing citrus-pepper component. Focused, round, and eminently drinkable.
Simoneau Vineyards, 2015 “Brenda Lee” Alexander Valley, $30. With its pleasing, pale yellow color, and effortless drinkability this captures Alexander Valley’s terroir in the glass. Lemony, crisp and tongue-slapping minerality, Brenda Lee is a lovely wine.
Many other wines sampled from various producers deserve mention as fine examples of the breed. These include: Beringer Private Reserve, Barnett, Duckhorn, Fess Parker, Flowers, Hafner, Jarvis, La Crema and Neyers.
The future of Chardonnay? Crafton of Chateau Montelena said, “If anything, I think we’re becoming more comfortable with our personal preferences in what we produce and consume. That will only yield positive benefits for the industry in pushing quality and hopefully discouraging uniformity.”
Bill Brosseau, director of winemaking at Los Gatos’ Testarosa Winery, remarked, “There is still space in the market for distinctive Chardonnays as our wine consumers today are very sophisticated and will eventually become fatigued over the inauthentic, over-the top style Chardonnay in the market.”
Tom Simoneau, owner, grower, and winemaker at Simoneau Vineyards, said, “Chardonnay is the tofu of grape varieties. What the winemaker adds will determine its flavor. New oak, toast — light, medium or heavy, stirring the leas or not, ML or no ML. Then there are clones and cool region versus warm region. Chardonnay is here to stay.”
I tasted through quite a few chardonnays to find winners and was impressed with the overall crop. Fess Parker’s Snider said, “Winemakers in general, and certainly ours, are backing away from the more “traditional Californian,” heavy-handed styles and crafting wines that are more approachable and pair better with food.”
I don’t think the consumer is done yet with this enjoyable varietal, and winemakers agree.
“Chardonnay is a wonderful variety that is highly adaptable to almost all the winegrowing regions in the world,” said Geneviève Janssens, chief winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery. “This variety is mainly shaped by the winemakers and much less in the vineyard, so it gives the winemaker a great opportunity to excel in the art of winemaking. The variety can be paired with many different styles of food and is adaptable to many different occasions. I envision a bright future for Chardonnay. It’s fun to grow and create, and it’s delicious to drink.”
Bob Ecker is a wine/travel writer based in Napa.