Chardonnay, in its many iterations, is the most popular white wine in the world. Throughout its ups and downs in the market it remains the number one wine grape by planted acreage in the U.S. and the most widely planted grape in California.
It is number five overall in the world and trails only Airén (a Spanish grape at number four, that is used for simple wines and often distilled for brandy production) in white wine plantings. Since Airén’s plantings are far less dense that those of most Chardonnay, it may come in second when gauged by tonnage harvested and wine produced.
Chardonnay is planted in more wine grapegrowing areas of the world than other varietals and consequently produced in a broad range of diverse styles. Some are more representative of the growing area (terroir), while others are more expressive of local tastes to satisfy individual market preferences or export demands. So what is the true character of chardonnay and is it easily identifiable?
Chardonnay is considered by most industry professionals as among the most malleable varietals, and as some say, “presents a blank canvas for a winemaker to create what he desires.” This, to a great extent, is a true supposition. Yet on the other side of the ledger, the true character of Chardonnay is also judged as extremely representative of its growing area and closely linked to its individual terroir (the French term with no exact translation to English but meant to include the entire environment surrounding the vine).
On the terroir driven side, we can look to Burgundy and observe that in Chablis to the north, Chardonnay presents a distinctive “steely” mineral quality due to very cool temperatures, unique soils and minimal if any oak treatment. Further south in the Côte de Beaune the temperatures are just a bit warmer and soil types vary greatly depending on location.
Overall, the wines here are rich and engaging with layers of complexity and at best, expressive of their specific vineyard sites. Further north in Champagne, Chardonnay is the most revered white grape grown and adds a feminine expression to the finished wine either on its own (Blanc de Blancs) or when more typically blended with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
When looking at California, with its seemingly unquenchable thirst for this noble grape, we see similar variances in the vinous expression. The wines of the “true” Sonoma Coast show a more elegant focused charm while those from Carneros and the Russian River Valley are usually a bit more on the plump side while maintaining excellent structure and depth.
As we move farther south to the Central Coast, we will find more tropical fruit and melon-like flavors. Heading east to the Central Valley (the area representing the majority of planted acreage, rich soils and warmest temperatures), the grape loses its character and charm while becoming the true “blank canvas” for mass production and flavor manipulation.
The July 31, 2018 issue of Wine Spectator features their annual review of California Chardonnay by senior editors James Laube and Kim Marcus. In the issue’s introduction, editor and publisher Marvin Shanken and Executive Editor Tom Matthews pose the question, “What makes Chardonnay so popular?”
Their answer: “In large part, its extraordinary versatility. American wine drinkers...are curious and adventurous and appreciate versatility as one of the wine’s greatest strengths.”
Laube confirmed that position by saying, “...because diversity rules the roost. Golden state winemakers have the freedom to create and refine wine styles across a wide palette of flavors.”
I agree with these observations and opinions on the versatility and diversity of Chardonnay. While I appreciate these dynamics as having been a source of its market strength and appeal, I also see them often resulting in a lack of meaningful identity and a clear path to our expectations of varietal character.
North and Central Coast California Chardonnays from the 1970s and early to mid-1980s followed a traditional pathway to market. Grapes were picked on the earlier side (maintaining acidity and lower alcohol), oak use (especially new oak) was on the lighter side and malolactic fermentation (the bacterial conversion of bright malic acid to softer lactic acid) was not the general practice.
As the late 1980s approached and into the early 1990s, the pendulum began to shift toward power over grace, and many California wineries altered their approach to Chardonnay. This transition was followed by other emerging growing regions (e.g. Chile, Argentina, Australia) and of course our own Central Valley as they all hoped to benefit from a growing market. Bigger, bolder oak driven wines began to dominate the market at all price ranges, and accompanied by influential critical acclaim, the consumer taste shift was observed and embraced by wine producers and their marketing executives.
But, the conversion to a heavier style of this most elegant grape had its downside as well when the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement began to take hold in the mid-1990s. This movement gave rise to the marketability of additional well known white varietals (Sauvignon Blanc and others) as well as those virtually unknown such as Pinot Grigio. This movement began to threaten Chardonnay’s dominance and increase the import market sector with a growing selection of tangy white wines from abroad.
Through the later 1990s and into the 2000s, many of the upper-end producers from the North and Central Coasts began (slowly at first) to roll back their programs and revert to the more classic approach to Chardonnay. This movement continues today taking on a far more stable role for premium producers. And these changes can also be seen in the growing areas of Chile, Argentina, Australia and others where radical shifts to the more classic styles have moved into high gear.
However, the bigger, bolder, creamy wines continue to remain popular mostly at the lower end on the market offering the diversity pointed out by Wine Spectator. Most of these wines emanate from the warmer, more lush, growing areas of the Central Valley where the consumer actively seeks out oak flavors (vanilla and toast) they naturally associate with Chardonnay.
Yet with the price of a new French oak barrel now in excess of $1,200, this is not the wisest investment when producing an $8 to $15 bottle. So the alternative is the use of oak staves, chips, powder or extract to deliver on the specific taste profile that continues its popularity in the market.
In his Chardonnay review, Laube also pointed out that “Winemakers wonder whether consumer preferences have changed or whether the old-style wines simply aren’t as interesting as the new breed. [But] in fairness, the most frequently asked question I get [is] Where can I find a buttery Chardonnay?”
Merriam-Webster defines chameleon as “one that is subject to quick or frequent change especially in appearance to please others.” That description certainly seems to fit Chardonnay’s diverse presence in today’s market.