Australian Chardonnay is back

For a while, the rich, ripe style of Chardonnay from Australia’s inland regions was an unfashionable as shoulder pads and big hair. But the fashion wheel has turned again, says James Lawrence.

Photo by Manuel Venturini on Unsplash
Photo by Manuel Venturini on Unsplash

The popularity of Australian Chardonnay is in resurgence, buoyed by rising global demand and last year’s small harvest. Yet the grape has been ripped out of Australian soils since 2016.

According to winemaker Andrew Peace, Chardonnay grown in the Riverina/Riverland regions of Southeast Australia are planted on deep sandy loams, which are also perfect for cultivating almonds. “Over the past few years, I’ve seen at least 1,000 acres of Chardonnay removed and replanted with almonds,” said Peace, owner of Andrew Peace Wines, Victoria.

Yet as demand continues to rise for affordable and fruit-driven versions of the grape, growers are therefore likely to replant the grape.
“The price of Chardonnay grown in hot irrigated regions increased by 9% between the 2019 and 2020 harvests,” explained Peace. “This is partially due to drought-ravished vineyards producing a lower yield, but demand has also concurrently been rising for Chardonnay. I’ve noticed a growing consumer interest over the last few vintages.”

Such was the strength of demand for Australian Chardonnay in the late 1980s that plantings of the grape increased more than fivefold; by the turn of the century, it was the most widely planted white variety in the nation.

The great decline

However, Chardonnay’s fall from grace in the late 1990s has been extensively documented. Sales began to fall in 2004, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, as competition from rival categories eroded consumer affection for the grape. It hit the UK market, too.

“I observed this phenomenon when I lived in the UK during the early ‘00s – the rise and popularity of Italian Pinot Grigio and Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc drove the ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay) movement,” said Simon Lee, marketing and sales manager at Greenstone Vineyards, Victoria. “Most of the Aussie Chardonnay category was driven by the majors, some of whom decided to hedge their bets on different crops.” 

Of course, wine drinking, like any cultural activity, is subject to the vagaries of fashion. Now. producers, distributors, and analysts say that Chardonnay is back in vogue, after years of being maligned as an oaky, ‘fruit-bomb’ caricature.

“Some huge Australian Chardonnay vineyards have changed over to other agricultural crops in recent years, but there’s now price pressure back on Chardonnay again,” said Paul Braydon, buying controller at Kingsland Drinks, a UK wine importer.

Bounce back

The IWSR has also tracked growing demand for the grape generally in the US, Australia, and Netherlands. “Demand is very buoyant in the US market – it is far and away the largest market for Chardonnay – eight times larger than Chardonnay volume in the UK,” said an IWSR spokesperson.

“We make four styles of premium Chardonnay – oaked and unoaked. Sales have been in constant growth,” added Peace.

San Francisco-based wine director Matt Cirne agrees that Australian Chardonnay remains a popular style in the US; indeed, he argues it never became unpopular.

“There has always been a demand - what has changed is the style or the perception of the style,” said Cirne. “That said, whilst it is not hip to be seen drinking the style of oaky Chardonnay which spawned the ‘ABC’ movement, they are still very much being made and enjoyed. The language has just changed – people use words like opulent, rich, decadent. It’s a change in optics, not in reality.”

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc also continues to enjoy massive success in several markets. According to Nielsen, it accounts for 89% of total sales of New Zealand wine in the UK retail sector, while Kiwi Chardonnay commands just 1.5% of that volume. In addition, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for approximately 50% of total white wine sales in Australia.

“We have had to complement our range with Hawkes Bay Chardonnay as it’s hard to secure growers in Marlborough willing to cultivate the grape,” said winemaker Josh Scott, of Allan Scott Family Winemakers. Clearly, there is still money to be made from this ubiquitous varietal.

But Australian Chardonnay, sold at both ‘everyday’ and premium price points, has seemingly become hip again.

James Lawrence

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