A sneaking admiration for Chardonnay has become, in certain circles, the love that dare not speak its name. The backlash against buttery, toasty, oak-and-malo wines, coupled with the rise of leaner styles such as Sauvignon Blanc, has made the world’s best-known grape variety persona non grata in many people’s shopping trolleys. Unless, of course, it’s Chablis, Champagne or – for the well-heeled – Grand Cru Burgundy.
But, despite the birth of the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement a decade or so ago, rumours of Chardonnay’s demise have been exaggerated. A cursory glance at the world’s major wine-producing regions reveals there’s close to 120,000 ha of it out there – so producers need to find something to do with it, and fast.
And they have. For many, the key has been to rein back the oak, the malo and the flabby ripeness which have fallen out of favour. Yet others still push out buttery, honeyed Chardonnays which – whatever the wine trade might think of them – find an eager audience, blissfully unaware that what’s in their glass is as criminally unfashionable as bell bottom jeans.
For many people, ‘Chardonnay’ still means the buttery, oak-scented Australian wine they drank in the late 1980s and 1990s. And, if consumer tastes have rebelled against that “sunshine in a glass” model, so have winemaker prejudices. “We look back in horror at what we were doing in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Dave Bicknell, chief winemaker and CEO at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley. Bicknell and many others in Australia have seen their winemaking undergo a philosophical shift, focusing on site selection and allowing the local character to shine through. “Making wine that tastes like sunshine is quite easy,” he says. “Standing back and letting things happen isn’t so easy … Sometimes you have to just watch and do nothing and relax.”
You can chart the Australian changes by tasting back vintages of wines such as Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay, first made in 2000 but a very different beast by 2012. “Our Chardonnay reflects the move to less new oak, less malo, just making Chardonnay a bit silkier and finer, picking a touch earlier,” says Dave LeMire MW, global sales and marketing manager. “It reflects the evolution of the Chardonnay style.”
For Australia (and the New World) in general, there’s an inevitable winemaking logic behind this shift, according to UK-based Master Sommelier and on-trade consultant Ronan Sayburn MS. “The traditional New World approach was to make it like Burgundy. High acid in continental Burgundy means they do 100% malo to get richness rather than leanness in their wine. In the New World, they have the heat to get richness, so lots of malo causes a flabby, heavy wine.”
Two more things about Australian Chardonnay: there’s a lot of it planted – more than 25,000 ha – and it’s relatively cheap, fetching A$372.00 ($348.00) per tonne in the 2013 harvest, compared to A$497.00 for Sauvignon Blanc, A$552.00 for Pinot Grigio, A$637.00 for Shiraz and A$870.00 for Pinot Noir.
So, far from forgetting about the variety, the country’s larger wine producers are giving it a renewed focus. Accolade has been running its All About Chardonnay initiative in the UK since late last year, with key brand Hardys at the forefront. “We’re the champions of Chardonnay and have been for a long time,” says Accolade UK and Ireland general manager Paul Schaafsma. “We think it’s the prince of grape varieties and so flexible.”
Julian Dyer, general manager UK and Europe at Australian Vintage, says there’s so much Chardonnay planted in Australia for a reason. “There’s a massive consumer demand for it. Yes, you can still buy big, malo, oaky Chardonnays, but you can also buy mineral, tingly Chardonnays from the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania.”
This hints at the immense natural diversity of Chardonnay styles – compare the wines of Montrachet, Chablis and Champagne’s Côte des Blancs for an Old World illustration. “I think the difficulty is there’s a lot of different wine styles – take a Chardonnay and it could be any number of styles,” argues James Roberts, sales director, UK & Ireland, McWilliam’s Wines Group. “Ninety percent of people who say they don’t like Chardonnay probably do, but they just don’t like one style of Chardonnay.”
The UK’s reaction
There’s little doubt that Chardonnay’s star has fallen among UK wine consumers in recent years. Bibendum head of buying Andrew Shaw cites Wine Intelligence figures which show Chardonnay’s losing out to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. “Recently, those last two grapes have slipped back, but Chardonnay has not recovered, suggesting either a shift to a wide range of grapes or, more likely, increasing sales of cheaper, entry-level brands,” he adds. “The shift towards the likes of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc is partly to do with style – and partly price. Australian Chardonnay’s market dominance was very closely related to price, and the strengthening of the Australian dollar has allowed other varieties to grab consumer attention and affection.” But further currency fluctuations, coupled with changes in wine style could lead to a reversal of that decline, Shaw says.
At mutually-owned merchant The Wine Society, sales of Sauvignon Blanc have almost caught up with those of Chardonnay in volume terms, but still lag some way behind in terms of value – hardly surprising when you consider that two-thirds of the company’s Chardonnay sales come from Burgundy. Of the remaining one-third, Chile takes the lion’s share, says head of buying Tim Sykes, followed (in volume) by South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. But, he points out, Chile’s average bottle price is £6.00 ($10.00), while Australia’s is £9.50. In a neat reversal of the historical status quo, the company’s best-selling Chardonnay is a £9.50 own-label White Burgundy from the Mâconnais – while there is growing interest in Australian Chardonnays priced above £20.00. For Sykes, the move towards more restrained, food-friendly styles of Chardonnay has helped this recovery. He singles out the Mornington Peninsula, Great Southern and the Yarra Valley for particular praise.
That recovery is in full flow at importer Berkmann Wine Cellars, says purchasing director Alex Hunt MW. “Australia is our lead performer for Chardonnay, thanks to stunning quality, ultra-modern styles and – I would like to think – some residual fondness despite the consumer backlash that prompted the last decade’s stylistic volte-face,” he reports.
New Zealand’s emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa’s prioritisation of Sauvignon and Chenin, and California’s persistence with relatively ‘old school’ styles of Chardonnay mean that Chile provides the main competition for Australia in this ‘new wave Chardonnay’ battleground. But could the stylistic pendulum swing too far towards the lean and steely?
“To go fully unoaked in more than the simplest Chardonnays is a mistake,” argues Hunt. “Chardonnay is not Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, and outside Chablis it needs subtle oak to show its best. The brief, tepid unwooded Chardonnay vogue was perhaps a necessary step towards engendering a shift in perception, but is thankfully largely over. Chardonnay has once again found its feet.”
For Shaw, some wines have gone too far, although he believes these should be celebrated for pushing the boundaries for both producer and drinker. But he adds: “The greater issue is the risk of confusing the customer, particularly when the wine comes from a warm climate region, yet tastes like it comes from a cold one. Wine labelling could do much to reflect the style, so the consumer can make an informed decision at the point of purchase.”
And that’s a problem not just confined to Chardonnay, Hunt believes. “The sheer diversity of wine styles in general already confuses the consumer, so Chardonnay shouldn’t be singled out for blame,” he says. “Instead, let’s treat its versatility as an asset. The consumer view of Chardonnay as a pony with one rather distasteful trick is the very view we need to challenge if Chardonnay is to see the success it deserves.”
Meanwhile, in the US…
If there’s one place where unreconstructed Chardonnay-philes can can still indulge their passion, it’s the US. One in five bottles sold has Chardonnay on the label, equating to 62% of all domestic white wines sold; of that, 95% comes from California. It’s not that Pinot Grigio and Moscato aren’t growing in the States, says Caroline Shaw, chief communications and marketing officer at Jackson Family Wines – it’s just that they aren’t undermining Chardonnay in the process. Rather, she sees these typically cheaper wines as engaging new consumers, who then graduate to higher-priced wines, and adds: “Even as interest for other white wines grows, Chardonnay will continue to dominate the market.”
If any wine epitomises Chardonnay from the Golden State, it’s Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, the category’s best-selling Chardonnay for 23 consecutive years. Rather than radically altering the liquid in line with the shift towards lighter, less oaky Chardonnay, the company instead introduced Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay, a crisp style with minimal oak. Shaw says the two wines capture the “broad appeal of two specific Chardonnay style preferences of the American consumer,” says Shaw. “There is a place for oak, fatness and ripeness as much as there is a place for lean, savoury or unoaked styles. The increasing diversity of styles allows wine consumers to explore the range and complexity that California Chardonnay can offer.” She argues that: “rather than confusing the consumer, the amazing range of styles is appreciated and valued by American consumers. It gives them so much more to explore. We should celebrate the stylistic diversity of Chardonnay, not denounce it.”
“I believe that rich, overly-oaked Chardonnays with high alcohol levels have had their day. The consumer is tired of such heavy-handed wines, dominated by over-exuberant fruit. I have noticed an increasing number of producers around the world are trying to produce a more elegant style of Chardonnay - wines with refreshing acidity, finesse, minerality and balance, and moderate degrees of alcohol, around 12.5% - exactly the style of wine that we produce in Chablis. Wines that one can happily enjoy a couple of glasses of, without the fear of a headache in the morning.” - Michel Laroche, Le Domaine d’Henri
Chardonnay plantings, selected regions
France (Burgundy): 12,200 ha*
France (Languedoc): 12,000 ha*
California: 38,386 ha
Australia: 25,491 ha
Chile: 13,082 ha
South Africa: 7,875 ha
Argentina: 6,469 ha
New Zealand: 3,202 ha
* Estimated figure
Source: Industry figures, 2012-13
“In my opinion, it is important to separate the evolution of Chardonnay in the New World and that of the Old World. The beginning of large-scale Chardonnay production in the New World dates back to the 1970s, with producers like Gallo and Mondavi in California, followed by Australia, when the impact of oak ageing was extremely prominent. I remember a tasting in Napa of Californian Chardonnays where the aim was to identify not where the wines came from (Napa, Sonoma, etc) but where the oak came from (France, Russia, America, etc)! Over the past five years or so, we see more and more unoaked Chardonnays, with specific research into the terroir and a style that increasingly resembles Chardonnays from the Old World.
In the “Old World”, the evolution has been far more moderate, specifically focused on important technical developments such as temperature- controlled stainless steel tanks to preserve the specificity of the wines. Chablis is one of the best examples of this.” - Lyne Marchive, Domaine des Malandes
The picture in the on-trade
An analysis of on-trade white wine listings by Wine Business Solutions (WBS) illustrates the contrast between the US and the UK and Australia. While the variety accounts for nearly four out of every 10 white wine listings in the US, in Australia its share has dipped below 24%, and in the UK to nearly 20%. The trend of Chardonnay losing share to Sauvignon is continuing, says WBS principal Peter McAtamney. “In Australia, according to our just-released Wine On-Premise Australia research, Sauvignon Blanc has eclipsed Chardonnay for the first time ever, just as it did in the UK late last year. “This and the continuing success of Pinot Gris/Grigio demonstrate the way in which tastes are globalising. The similarity between the proportions of listings accounted for by these three lead varietals in the UK and Australia is quite remarkable.” But this isn’t just the reflection of a consumer taste shift away from Chardonnay and towards more “aromatic” varietals, McAtamney warns. “The main reason for Chardonnay losing ground [in the UK] is a delisting of the highest-end Burgundy, a trend that we are now seeing in Australia.” He says that restaurants in all markets are less tolerant of wines being listed for ‘show-off value’. “This has impacted Bordeaux most, but Burgundy – red and white – is also feeling the effects.”
There is one Burgundian winner in this evolving picture – Chablis. “What is happening is that restaurants across the ‘Anglo’ world are swapping out Burgundy for Chablis,” says McAtamney. “This trend has been accelerated, but is not fully explained, by depreciating currency in Australia. The main driver is a move towards leaner, more acidic styles.” He suggests that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has affected people’s palates, so that more consumers are craving that acidity than perhaps they were five to 10 years ago. “That is more a case of the mass market evolving than the fine wine market going backwards.”