Chardonnay white wine is undisputedly one of the world’s most popular wines and the most preferred in the USA.
Being the easiest and widest planted white grape worldwide, it has had to cope with a meteoric rise in popularity a couple of decades ago. Vineyards around the world planted it, almost as a rite of passage, to show that they could grow this revered grape of white Burgundy.
Back in the Nineties, as a result of being this renowned, everyone wanted to produce a Meursault, a Puligny or even a Mâcon but in their enthusiasm they went a bit too far, overdosing with oak and making oily, oak-chipped, hefty wines.
Also influences from TV shows worked against its popularity, eventually leading to the mantra of ABC, which I will explain further on. It was hardly surprising that the fashion moved on to lighter, cleaner fresher styles.
Well, this was the nineties and Chardonnay has moved on since. Read on and I will explain why Chardonnay is popular again and made a comeback as one of the world’s best known and highest quality wines.
What caused the decrease?
Chardonnay is one of the most neutral of all grapes. It grows almost anywhere and it’s thought of as a “winemaker’s grape” because it can be persuaded to adapt to many styles — lean and crisp, buttery and round, barrel or stainless steel fermented, heavily oaked, lightly oaked, and unoaked. The grape is so easy to grow in many climates that it was produced in huge volumes — and as with everything produced in mass, the quality fell.
This was the case for Chardonnay back in the Nineties, when many winemakers started throwing just about anything made of oak into the mix (including grannies old oak furniture I suspect), often just to mask some pretty ordinary fruit.
Back then, mass-market Chardonnay looked yellow and tasted like a tropical sunset might taste if you were sticking your nose in a barrel full of pina coladas and barbecued bananas as you looked across the beach. There was a lot of vanilla-scented oak (usually cheaply done, with oak chips or staves – you can spot their grating, resinous taste compared with that of true barrel-ageing a mile off). And the grapes were allowed to get very ripe so that you could taste the golden sunshine of the place in which they were grown.
This was also the time, when wine store shelves were awash with mediocre Chardonnay that delivered not much more than poorly-oaked wines with sweet fruitiness.
Contributing to its fall from grace was Helen Fielding’s comic creation, Bridget Jones, and the increasing availability of wine in pubs. Then there was the humiliation of having a character named after it in the trashy television series Footballers’ Wives.
Suddenly it became fashionable and trendy to join the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club and even more fashionable to drink Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc instead.
However, some experts have pointed out that there are plenty of people who snobbishly insist they are ‘ABC’ , but then go on to order a Chablis or Meursault, both of which of course are made of Chardonnay grapes.
The great comeback of Chardonnay
But Chardonnay and its vineyards and wine makers have not been standing still.
The most important reason that it never left the scene ( and probably never will) is because the Chardonnay grape is considered to be a “noble grape,” and thus belongs to a distinguished group of grapes with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet and Merlot. Noble grapes are those that, over the course of history, formed the backbone of the wine industry. These grapes are known for producing fine wines in their country of origin, and for being capable of producing fine wines in other locations as well.
In the last few years there has been more appreciation of balance, acidity and the moderate use of oak. Vines are being planted in cooler places to retain the grape’s natural freshness and wine making has been toned down to keep the flavours light and clean. The real plus factor for Chardonnay is that it has a broad spectrum of flavours that can fit around the olives, cream, mushrooms, herbs or chilli that e.g. many fish dishes come with.
In the new world they’ve moved to clean stainless steel or gentle old oak barrels. They improved their wines by reducing or eliminating the use of oak and the use of a secondary (malolactic) fermentation to soften and add texture to the wine. They also pick the grapes earlier, so the wine is refreshing, more citrus than a pineapple chunk.
In other words, nowadays they are producing sharper, fruitier Chardonnays, wines more likely to appeal to drinkers of the new, more fashionable and one- dimensional whites.
Right now there are still some examples of the “old” style Chardonnays around, but the balance has tipped in favour of clean, well-structured Chardonnays, whether or not they’re aged in oak. The new generation Chardonnays show a lot more character and balance than many of the mass-produced liquids of about fifteen years ago.
In the past ten years, I personally have not heard anything from this so-called ABC club again, if it ever existed as a real club!
Chardonnay is truly back at the front of wine making. After a period of stagnation, it’s in favour again with critics and consumers alike. Now, Chardonnay is even more the darling of the wine world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a new Bridget Jones novel has been published, but the rise is also down to changes in the way Chardonnay is produced.
For several years now winemakers across the New World have been adapting Chardonnay styles for the USA, the UK and mainland European market to reflect these regions’ taste for less-oaked, more elegant wines.
Not only is Chardonnay the leader in mass-produced wines for the everyday consumer, it remains the case that the most expensive and prestigious white wines in the world are made from Chardonnay. There’s a reason for this. Well-made Chardonnay wines are delicious and deliver exceptional quality, complexity, and enjoyment. This will always be so.
If you are interested in access to some of the top Chardonnays from around the world, then click the three images to the right of this page (for mobile users just under this text) under the heading World best Chardonnays for delivery to USA, UK or Australia and chose your area.
Feel free to leave a comment or question and I will come back to you within 24 hours.