Written by John Kerr of Metro Wines
Why do so many people shun this once-popular grape?
“No thanks, I don’t drink Chardonnay.” I hear this refrain at least three times a week. Not only do a large number of people not drink Chardonnay themselves, they won’t serve it to their friends either. It used to be that Chardonnay was de rigueur at weddings. It was the one white wine that everyone could agree to.
Now, few brides consider the grape for their receptions. At cocktail parties and other gatherings, it’s become a divisive grape. Only Riesling is rejected more than Chardonnay.
So what happened to America’s most popular white wine? Part of the story lies in the media’s portrayal of the wine in an iconic movie series and a television show. But the main reason has to do with what happens to so many grapes that achieve widespread popularity. This story has repeatedly played out over last several decades. Let’s walk through the details.
We all know what happened to Merlot. In the 2004 movie Sideways, oenophile Miles rants to his friend, “…if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving,” and he ends with conversation with, “I’m not drinking any **** Merlot.” That dialogue immediately put the brakes on Merlot in America. Merlot consumption plummeted to the point that I began receiving flyers from otherwise revered wineries pleading for people to buy their Merlot, saying that it was the same high quality wine that had consistently sold out in previous years. To this day, Merlot sales have not completely recovered.
However, there is one Merlot that saw no drop in sales when Sideways was released. Bordeaux from the right bank of the region’s river is mostly Merlot. But because most people don’t know this, Bordeaux never saw a slump in its sales and continues to sell as if Merlot had never been disparaged.
The sad fact is that wine is like art, fashion, or any other product subject to consumer preference. A wine’s popularity is constantly influenced by the current fad or consumer trend.
Before you swear off Chardonnay, try a few of the different styles from the Western United States and around the world.
As with Merlot, Chardonnay had its own media bomb. The two Bridget Jones movies released in 2001 and 2004 featured Chardonnay in an unflattering light. Now referred to in the biz as the Bridget Jones effect, two scenes took their toll on Chardonnay. One scene showed her in a bar with tears on her face, lamenting her sorry life over a generous glass of Chardonnay. And later, her diary entry, “Dear diary, I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.”
The second hit came from Chardonnay’s nickname, “cougar juice,” which derived from the TV show Cougar Town. The show’s name came from the town’s high school mascot. But it didn’t take long for the public to apply the term cougar to the women stars who seemed to spend their lives drinking Chardonnay and chasing younger men.
Although the dip in Chardonnay sales is not nearly as bad as what happened to Merlot, the effect of this one-two punch still lingers.
Although bad press can kill a wine, the most common hit to a wine’s popularity is caused by the wine’s own prominence. Its meteoric fame becomes its demise and the wine craters under its own weight. No, it’s not because the public gets tired of the grape. It’s actually something a bit more sinister.
Every business has its hucksters, and the wine business is no different. When a wine becomes popular, opportunists know that a grape will sell based on its name alone. As Chardonnay was being “discovered,” the floodgates opened, and cheap Chardonnay began to appear at banquets, as well as grocery and big box stores (and they’re still there). Every grape has its cheap versions. But when Chardonnay is bad, it’s really bad.
Chardonnay is such a versatile grape that it can be grown just about anywhere in the world. So it will remain the leading white wine for the foreseeable future. But that also means that it will remain the most abused grape variety out there.
The other major effect on Chardonnay was the California style. California started with the French style, and produced a wine so close that it fooled French wine critics, who accidently voted it the best white Burgundy during the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976. But soon, California vintners graduated to a softer, buttery style, with a dominant oak foundation. It’s a great style that helped define great California wine.
The demise began when several vintners took too seriously the American adage that bigger is better. The oaky, buttery style of Chardonnay started down the path of American car styles in the 1950s. At that time, one manufacturer decided to put fins on the back end of its cars. Since that year’s car model sold well, competitors released models with even bigger tail fins the next year. Every year, the fins grew bigger until the public had had enough. Then sales plummeted.
The popularity of Chardonnay coincided with this oaky, buttery style. The good Chardonnay was still out there, but the average consumer bought the cheap stuff flooding the market, and then assumed that this was what all Chardonnay tasted like. Most people tried Chardonnay at this time, and will forever associate Chardonnay with this blown out version. That’s when the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club really took off.
Don’t think you like Chardonnay? Maybe you haven’t tried the right style for you. When customers tell me that they don’t like Chardonnay, I always ask them if they’ve tried one from France. More often than not, the answer is no. Burgundy, French Chardonnay, has little or no oak and no butter. Instead, you’ll get notes of green apple wrapped in a beautiful texture. It truly is a different experience.
Before you give up on Chardonnay completely, I encourage you to try one from France. While you can spend a fortune to buy a bottle from Montrachet, you won’t have to break the bank to get the white Burgundy experience. Here’s a couple with remarkable quality for the price.
Nicolas Potel Macon Villages, at about $16, has a richer texture. And the current release is the 2014 vintage, the last of the classic styles for a couple of vintages due to the hot weather during 2015 and 2016. If you prefer a crisper, cleaner style, try Romanin Macon Villages 2015, also about $16. Its flinty crispness places it somewhere between a Burgundy and Chablis.
Although you’ll find stalwarts like Rombauer that maintain the buttery style, there is a trend in California and the Pacific Northwest that reaches towards Europe. Like the Oregon Pinot Noir, the style lives somewhere between Napa and Burgundy—a French style, but with a bit more fruit.
One of the more popular is Donati “Sisters Forever” unoaked Chardonnay, at about $15, made from sustainably farmed grapes by a woman winemaker. One of my favorite premium Chardonnays is Oregon’s Domaine Drouhin “Arthur.” At about $38, its quality compares to a $100 Burgundy. You’ll find it on my dinner table every Thanksgiving.
You don’t have to spend a lot to get a solid Chardonnay. Consider La Linda unoaked Chardonnay. The winery is little known in the United States, but is popular in Argentina. You’ll get that European texture at about $12 a bottle.
So, before you swear off Chardonnay, try a few of the different styles from the Western United States and around the world. I’ll bet one of them will make you a Chardonnay lover yet again.
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