Comment - Wine - Chardonnay, Nay and Thrice Nay

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About as fashionable as Chris Losh's dress sense, the time is right for Chardonnay to step back up to the plate and show consumers what they're missing. Losh, for one, can see a potentially bright future for the varietal.

A month ago, I was at a winery in New Zealand, tasting at the Cellar Door with the winemaker, when a young-ish American couple came in to see what was on offer. The cellar door worker took them through a range of six whites, to coos of approval, but they refused point blank to even taste the last one.

“Oh God, no,” explained the girl, without even putting her nose in the glass, “I hate Chardonnay.”

I looked at the winemaker, who shrugged resignedly. "We get that a lot," he said.

It’s not just punters who seem to have fallen out of love with it, either. As a journo, I get a reasonable idea of what the trade think is hot by what gets sent my way without my asking for it. And, while I’ve got Sauvignon Blanc and Iberian whites coming out of my ears, I can’t remember the last time someone tried to enthuse me about a Chardonnay.

It is, it seems, so last Century: A grape that the trade isn’t confident about pushing, and that the consumer isn’t confident about being seen to like – a variety caught in an apparently endless cycle of negativity.

Of course, no-one wants to be thought of as behind the trend, and Chardonnay is to the 1990s what Hock and Mateus Rosé were to the 1970s. A Grunge grape in a world that is now in love with Boyband Pinot Grigio.

Perhaps, more than any other grape, it was associated with that late-1980s global explosion of New World wines. 

Whereas, for New World reds, there were (broadly) three options: Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot, the white scene was dominated by Chardonnay to such an extent that, with terrific irony, it became synonymous with ‘glass of white wine’ in a way that Chablis had before the European Union stepped in.

Easy to grow, and easy to like (lots of fruit, low acidity, cool-sounding name), it’s no surprise that it was a hit. But the grape became a victim of its own success. As orders flooded in, it was planted everywhere, including sites where it gave hardly any flavour, the blandness rescued by too much oak.

All the while, for their part, winemakers became obsessed with ever larger expressions that would pick up gongs in show tastings. The result: a tottering parade of deformed, silicon-enhanced monsters that wowed judges but proved impossible to actually, you know… drink.

The appearance of a pneumatic ex glamour-model called Chardonnay, in low-rent UK TV series ‘Footballers Wives’ merely underlined the grape’s descent from aspiration to vulgarity, and the stylistic pendulum swung violently back the other way. Freshness, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc were in; fruit, oak and Chardonnay were out.

It didn’t hurt, from a trade point of view, that the two new A-listers were unoaked and therefore cheaper to make and quicker to bring to market. Chardonnay – unloved by accountants as well as the public – had become the grape that dare not speak its name.

But, while the public might have delighted in the 'Anything But Chardonnay' (ABC) jihad, one group has remained loyal.

It might seem odd, but I’m definitely seeing more winemakers talking about the grape with enthusiasm now than I did even at the height of its popularity ten-plus years ago.

Sure, plenty of Chardonnay vines have been pulled out, often from places where they should never have been in the first place. But, with the grape about as trendy as chintz, it means that the people who are still working with it are doing so out of a genuine belief in what it can achieve, rather than financial opportunism, and the results are inspiring.

"It’s not about fruit," said one winemaker on my recent tour round New Zealand. "It’s about mouthfeel and texture."

His words were repeated throughout the country, and I’ve heard similar comments from Australians, as well. It’s a much more Burgundian approach to the grape that focuses on what’s going on in the vineyard, rather than what the winemaker can do in the winery. 

‘Freshness’, ‘less oak’, ‘sensitive malo’, ‘batonnage’, ‘balance’, ‘wild yeast’, ‘lower alcohol’ and ‘food-friendliness’. Play Chardonnay buzz-word bingo with a New World winemaker, and you’ll tick these off pretty quickly.

But, while there are still a few ‘tinned pineapple’ aberrations out there, nowadays they represent the exception rather than the rule – and the trend is very definitely in the other direction.

Admittedly, there are times when the pendulum might swing too far the other way. I tasted some non-malo wines in Margaret River two years ago that wouldn’t have been out of place in a line-up of cold-vintage Chablis - surely not a style that anyone should be copying.

Made with love rather than by committee, and from cooler, trickier vineyards, these 'New Wave' Chardonnays are not especially cheap. But then, neither is Burgundy, and it’s against wines like this that most of the practitioners would benchmark themselves.

It is, of course, heavily ironic that, having gorged on ‘cheap and cheerful’ 20 years ago, the public is largely now refusing even to look at Chardonnay at a time when the standard is higher than it’s ever been.

Maybe the trade needs to find the courage to tell the public that they’re wrong, and that it’s time to reconsider. Otherwise, the circle of negativity will continue. And the new Chardonnays deserve better than that.

Sectors: Wine

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