“What is your most popular bottle?” A concern much too often placed ahead of, “What tastes good to me?” Leaving countless shoppers at the mercy of marketed trends and blamelessly blind to alternative varietals and styles that might actually fit their palate better than another Kim Crawford or Belle Glos. But ultimately, wine is fad. Like any other business, any other industry, it is driven by temporal trends, waxing and waning in light of consumer swings and media hype.
Example A: Chardonnay. After its dominance at the top of American markets in the 80s and 90s, Chardonnay’s reputation among “sophisticated drinkers” swung drastically from household staple to social faux-pas. From KJ to ABC, the widely embraced “Anything but Chardonnay” acronym became a staunch sentiment of resistance to over-oaked, intensely ripe, buttery California Chardonnays of the late 20th century.
Ultimately, though, Chardonnay itself is not to blame. It is a reflection of its roots and its raising – where it’s grown and how it’s handled in the cellar. With its inherent flavors fairly neutral, Chardonnay is more susceptible than many other grape varieties to fall in and and out with the fads. And though open-mindedness is resurging in the market today, Chardonnay’s flamboyant reputation is still so pervadingly tarnished among “hip” drinkers, that I have, on multiple occasions, been questioned by peers when ordering a classic French White Burgundy. Shocked by my choice, exclaiming, “Chardonnay? I thought you were a wine person?” Last I checked, the Burgundians were pretty adept wine people themselves.
The good news is that after four decades of bi-polar stylistic trends, many west coast Chardonnay producers are finding confidence in their vineyards and their instincts rather than complying to demands of the mass market, and have created some beautifully balanced “NABC” wines.
Not Another Buttery Chardonnay.
Before exploring some of my recent favorites, it is important to understand just why Chardonnay can be so easily manipulated in terms of style. First and foremost, as a thicker skinned grape with a moderately full body, it can be physically cultivated anywhere. From cold, cloudy Chablis in the northern central pocket of France to Australia’s stifling Riverland desert, the Chardonnay grape is a survivor. But in spite of its tenacity to grow, the resulting wine from hotter, more Mediterranean regions like Australia and non-coastal vineyards of California can yield over-ripe tropical flavors and a lack of acidity that leaves winemakers at the mercy of the oak, an expedient and palatable prescription to treat less than desirable fruit.
So when media attention and popular demand for Chardonnay spiked in the 80s, American producers started increasing quantity and, subsequently, masking lesser quality grapes with toasty oak barrels – the immediate culprit of buttery, viscous Chardonnays that can, at extremes, taste more akin to a vanilla frappuccino than a well made wine.
The good news is American producers have now done it all – bulk production to single-vineyard bottlings, heavy new oak to stainless steel, with some even turning to experimental concrete egg fermentations – and many up-and-coming 21st century producers have, with focused intention, achieved the balance and honesty that great Chardonnay deserves.
A few current value NABC’s from VoluptuousVines:
Easy to find, easy to drink:
Sanford Chardonnay – Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbera – $30
Bright, with youthful flavors and body, this wine is light but rounded just enough to maintain fruit and freshness with a polished fleshy caress and subtle spice to compliment the finish; like high school prom night in Mom’s diamonds.
Flor de Campo Chardonnay – Santa Barbera Co. – $17
Lean and focused with tropical citrus fruits and a nice mineral backbone, this wine sees half stainless steel and half neutral oak aging; honest and easy drinking with a nice zingy finish; as clean and polished as a soprano smashing the high-notes
Small production gems:
Banshee Sonoma Coast Chardonnay – Sonoma Coast – $25
Chablis on the nose and Sonoma on the palate, this wine is a beautiful balance of natural, cool coastal ripeness and restrained oak influence; pear, apple, and lemon zest with quiet vanilla and mineral flavors dancing in delicious balance behind the scenes; the allure, grace, and intention of Cirque du Soleil’s best wire walkers.
Failla Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay – Napa Valley – $55
A surprising foreplay of bright fruit and acid lead to a lush, rounded finished, a texture resulting from lees aging in a cement vessel rather than gaudy oak presence; curvy and seductive while maintaining the wine’s natural aromatics and fruit nuances, winemakers should be envy this wine like I do petite women with natural D chests.
**For an abbreviated look at three vastly different styles of Chardonnay production from a single producer, sourcing from a single vineyard, see “Spanish Spice in Sonoma”