At long last California chardonnay appears to be shedding its reputation among serious wine drinkers as a plump butterball best paired with popcorn. While fat, oaky chardonnays from mass-market producers continue to find a ready audience, a new trend toward leaner, more focused expressions of the wine grape is gaining attention as well.
At a recent seminar, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné said there had been a distinct movement away from chardonnay styles laden with residual sugar and vanilla creaminess. “None of the seminar panelists’ winemaking is going to walk down that Rombauer road,” he joked.
For those not familiar with Rombauer Winery's Napa Chardonnay, it has become shorthand for the buttery style that sparked the “Anything But Chardonnay” backlash in the 1990's. The Rombauer reaction also prompted a move towards unoaked, fruit-filled, white-wine varieties such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and moscato, which continue to appeal to consumers.
Perhaps surprisingly, the anti-chardonnay rebellion has not seen the grape's acreage dwindle. There are more chardonnay vines in the ground in the United States than all red-wine vines put together, according to the New York Times. California chardonnay – now planted on nearly 100,000 acres of vineyard land – accounts for more than 53 million cases of wine shipped to U.S. consumers each year, according to the latest figures (2009) available from the state's Wine Institute. That's a rise of more than 10 million cases in just six years. In any year, chardonnay sales top those of the variety's two closest competitors, cabernet sauvignon and Champagne, combined.
Not bad for a grape that nobody paid any attention to until 1976, when the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay took first place in a blind tasting of American and French wines at the legendary Judgment of Paris. Overnight it became a world-famous celebrity wine grape. Wineries tore out acres of chenin blanc, colombard and other white varieties to replant with the Wente-clone of chardonnay.
Winemakers at first tried to emulate the leaner French Burgundies, but in time developed a much lusher, riper version that traded nuance for instant gratification. They produced a beach-buddy Californian wine in spirit as well as substance. Within their bottles, the sun never set.
“Until recently, chardonnay in this state was all made in one style, the California style,” admits Raj Parr, co-founder of Sandhi Winery in Santa Barbara. “The style was to create a blowsy cocktail wine.”
But no more. Now, chardonnays across the state are delivering a clear and unmistakable expression of place.
Winemaker Gavin Chanin, from Chanin Wine Company in Santa Maria on the Central Coast, calls chardonnay the ultimate terroir grape. “It shows the site’s personality really well.”
Indeed, few grapes lend themselves to expressing their site. This non-aromatic variety also provides a relatively neutral canvas for winemakers to stamp their signatures. Chardonnay comes in a wide range of styles, from the green-tinged, racy wines of Chablis to the rich, powerful grands crus of Corton and Chassagne. There are fruit-filled oaky Australian chardonnays and the new wave of lean, unoaked, non malo-ed examples emerging from the Yarra Valley. Even California's straw-colored, mineral chardonnays display a radically different approach to the variety, accentuating its chameleon character.
In contrast to the old-school butterballs, Sandhi's chardonnay, from the maritime-influenced Santa Rita Hills, aims to capture the wet-stone earthiness of its gravel-based vineyard source. “We add nothing,” Parr says. “We let the grape speak for itself, with only a touch of new oak.”
It’s an oft-heard expression from winemakers. However, Parr and Chanin represent the new wave of premium California chardonnay producers attempting to convey a sense of place without a chunk of wood masking the fruit.
Their non-interventionist approach emphasizes purity, balance and structure. They prefer wild yeast fermentation in oak barrels and, in some instances, also stainless steel. There's no lees stirring, and they hold back on the new French oak.
To achieve a leaner style, producers are seeking out cooler sites and/or pick as much as a month earlier than those making fleshy, pineapple- and tropical-fruit-driven chardonnays that still dominate supermarket shelves.
For Matt Licklider, proprietor of producer LIOCO in West Sonoma, that ripe incarnation of chardonnay was the only choice available when he started to learn about wine. “At the time, chardonnay was like fat Elvis, and we wanted to bring svelte rockabilly Elvis back,” he says.
For adventurous winemakers across the state with similar ambitions, resurrecting a slimmed-down Elvis promises to be a continuing challenge. While there is a small but expanding and avid audience for site-specific California chardonnay hovering around $40 a bottle, the vast majority of consumers still prefer a more accessible, softer style at a lower price point.
That’s the view of retailers such as Mike Jordan, a buyer for K&L Wines in San Francisco. “You’re talking about only 5 percent or so of all chardonnay drinkers when you talk about preferring these minerally Burgundian wines. And many of those buyers are based right here in this city, where food is such a superstar," he explains.
"These chardonnays, like the superb ones from Steve Kistler [of Kistler Vineyards], are above all food wines," adds Jordan. "They have enough acid to pair beautifully. But most chardonnay buyers still want that creamy lushness and full body, even if not as over-oaked as in the past.”
With Parr and company standing at one extreme and Rombauer at the other, a number of seasoned chardonnay winemakers like Tor Kenward have taken a path down the middle. The owner and winemaker at his family winery in Napa Valley for two decades, Kenward picks his TOR chardonnay with sugar levels that translate to 14-plus percent alcohol.
He loves the honeysuckle in this grape as well as the raciness, along with the medium weight that distinguishes it from sauvignon blanc. He also admires the way it responds to handcrafting. ”Chardonnay takes on a personality more generously than other grapes. In that, it’s like riesling.”
Kenward is convinced that “you can’t make a Burgundian wine in California – the expression of fruit is too broad.” But you can dial back the toast, he says, and let the inviting essence of the grape’s character shine through without smothering it in oak. Kenward notes a change in that direction over the past decade. Well versed in the cycles of California chardonnay, he’s certain there are still more variations to come.