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Chardonnay: Still Queen of U.S. Whites
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 4, 2008
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For more years than I can remember, I've been hearing that consumers are, or will be, getting tired of Chardonnay, and that they will be turning towards other white varietal wines.  In the U.S., the replacement most mentioned has been Sauvignon Blanc, aka Fumé Blanc.  Other contenders in the wings have included Viognier, Pinot Gris (or Grigio), Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and even Gruner Veltliner!  Well, it ain't happening in the U.S. right now, and doesn't seem likely to take place in the near future.  Chardonnay is still reigning as Queen of our domestic white wines, and is resting comfortably on her throne.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture released its figures in the Preliminary 2007 Grape Crush Report in February, and Chardonnay led all grape varieties, red or white, with a total of 16.1% of total wine grapes crushed in the state last year.  Not really a surprise; Chardonnay has led for many years now.  Cabernet Sauvignon was second, with 11.5% of the total, Zinfandel third, followed by French Colombard (used primarily in bulk wines), and Merlot.  Zinfandel's high position can be accounted for by the continuing popularity of White Zinfandel--not as hot as it was at its peak, but still doing well, thank you.  By the way, California is currently responsible for about 88% of the sales of all domestic wines, and two-thirds of all wine sales in the U.S.--domestic and imported.

You might be wondering, how about those hot red varieties, Syrah/Shiraz and Pinot Noir?  Both finish well down on the California Grape Crush charts.  Syrah crushed about a quarter as many tons as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir about one-fifth as many.  In fact, Pinot Noir had a decline in tonnage from 2006.  But there are reasons for that; Pinot Noir, still au currant--thanks to the wave of popularity it has been enjoying since the film Sideways--is California's most expensive grape (over $2,000 average per ton).  And quite a few wine producers have balked at paying top dollar for often less-than-average-quality Pinot Noir grapes.  Pinot Noir is legendary for demanding very specific climate and soils if it is to grow successfully.  Syrah is on the increase, but it takes years for wine producers to:  a) recognize wine trends; b) pull out grapevines of fading wine varieties, and c) find the right location and plant the now-hot varieties!

But let's get back to white wines.  Not counting French Colombard, which will never be a premium wine grape variety, no other white variety is anywhere close to Chardonnay in production in California.   Sauvignon Blanc, in second place among the white varieties, crushed about one-sixth as many grapes as Chardonnay in 2007; in fact, it suffered a slight decline, whereas Chardonnay increased its tonnage in California last year.  Chenin Blanc was third, and experienced a slight increase.  While that might sound encouraging, you must keep in mind that a lot of Chenin Blanc grows in California's Central Valley, where it's used in bulk wines; only a tiny percentage of it is made as a 'Dry' Chenin Blanc (Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma has a good one). 

Pinot Gris is in fourth place.  But this white variety has somewhat of an identity crisis in California.  I recently sat down with Steve Reeder, Vice-President and Director of Wines at Simi Winery in Sonoma, while he was visiting New York, and asked the forthright Reeder a number of questions about white wine, including Pinot Gris.  I asked Reeder why Simi, with its Italian heritage, did not call its Pinot Gris (which it sells only at the winery) 'Pinot Grigio.'  Reeder explained that Americans are accustomed to Pinot Grigio being an inexpensive, quaffing wine, thanks to the success of the Italian versions.  If you want to make a more 'serious' version, Reeder thought that Pinot Gris was the better name (and Oregon led the way using the 'Pinot Gris' name for its wines).  But the dual names for the California version of this wine has to be confusing to consumers. 

Viognier and Riesling?  As they say in Brooklyn, forgeddaboutit!  Viognier grows about 2.5% as much as Chardonnay, Riesling about 2.4% (Gruner Veltliner is not even listed).  Both Viognier and Riesling are difficult varieties to grow successfully; both are very choosy about sites.

Simi Winery, since the days when Zelma Long was winemaker, has long been known as a Chardonnay specialist.  In fact, about 40% of Simi's 300,000 case annual wine production is devoted to Chardonnay (and 35% to Cabernet Sauvignon).  In light of that fact, I asked Reeder if he were concerned about Chardonnay's future--considering all the ABC ('Anything but Chardonnay') grumblings we hear from time to time.  Reeder grinned, and replied, 'I'm not worried at all about Chardonnay.  I've been hearing that talk for the 30 years that I've been in the wine business.'  He didn't add that Chardonnay is as popular as ever.  He didn't have to.

My colleague Michael Franz wrote a brilliant treatise on the wonderful properties of Riesling (of which I'm also a fan) in his last Wine Review Online column.  I asked Reeder what he thought of the future of Riesling in the U.S.  Reeder believes that, outside of the Finger Lakes Region in upper New York and 'maybe Washington,' Riesling has no future in the U.S.  I reluctantly have to agree with him.  We Riesling lovers have to look to Germany, Alsace, Austria (to a lesser extent), maybe Northeast Italy, the Clare Valley, and Western Australia.  I think the two Australian regions might have the best chance for future growth.  Reeder believes that California doesn't have the right terroir for Riesling.

We discussed the future of unoaked Chardonnays in California, keeping in mind that Australia has been producing some 'unwooded' (as they call them) Chardonnays.  Reeder challenged me to name one top California Chardonnay solely fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks.  I couldn't.    'Perhaps the extreme end of the Sonoma Coast,' he mused, 'might have a chance of producing them.'  In general, we agreed that only the cool climate and minerally, limestome soils of Chablis and Champagne are truly capable, at present, of producing top unoaked Chardonnay.

'Chardonnay is a winemaker's wine,' Reeder went on.  'It's pliable, it grows successfully in many locations, it doesn't have much aroma on its own, it lends itself so well to oak.'  But having said that, Reeder applauded the recent trend in California  to use oak more judiciously in winemaking.  'The days of the big, oaky, buttery Chardonnays are over,' Reeder believes.  'Today's consumers want clean, fruit-driven wines,' he summed up.

When you look at the world wine scene, Chardonnay really only rules white wines in California and, to a lesser extent , Australia.  True, it rules Burgundy (including Chablis) in France--and is important in Champagne, but in no other French region.  Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Austria--it hardly counts at all.  South Africa, Chile, Argentina?  Not that important.

But Chardonnay is still our reigning Queen.  Whether some of us like it or not.