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The Comeback Trail
By Robert Whitley
Jan 1, 2008
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You probably don't stay awake at night worrying about the legion of grape growers tending hundreds of thousands of acres of Chardonnay vines in a world suddenly infatuated by leaner, crisper white wines. Neither do I. I do wonder, though, how long it will take to repair the damage done to the world's most important white wine grape by two decades of winemaking excess.

I was struck recently by a conversation I had with a Wine Review Online colleague, who also happens to be a world traveler and big-time wine collector. We were discussing the merits of a Chardonnay that had caught my eye and he finally allowed, 'I don't drink Chardonnay much anymore, but that one is pretty good.'

I've been mulling that comment ever since. So many of my friends and associates have turned to alternative whites in recent years - Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Rueda, Pinot Grigio, and the resurgent Riesling - that I sometimes wonder who's drinking Chardonnay these days.

The reality is that plenty of people are - it's still the top selling white wine in the U.S. by a wide margin - but hardly with the passion and blind allegiance they once did. Michael Jordan, a Master Sommelier and wine director at the Disneyland Resort's Napa Rose restaurant in Anaheim, told me recently that German Riesling is getting the most activity in the wine-by-the-glass program at Napa Rose.

Wine consumers are more willing than ever to try something new, and restaurants and wine bars are only too happy to promote sales of eclectic wines. So what happened, and where is this trend going?

To the first question, I would say Chardonnay has suffered from overexposure. Too many of the fruit-driven Chards from the New World - and by that, I primarily mean California, Australia, Chile and Argentina - taste as though they came from the same vat. That's not to say they are poorly made or flawed, but if you cruise the tasting notes of any major wine publication you will find the same descriptors (can everyone say tropical fruit or ripe pear?) on nearly all of them.

Even an expert taster sampling two Chardonnays blind would be hard pressed to say this one is from Australia and that one is from California.

The reality on the ground is that it was a conscious decision to make copycat wines, because that's what sales folks tell the marketing geniuses at the big wine companies everybody wants. So the winemaker refuses to pick the grapes until they are very, very ripe (I might argue overripe), ferments the juice in new oak (though the trend these days among the big-volume producers is to use tanks and mimic the effect of the wood by utilizing wood chips) and sends the whole batch through 100 percent malolactic fermentation, which is the secondary fermentation that delivers the buttered popcorn character you'll find in many Chardonnays.

Maybe you're one of the crowd that love this style, and that's just fine, but for a growing chorus of wine lovers it's a recipe for boredom; hence the growing popularity of alternative white wines.

My answer to the second question (where is this trend going?) is merely an educated guess, but I see a dramatic course correction. We owe it to the movement to express terroir, or a sense of place, that has blossomed throughout the world over the past five to seven years.

This is nothing new, of course. It is the Burgundy model of vineyard and village specific wines that bear the mark of the place they come from. Making wines of this ilk has been a challenge in the New World because it requires the winemaker to remove his or her ego from the process.

If you've ever tasted a Helen Turley-inspired Chardonnay and wondered how in the world such awful wines get such great press, you're beginning to get the picture. The finest Chardonnays in the world come from producers who, first and foremost, have exceptional soils, climate and exposure for the Chardonnay grape. How they achieve greatness is by allowing the vineyard to speak, rather than manipulating the process to achieve a desired result regardless of conditions.

One example of that is the aroma of butterscotch you will find in many New World Chardonnays that have undergone full malolactic fermentation. The aroma and taste of butterscotch is a perfectly natural phenomenon in good white Burgundy - after aging a decade or more in your cellar.

In a new wine it is an artificial aroma, a combination of the effects of new oak and full malolactic. When such a wine begins to turn brown and exhibit the signs of premature aging, it is one of the most dreadful flavors you will ever taste in a wine glass.

Over the past couple of vintages there has been a growing awareness of this dead-end approach. Patz & Hall, which gets my vote as producer of the year for 2007, once made big, fat, buttery Chardonnays that I found overdone and unappealing. They've recently done an about-face and now offer a full roster of mineral-laced Chardonnays that are well balanced, expressive of their origin, and worthy of extended aging in the cellar.

To get there they had to throttle back on some of the winemaking excesses that typified a style of Chardonnay that swept California in the 1980s and 1990s.

'We have changed direction,' winemaker James Hall told me. 'Our goal today is to produce wines that express their terroir.'

You can find this same theme throughout California - and the world, I might add - if you look hard enough. Sonoma Cutrer and Kistler have followed this philosophy with great success for many years. Yet the list hardly stops there. Nickel & Nickel is a relatively new winery by comparison, yet it follows the same model.

From New Zealand you can find like wines from producers such as Kumeu River and Felton Road; there is Leeuwin Estate and Cullen in the Margaret River region of Western Australia; and Montes and Terrunyo have a similar commitment in Chile.

I was once, like many of my associates, almost completely put off by Chardonnay, except for those from the Cotes de Beaune in Burgundy. I have come full circle. The future for Chardonnay appears to be bright once again, and I, for one, am optimistically making space in my cellar.

Photos: Top, Sonoma Cutrer's Les Pierres Vineyard; bottom, New Zealand's Kumeu River Winery.

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.