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A Tale of Two Chardy’s

By Debra Meiburg MW

Chardonnay is the consummate politician. Comfortable in many guises, ready to change its platform to suit its constituency. Chardonnay’s royalist home is France’s Burgundy region, where it is bottled under famed geographic district names, such as Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne or the more populist district, Meursault. Simpler, more plebeian wines are produced in the Mâconnais and Chalonnais districts of Burgundy, with Pouilly-Fuissé or St-Véran being the finest candidates.

The epitome of Chardonnay conservatism is northern Burgundy’s chilly Chablis district. Here the wines are fresh, vigorous and uncompromisingly austere. Brisk Chablis vineyards produce wines with such hard-lined restraint that only a few producers dare embellish them with oak aging or other grandstand techniques. Wines from Chablis are so highly regarded that many USA and Australian “new world” winemakers poached the “Chablis” name in the 1970’s, bottling wines made from indifferent grapes into large jugs labelled Chablis or California Chablis. Rightly, the Chablisienne were outraged and the new world producers ultimately phased out these pretenders, but the damage was done; to this day there is much confusion as to whether Chablis is a grape, a top quality French wine district or cheap plonk.

Burgundy’s aristocratic Chardonnay held sway over the world until thirty years ago last week, when a 1976 revolution drew attention to insurgent California winemakers. An august panel of wine experts had gathered in Paris to stage a France versus California face-off. To the shock of the wine trade — not to mention the competition organizers — Californian candidates defeated most of the classic French entries. The volte-face was such a landmark event that a book by George M. Taber called the Judgment of Paris was released last year to detail how this historic tasting revolutionized the wine industry. The historic win gave new world wine producers confidence that they could produce world class leaders in the wine market and broke Europe stranglehold on the reputation for quality.

Chardonnay is dubbed the “winemaker’s grape” as it readily responds to winemaking techniques such as barrel fermentation, lees contact, malo-lactic fermentation or oak maturation. In the joyous revolutionary euphoria of the 1970’s and 1980’s, new world winemakers liberally employed all manner of these techniques, each out-vying the next with overt, dolled up candidates.

These days the reactionaries are now gaining momentum, especially in Western Australia, where “unwooded” Chardonnay has become a dark horse favorite. Like any healthy political system, there is plenty of successful opposition. As top California producer Doug Schaeffer put it in a crowd pleasing stump speech at the China Club once, “Our wines are full-throttle and we make no apologies for that. People seem to like it.” And if voting with their wallets is any indicator, indeed they do.

Comments One Comment for “A Tale of Two Chardy’s”
  1. Lorenzo Trefethen on 06.17.14 at 09:14

    What a lovely, playful romp through the geography of Chardonnay – well done, Debra! I wish a few more Americans read your blog – it might remind them of the wonderful variability of Chardonnay, and the diversity in style that has reestablished itself in California.

    As the “winemaker’s grape”, the history of Chardonnay in California, perhaps better than any other wine, mirrors the evolution of winemaking philosophies in our regional industry, as well as the market trends that shaped and influenced them.

    In the beginning, with no one around to tell them what to do, and with, admittedly, little knowledge of how to go about it, my parents’ and grandparents’ generation founded the industry by focusing on the basics – the fruit. Mostly denied access to the french barrel industry, many of those early, revolutionary wines were completely unoaked. In fact, many of Napa’s pioneers, coming from other industries without any background in winemaking, were also wholly unfamiliar with malolactic fermentation. Our early Chardonnays embodied this innocent approach, and somehow – credit the California sunshine – it turned out beautifully. Just the 4th vintage of Trefethen Chardonnay (1976), entirely unoaked and with no malolactic softening of its enamel-stripping acidity, won the 1979 Wine Olympics in Paris. When it repeated that result at the 1980 rematch in Burgundy, it became the only wine in history to win the title “Best in the World” twice – another California tale ripe for the silver screen!

    On the heels of the successes of the French tastings, Americans started drinking wine in large numbers for the first time, creating an enormous business opportunity in an industry that had previously been just a curiosity. As the effect of the Chinese consumer ripples through our industry today, I can’t help but think back to those heady days of the 1980’s, when the US became the largest market for what had once been a European-only drink. I can’t help but wonder what new styles will emerge. In the US, where we grew up on Coca Cola, we got White Zinfandel, confectionary, creamy, Chardonnay, and ripe, jammy reds. For the most part, people loved it.

    Like anything successful, however, a backlash was brewing, and as more and more California Chardonnay defaulted to the strong on oak and malo approach, the “Anything But Chardonnay” movement grew, opening the door for fresh, crisp white wines like Sauvignon Blanc. Few, at first, bothered to notice the classic labels that had stayed true to grape-driven Chardonnay, but as new blood began embracing that approach, Chardonnay, ever adaptable, began a rebirth.

    Which is where we are now. “Full-throttle” Chardonnays are still out there, and still extremely successful. (I would argue that for the top flight, quality has improved, as well.) However, representatives of that other lovely style of Chardonnay, where the winemaker makes the difficult decision to do less, to let the vineyard sing through the glass, are beginning to get their recognition, too. “Anything But Chardonnay” is starting to sound a bit passé, a bit naive. As a devotee of the wonderful diversity in wine, I can only say, “Thank Goodness!”

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