A Tale of Two Chardy’s
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.