Chances are, if you offer white Burgundy to the average wine drinker, they’ll be flattered and delighted. Offer Chardonnay to many American wine drinkers, however, and it’s possible you’ll hear “ABC — Anything but Chardonnay!”
Despite being California’s most widely planted wine grape, with 94,532 acres in 2016, many Americans are Chardonnay haters. The funny thing about all this is that white Burgundy, which is widely accepted as one of the best wines in the world, is almost exclusively made in France with the Chardonnay grape. What gives?
“Many consumers look at Chardonnay as a category,” says Catherine Bugue, director of education at the Napa Valley Wine Academy. “For me, I see Chardonnay as a blank canvas like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) teaches. It is a varietal where the region and winemaker dictate the style, and the consumer purchases the piece of art from the creator it admires the most.”
For better or worse, domestic Chardonnay went through an explosion of popularity in the 1980s. It went from barely planted in the U.S. to one of the most common grapes. Americans loved their Chardonnay, and we wanted it big and rich, with delicate spice notes. In other words, we wanted it aged in oak barrels.
“A great oaked chardonnay has a hint of richness in it and gravitates to flavors like poached pear and spice,” says Mark Malpiede, vice president of sales and marketing at Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma. “Acidity is key to making a balanced chardonnay and the best examples tend to show some minerality, which leads to a long, lingering finish.”
As demand for the style skyrocketed, some winemakers started taking shortcuts, like artificially adding acidity, or adding oak chips to a wine instead of aging it in oak barrels (much more expensive, and a longer process). “I think there is disdain directed at Chardonnay that is made with mass-production techniques because they are poor examples of the varietal,” says Dave Rudman, the USA business development director of the WSET.
Unfortunately, due to price and availability, the average person is more likely to have had a bad oaked Chardonnay than a good one. Hence all the Chardonnay hating. Between 2008 and 2017, the number of people in the U.S. who reported having bought Chardonnay in the past three months went down by around 20 percent.
Though “plenty of consumers still hold a soft spot for richly oaky Chardonnay wines,” Bugue says, “consumers are interested in unoaked wines now; they are looking for fruity wines full of apple, citrus, or tropical fruit flavors.” Is this the domestic Chardonnay that will steal our hearts again?
We think so.
Here are five that we think could convert even the ABC club:
Poco a Poco Chardonnay from Mendocino, CA. Approximate price: $20.
Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay from Sonoma, CA. Approximate price: $95
A to Z Wineworks Chardonnay from Willamette Valley, OR. Approximate price: $15
Foxglove Chardonnay from Central Coast, CA. Approximate price: $17
Wagner Chardonnay Unoaked from Finger Lakes, NY. Approximate price: $13
BONUS: If you still want to go with something French and unoaked, try Chablis! It’s known for its mineral-driven, crisp Chardonnay, and ranges from very expensive to quite affordable.