Diversity - Thy name is Chardonnay
© by Linwood Slayton

One of the many things that intrigues me about wine is the fact that the casual wine drinker is very susceptible to wine trends. What is "in vogue" and "hip" ( I know, I am dating myself) today tends to be "passé" next year. Recently, there has been a noticeable consumer shift away from Chardonnay and many commentators have written about the "ABC" trend ( Anything But Chardonnay).

Yet, Chardonnay continues to have a significant share of the wine market notwithstanding that its share has lessened within the last few years as other white wines like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and even Veigner have enjoyed a rise in favor. The truth is that Chardonnay is a very versatile grape variety that can be grown in a variety of climates. Thus, we continue to see a wealth of "new" Chardonnays emerging from diverse places like Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and U.S. states other than California.

France was the premier producer of Chardonnay "back in the day" and continues to produce quality wines with the Chardonnay grape. The primary region in France that is known for Chardonnay is Burgundy and its wines are often referred to as White Burgundy. It is important to remember that French wines are typically named for the region in which they are produced. So, wines with a label that reads Meursault, Montrachet, Bourgogne or Montagny or Maconnais (Macon-Villages, Pouilly-Fuisse) are also made with the Chardonnay grape. Similarly, Chablis is made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes.

The intriguing thing about Chardonnay is that it comes in many different styles not only because of the different climates in which the grape is grown but also due to the different techniques employed by the winemakers. As a general rule, most Chardonnays can be categorized and placed in one of four basic groups or types: crisp, fruit driven, rich and complex and surprise- dessert. Many restaurants and wine bars are preparing their wine lists with these kind of groupings and for good reason.

Given the significant diversity of Chardonnay, if you just say Chardonnay when ordering or requesting a bottle of wine, the range of possible tastes and complexities is broad. However, if you know that you like your Chardonnays a little fruity or oaky or buttery, you are more apt to select a wine that meets your expectations.

So, let's take a look at the groups or types of Chardonnays.

These are your driest Chardonnays and they typically have very little oak character. They usually are grown and produced in the cooler climates and will tend to reflect flavors that are citrusy, apply, smoky and have a mineral- like flavor. Among the French wines that fall into this category are Chablis, Pouilly-Fuisse and other White Burgundy.

Fruit Driven:
These wines tend to come from the warmer climates and, as you might expect, have distinctive fruit flavor characteristics including apples, pears and lemons. They tend to be a little sweeter as well as there is a hint of residual sugar and tropical fruits often discernible. These tend to be more "commercial" and will appeal to the "white zinfandel" convert more readily.

Rich and Complex:
These are your bolder wines and vary significantly based upon the vintner's vison and design. They may be barrel fermented and/or barrel aged and have distinctive taste characteristics like butterscotch, vanillin, nutmeg, buttery, etc. These are definitely your "higher end " wines in terms of price. They will tend to be darker in color. Some may describe them as "opulent."

These are your sweet wines and Chardonnay can also make a quality dessert wine. Typicaly, your dessert wines require time to mature and improve. These wines are not easy to find but do present a delightful alternative with dessert.

Many restaurants have discovered that a "customer- friendly" approach when preparing their wine list makes sense. These or similar categories are appearing on wine lists as a means of assisting the customers in making the choice that is right for them. For example, a new restaurant in Atlanta - "COMMUNE" - has organized its wine list around similar categories: "crisp and clean," "aromatic and floral," "savory and exotic" and, "rich and opulent." One is likely to find Chardonnays in each of these groupings.

Statistical trends notwithstanding, Chardonnay remains the wine of choice for most relatively new wine enthusiasts. In the tastings and wine dinners that I have hosted during the last year, Chardonnay has been the overwhelming preference. Yes, as one's wine appreciation level increases with time and exposure, red wines will become more likeable especially with food; but for simple drinking pleasure in a social context, the winner is still Chardonnay.

So, when you understand that Chardonnay is a very diverse grape that produces equally diverse wines that provide a range of alternatives to match individual tastes and foods, it is clear that Chardonnay is a wine that is likely to survive the recent incursion into its popularity base. As vintners in regions around the world continue to hone their skills and to craft and create wines that best enhance their resources, I have no doubt that we will see a continuing improvement in the quality and diversity of Chardonnays across the board.

June 5, 2002

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