Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Chardonnay?

Australian Chardonnay was famous for its power, elegance and abundant flavor, and some are still like that.
© Hardys | Australian Chardonnay was famous for its power, elegance and abundant flavor, and some are still like that.
Some people love the new style of taut Chardonnay, but others miss the voluptuous fruit bombs of old.
By James Lawrence | Posted Monday, 02-Nov-2020

The glib answer to the glib question "why did Australian Chardonnay fall out of fashion" is that "it never did".

Of course, that didn't matter to magazine editors – the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) "movement" made for great copy. The rash of stories coincided with Sauvignon Blanc's meteoric rise to fame in the UK and Australian markets, something that continues to annoy several Antipodeans.

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And it is certainly true that Chardonnay's total acreage has declined in Australia; in 1992, the tonnage of Chardonnay exceeded that of Riesling in Australia for the first time; by 2005 it was nine times as great. However, after plantings peaked in 2007 at around 32,000 hectares, Chardonnay began to outstay its welcome.

Its popularity never died (as has been widely claimed), although a glut of grapes caused prices to fall to unsustainable levels for some growers selling to the big exporters. As a result, about 20 percent of Aussie Chardonnay was removed and replaced with Sauvignon Blanc. Other growers hedged their bets on crops such as almonds. But the premium end of the market was largely unaffected, or so the trade insists.

"Chardonnay has remained one of the most popular varieties in this market throughout my career," says experienced wine buyer Peter Mitchell MW.

"At slightly lower price points, the rise of Sauvignon Blanc impacted Chardonnay to a small degree, but it has always remained popular."

Chicago-based sommelier Zach Jones adds: "Does 'ABC' mean 'Anything But Chardonnay?' I had to look it up, which I guess indicates that anti-Chardonnay sentiment has never really occurred to me. I would agree that I haven't observed a widespread revolt against the grape – Chardonnay sales were pretty consistent before the restaurant shutdown."

You don't even have to trust the insiders on this one. According to the IWSR, demand rose generally for the grape in the US, Australia, and Netherlands between 2014-2018. "Demand is very buoyant in the US market – it is far and away the largest market for Chardonnay – eight times larger than Chardonnay volume in the UK," said an IWSR spokesperson.

This activity is affecting both the premium and bottom ends of the market. According to ex-footballer turned winery owner Richie Vandenberg, Aussie Chardonnay has more than doubled in bulk wine price since 2013, although its sustainability is only now getting to where it needs to be for farmers to continue with the crop.

"Customers are now facing a conundrum – pay higher prices to ensure the Chardonnay farmers can earn a decent living or they will continue to look at alternative crops with higher yields such as almonds, citrus, and table grapes, further exacerbating the supply problem. We expect a significant jump in price this year due to the drought and very high water costs," says Vandenberg.

The variety accounts for approximately 23 percent of Australian wine exports, however, it has failed to resonate as strongly with Chinese consumers, who will pay far bigger bucks for Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet overall, the evidence suggests that upmarket Australian versions are far from a moribund category.

But for how much longer? In recent times, a growing number of premium Chardonnay producers have been desperately trying to shake off the "peaches and cream" caricature by emulating their rivals in Chablis – particularly growers in the cooler climes such as Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Adelaide Hills and Margaret River. I'm sure that some members of the trade love the restraint that flows through these wines. Their appeal to hipster sommeliers is clear – they take Aussie Chardonnay in a bold new direction. 

A matter of taste – or a lack of it

The problem is that many of these Chardonnays taste of nothing. Sorry, that's a bit unfair: they taste of water mixed with gun flint mixed with lemon juice. The current paradigm – not adopted by everyone – is seemingly to make wines that are austere and reductive to the point of utter tedium; they leave me longing for the buttery excesses of the 1990s. Of course, trends typically lurch violently in the opposite direction – this is a regrettable if understandable effort to dispel the image of premium Australian Chardonnay as one-dimensional.

Unfortunately, some contemporary versions are just as one-dimensional as the good old days – it's just that this singular dimension now means a lack of flesh or pleasure, as opposed to buttery hedonism. Is this really what consumers want? Does Australia risk alienating consumers – this time for real – by chasing austerity to the nth degree?

Australia's cooler-climate areas like Margaret River offer both elegance and restraint.
© Cape Mentelle | Australia's cooler-climate areas like Margaret River offer both elegance and restraint.

"Maybe some do crave the style and certain commentators have lavished praise on them – perhaps because they were something new? – but if evidence is the wines we stock that sell best, then skinny Chardonnay is not generally popular," argues Mitchell.

"Styles that work best have some richness and oak on them and tend to be around the 14 percent level. When we have tried lower alcohol, leaner Aussie styles, feedback has been negative."

It is for this reason that I now regard much Australian Chardonnay with suspicion, rather than anticipation. Will the pendulum swing in the opposite direction? I hope so, but in the meantime there is always Burgundy to fall back on, if you crave riper styles of Chardonnay.

This is partially due to global warming and partially due to changing attitudes and winemaking practices. Anyone who tasted blind a Julien Brocard Chablis La Boissonneuse 2015 would be amazed at its origins. Ripe, textured, generous and imbued with a tropical fruit exoticism, it was gloriously un-Chablis like. You can chalk up my love of this atypical wine to a sacrilegious palate, but I imagine most consumers would favor this over taut and steely.

Elsewhere, rising temperatures and cooler fermentations have led to the ripe, food-friendly white Burgundies of 2015 and the attractively tropical 2006s and '09s. If you've got deep pockets, then Burgundy has taken over Australia's mantle of providing exhilarating gratification that flows from ripe, low-yield Chardonnay aged in barrique.

"I think a lot of drinkers that loved richer New World styles of Chardonnay ended up finding their way to white Burgundy,” agrees San Francisco-based sommelier Matt Cirne.

"For a New World audience the wines are also becoming more familiar to their palate – grapes are only getting riper in Burgundy and there is hardly a shortage of new oak in the Cotes de Beaune."

In fairness, the steely phenomenon is not limited to Australia. Younger Californian winemakers are following their Antipodean counterparts in lusting after tense Chardonnay – particularly the more natural-leaning set.

"A lot of younger wine drinkers are rapidly gravitating towards these styles and realizing that, wow, Chardonnay doesn't have to be flabby and gross and is actually pretty amazing. Heck, even Rombauer, long the standard-bearer of obscenely decadent butter-popcorn Chardonnay has begun to tone it down and coax more acidity out of their wines," says Jones.

Millennials, he opines, are the ideal target consumer group for Chardonnays made by Ceritas, Liquid Farm and Tyler. They continue to make technically proficient wines that eschew new oak for a razor-sharp acidic line. If you like such styles, then you'll adore the taut restraint of the 2017 Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Chardonnay I tried last year.

I'm sure there is a willing audience for these wines – at the right price points. Others may lament this surge into steeliness; I certainly do. But pitching to Millennials, a notoriously fickle bunch, surely carries massive risks?

"Consumers never rejected high quality, full bodied Chardonnay – they just couldn’t find them anymore," observed Australian winemaker Nicholas Crampton in 2018. If producers like Mac Forbes decided to tone down the austerity and tone up the oak, then I'm sure the wines would sell and resonate with older, wealthier buyers.

It's certainly an odd state of affairs. Critics used to delight in chiding Californian and Australian growers for producing massively alcoholic and '"sickly" Chardonnay; some of those producers responded by lurching into the Chablis paradigm, rejecting fruit and oak for a sort of high minded steeliness that comes across as artificial. At their best, these wines are refreshing with seafood, at their worst they are devoid of any charm.

Some New World wineries have resisted the temptation to churn out limpid holy water. Stellenbosch has become one of my most trusted sources: both DeMorgenzon Reserve and Jordan Nine Yards Chardonnay seem to have struck that ideal balance between oak, generosity of fruit flavor and acidity.

But increasingly, I find that Old World Meursault and Montrachet are your safest bet, if you crave Chardonnay with a bit of exoticism and punch. Global warming strikes again.

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