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Is Familiarity Breeding Contempt for Chardonnay?

While Pinot is super-popular, W. Blake Gray asks why California Chardonnay just can’t get no respect?


In Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown in many of the same villages and are nearly equally revered. But in California, there’s no relationship between their reputations.

Chardonnay is California’s most planted grape and not coincidentally its most popular varietal wine. But its reputation with wine lovers has plummeted over the last 20 years, even though total sales continue to rise. California Chardonnay doesn’t get the respect or prices fetched by the state’s Pinot Noir and doesn’t seem to appeal to the same audience.

“I made Chardonnays in the ’80s and ’90s that were more expensive than these wines on the table,” Au Bon Climat owner/winemaker Jim Clendenen said last week.

Clendenen was speaking as a panelist at the International Chardonnay Symposium, California’s only event focused on Chardonnay. Pinot Noir lovers can choose from Pinot Fest, Pinot Days, the Pinot Noir Summit, World of Pinot Noir, Pinot Paradise, Pinot on the River, Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival and the Russian River Valley Pinot Classic, and I may have missed some (please don’t email me). They can fly up to Oregon for the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Chardonnay lovers have this one event based in Pismo Beach, and it wasn’t even particularly well-attended. Did I mention that there’s more than twice as much Chardonnay planted in California as Pinot Noir?

I also believe, as does Clendenen, that top quality California Chardonnay has never been better. California had very little Chardonnay until 1980, when a planting boom started. By 1988 California had more Chardonnay than France. But wineries were unsure what to do with the grape.

“In the first third of my career, Napa was making the ‘food wines’,”

Clendenen told Wine-Searcher. “They were picked too early. ML [malolactic fermentation] was suppressed. They didn’t have flavor. They were bad wines. Then they went the other way, to 16 percent alcohol. Oak barrels, malolactic, lees contact – all the things you’ve learned to love in Chardonnay have been exaggerations in California. That’s when [critic Robert] Parker anointed Kistler as the best Chardonnay around. I don’t know how you can drink that.”

My own theory is that Chardonnay gained its huge US fan base because of the oaky, buttery, slightly sweet style. Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, originally the accidental result of a stuck fermentation, became one of the most popular wines in America. But this is not a broad base of wine lovers. In the US, there are Chardonnay fans, and there are enophiles, with almost no crossover between them.

Meanwhile, Pinot Noir didn’t take off in the U.S. until “Sideways” was released in 2004. Before that many Americans hadn’t even tasted a Pinot, but Pinot specialist wineries had considerably more experience with the grape than Chardonnay makers had in the ’80s and ’90s. California Pinot’s awkward period happened without the nation paying attention, and its emergence came perfectly timed for several helpful trends: a surge in enophilia, the growth in influence of sommeliers, and a backlash in some quarters against overly powerful Cabernets.

The upshot is, Pinot Noir producers are rock stars, while you could see some of the best Chardonnay makers in California on Saturday speaking to a half-empty room.

The good news is that you can buy California’s best Chardonnays for a fraction of what Pinots cost. Or, for that matter, what white Burgundies cost.

“I make 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir,” Clendenen said. “They should appeal to the same people. I believe there are a lot of wine lovers who are upset over the oxidative issues with white Burgundy. Plus they’ve had a string of bad vintages in Burgundy, which has driven the prices way up. The Meursaults are $150 now. I don’t drink a lot of $150 wines.”

The producers at the symposium said it’s hard to get Americans to spend more than $20 on Chardonnay. Clendenen has a conspiracy theory. He believes Napa and Sonoma wineries protected their Cabernet shelf prices while using Chardonnay to keep moving volume.

“Santa Barbara had 11,000 acres of Chardonnay in the ’80s,” Clendenen said. “Then 8000 acres were bought by big companies from the North Coast (Napa and Sonoma). When the next economic downturn came, the first things that were thrown under the bus were Santa Barbara County Chardonnay grapes. After the downturn you could buy Meridian Chardonnay for $4.99. You could buy Cambria for $11. People would ask me: ‘Why should I spend $18 on your wine? These other wines were more expensive and now they’re less.’ I said: ‘That’s why you should buy my wine.'”

But Clendenen says consumers don’t ask for enough from Chardonnay, unlike with white Burgundy.

“The saddest thing from the Chardonnay business is that so many people think they can get a satisfactory wine for $15 and they can drink it tonight,” Clendenen said. “I’ve made wine to age my whole career. So many Chardonnay consumers aren’t taking advantage of the high quality of $35 to $60 wines. You just don’t see anybody coming out with very high prices. My wines must have been ludicrously expensive in the ’80s because I was selling a lot of Chardonnay at $35. Now I sell the Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, the same wine I made at $35, I sell it at $30. Real dollars.”

Clendenen was infamous 15 years ago as a verbal bomb-thrower at symposiums, sometimes getting into shouting matches. I remember reading stories written about him in the big wine magazines, which supported the high-alcohol style, and Clendenen being portrayed as a crazy man.

“That guy’s dead,” Clendenen said. “But the wines still need the bombs. If you can drink a Marcassin Chardonnay and enjoy it, more power to you. I can’t. They’re shellacky.”


Image © Au Bon Climat



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