If you consider yourself a wine-lover or if you’ve ever muttered the words “I prefer red wines,” chances are you have rolled your eyes at a Chardonnay before. At the end of the 1990’s, the population seemed to have had enough of Chardonnay. We judged and even shamed Chardonnay lovers and opted for Pinot Grigio whenever we had the choice. It was at this time that the ABC or Anything But Chardonnay movement was born. But why? Why do we collectively purse our lips and shake our heads at the mention of a common and once extremely popular variety of wine?
To answer that question, we must first understand where Chardonnay comes from and what makes it itself. Chardonnay is one of the most neutral grapes. It grows virtually anywhere and can be adapted to whatever style the winemaker wants. Chardonnay can be crisp and bright, tropical and tart, rich and creamy, or strong and sour. Its downfall began when winemakers began to favor just one of those styles: rich and creamy.
Winemakers in California began to age Chardonnay in oak barrels instead of holding the juice in stainless steel barrels or vats. The oaking imparted toasty, buttery, vanilla tones to the final wine. At first, the populace loved it. And, because the grape is easy to grow, everyone jumped on the Chardonnay wagon. As the production quantity grew, the quality fell.
The oak brought out the vanilla flavor, which was a hit. Why was the vanilla a hit? Vanillic acid is highly addictive, it stimulates the brain and captures the taste buds. The more winemakers oaked a wine, the less the quality of the wine even mattered — the taster’s brain would focus on the vanilla component regardless of what other notes and flavors were present. Some winemakers used the ‘oaked’ style to mask defects and dress up subpar wines.
But, to truly barrel age an amazing Chardonnay is expensive. So winemakers used oak alternatives and added sugar. Suddenly store shelves were lined with mediocre, and somewhat insulting, cheap, sweet ‘oaked’ Chardonnays. As the quality of Chardonnay fell, so did its reputation and popularity.
The Anything But Chardonnay movement became a blessing in disguise for serious, talented winemakers. While the world shifted its favor to other white wine varieties, the deluge of cheap Chardonnays began to die out and other winemakers seized the opportunity to revisit the grape and explore more purposeful and in depth Chardonnay flavors.
While oaked Chardonnays are still made, especially in California, it is the unoaked Chardonnay that emerged as an unexpected hero. The stars of the unoaked Chardonnay are currently in Chablis and Marlborough Australia. The Chardonnay grapes develop a stronger citrus flavor in this region. This brighter berry, paired with stainless steel wine barrels and vats, results in a wine that is fresh, acidic, light bodied and exciting. The stainless steel keeps the wine from over oxidizing, preserving the bright fruity flavor of the grapes themselves.
An unoaked, stainless steel fermented Chardonnay isn’t hiding anything. The flavors that hit your tongue aren’t fabrications, they are just inspired and intensified versions of the grapes natural flavor.
So, next time you are offered a Chardonnay, don’t roll your eyes. Ask if it is oaked or unoaked and, based on your cravings in that moment, give it a try. You might just be transformed into a Chardonnay lover.