Top 10 defining drinks trends of this century so far

6. From ABC to CCC: Chardonnay revisited

It would be safe to say that not a single one of the 200 issues of db have been sent to the printers without a mention of Chardonnay. The world’s most widely planted white grape, and one of the most divisive of all varieties, it is either dismissed as unpalatable, or rated as the ideal desert island grape – after all, it is the basis of the greatest fizz (from Comtes de Champagne to Salon); the most celebrated barrel-aged whites (from Leflaive Montrachet to Kistler Carneros), or the most popular steely refreshment in Chablis. But when we launched db in 2002, the grape was plagued by a reputation for producing unbalanced wines. Whether you blame Australia or the US, the appealing aspects of Chardonnay had been exaggerated to such a degree that the result was far from pleasing, spawning a movement dubbed ‘Anything but Chardonnay’, shortened to ABC. Sales began a steady decline, with Pinot Grigio, then Sauvignon Blanc and rosé picking up the slack.

Before the millennium, Chardonnay had been the world’s most popular grape, thanks to its seductive, textural appeal, its combination of stone fruit flavours and lemon-fresh acidity, and its unparalleled ability to successfully carry the attractive characters from certain cellar practices, such as creamy notes from malolactic fermentation, nutty richness from lees contact, and the toastiness from oak, as well as a touch of vanilla if there’s new wood too. These are aspects that, when combined, create a delicious and mouth-filling glass of white wine. Something with instant appeal, and versatility.

As is so often the case with success stories, the situation can turn sour when people take things too far. Looking back, I suppose there was a sense that if people liked the characters described above in moderation, they would enjoy them even more if they were amplified. The problem was that the delicious nature of good Chardonnay came about when such aspects were in harmony, and increasing the influence of lees and oak, without also turning up the concentration of the fruit, left the drinker with a hollow experience.

Between the development described above and now, we have seen a pendulum swing in Chardonnay style, with the over-oaked, buttery examples replaced by the so-called ‘skinny’
version. This has emerged with plantations in chillier coastal or high-altitude locations, yielding the emergence of cool-climate Chardonnay, or CCC. It has also been achieved by picking earlier, preventing the occurrence of malolactic fermentation, and eschewing ageing the wine in barriques.

As part of this, we have also seen the development of another aspect to Chardonnay style – the manipulation of fermentations to create hydrogen sulphide, the source of a whiff of struck match at low levels, but the smell of blocked drains at greater concentrations. When present in small quantities, it adds an attractive and complexing note to Chardonnay.

As illustrated by our Chardonnay Masters, the lean, struck-match school of Chardonnay has triumphed over the ripe, tropical, oaky one. But the diversity of style is broad, and the quality brilliant, prompting a resurgence in demand for the grape, and a revision of its reputation.

Bringing Chardonnay back in vogue, particularly with sommeliers in the UK and US, is the brilliance of great white Burgundy – plagued by premox issues from 1996-2004 – New World Chardonnay hotspots from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand to Carneros in California and the Adelaide Hills in Australia, along with parts of South Africa and Chile (such as rising star Limarí), as well as niche but fashionable wine list favourites: Oregon and the Jura.

And let’s not forget Champagne, where blanc de blancs expressions are now so popular, there’s a Chardonnay shortage in the appellation. Chardonnay has come full-circle in terms of sales and reputation over 200 issues of db.

Toast: Bird in Hand, Nest Egg Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, Australia (Master medal-winner, Chardonnay Masters)

One Response to “Top 10 defining drinks trends of this century so far”

  1. Greg Fischer says:

    With green drinks in mind – The most sustainable wine on Earth is Mead. Craft Mead has developed not to be that off tasting syrupy overly sweet wine. With the different varietals of honey we are seeing craft meadmakers make fine mead both dry and sweet. Our Meadery Wild Blossom in Chicago produces the most locally wine made in the city.

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