Story and photo by Jim Silver, General Manager, Peconic Bay Winery
I have been around the wine business long enough (22 years) to have seen many wine trends and fashions played out in the public arena: Australia's incredible rise and stunning fall; Germany's reawakening; France’s fall from grace; pinot grigio’s leap from obscurity to most popular import from Europe; California wines at 12.5% and now at 15.5% alcohol.
There are others of course, but today's topic is that curious
love-hate relationship some of us have with chardonnay.
When I was a young tenderfoot in the wine business, I was fascinated by the obscure. New wine enthusiasts often are: They love the “undiscovered” grape varieties, and the tiny producers in tiny villages off the beaten track that produce tiny quantities of wine you've never heard of. These discoveries were always undervalued and marvelous. There is no denying how entertaining this sort of discovery is, especially if you remember that it wasn’t too long ago that viognier, albariño, grüner veltliner, malbec and carmenere were all but unknown outside of their hometowns.
And then there’s chardonnay.
Oh! The noble chardonnay! A duchess from
Burgundy, champion white wine of the West, and the true darling of the
1980s and 1990s. Yet chardonnay seem so “five minutes
ago,” like an Oldsmobile or Polaroid camera. Certainly the golden sweet, oaky,
ultra-richness of many chardonnays seems out of date to us today. A
sudden change in our desire for this style of wine seems to have had
consequences for the unfortunate grape that made all of these Reagan-era
Chardonnay, along with its tenderer sister riesling, is the best white wine grape in the world to survive, thrive, adapt and relate back to its master the terroir of the place in which it grows.
In Chablis for example, chardonnay sets its roots into ancient oyster shell beds and reads back
purity and minerality like no other wine in the world. Chardonnay here
the gray cloudy sky and cold stone cellars of the winery like a mirror
stands pale in the glass -- structured, stiff, with a subtle nose and
long flavors -- and capable of astonishing longevity.
And still, chardonnay manages to grow almost anywhere it wants, faithfully reporting on the weather and winemaking to the taster. On the opposite side of the earth, Australian chardonnay returns the inimitably sun-baked warmth and red stone soils of that country. Whether on the coast of Sonoma, the cool Casablanca slopes, the white hillsides of Champagne, or the sandy bayside vineyards of Cutchogue, this grape is a capable actress. All the while, its amazing versatility and consistent success protects the considerable investment made by the owners of these vineyards.
The twisting of chardonnay's reputation began there -- in the economics. The early 1990s wave of high production wines made from high yielding vineyards thwarted the grape's notoriety but did make money for the wineries that needed to fill large bottles for large markets at small prices.
fondness for this wine has not waned -- not one bit -- in all of that
time. Backlash to its incredible world-wide popularity was inevitable
beginning “pre-Internet” with the abhorrent ABC people (Anything
But Chardonnay) and later, the rise of the Web provided a new outlet for
the chardonnay hater, and lover of the obscure.
Before the rise of blogs, the tiny group of wine writers in print was largely protective of chardonnay and its good name. Today, there are literally thousands of people blogging about wine, the vast majority of who have a wonderfully bloated estimation of the relevance of their opinions.
it's probably easy for the new wine enthusiast to attack an easy and
target like chardonnay but I take issue when the high yield,
mega-production chardonnays are lumped together with real classics! It's
bigotry! Who in their right mind, of even the ABC types, would turn away
Meursault or Montrachet, a Pahlmeyer, a Planeta, or a Taittinger Comte
Champagne simply because it was made with the chardonnay grape?
Working alongside Long Island Chardonnay experts -- Greg Gove, winemaker, and Charlie Hargrave, winegrower -- has already renewed my great enthusiasm for this variety, as the grape displays such depth of character, and remarkable complexity and longevity at Peconic Bay Winery.
What I have learned about New York State chardonnays is that we consistently fail when we try to be something we are not, and frequently succeed where the terroir (and acidity and fruit) is allowed to shine through.
To the ABC crowd, I say, “Why not Chardonnay?” Rediscover a classic -- and find room in your collection for one of the earth’s greatest messengers.