ABC: Anything But Chardonnay?

Posted on Apr 17, 2019


 

bunch of grapes

Chardonnay grapes

We are not too sure why, but for several years now we have been hearing the three-letter acronym of “ABC” as standing for anything but Chardonnay. We decided, with a little help from our friends, to do a little digging around on the subject.

Sonoma California

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes early in the growing season.

ABC as an acronym has been around for years. Originally it had a dual meaning: anything but Cabernet/Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most popular red and white wines on the planet and the concept was a reaction to that popularity. People had either grown tired of drinking the same two wines or they simply wanted to express more originality in their choice of drink.

Remy Wines Lagrein wine label

An example of an unusual grape variety (Lagrein).

The growing legion of younger 30-something Sommeliers gave a boost to the trend as they were intrigued by advocating for less well-known and sometimes even more obscure varieties. Both grapes made terrific wine and dominated most restaurant wine lists and got the best shelf space at most wine shops. They became, in effect, “too popular” and it became uncool to be ordering the same thing all the time, particularly when the same thing was the same as what everyone else was drinking. So ABC 1.0 was a reaction to the popularity and dominance of those two grapes.

ABC 2.0 is a different trend. It is a reaction less to popularity and more to a perceived style that has become associated with Chardonnay. That perceived style is of a Chardonnay that is:

  1. Too Oaky
  2. Too Buttery
  3. Too Rich

Oak wine barrels

There was a time (in the mid to late 90s) when consumers were noticing that Chardonnay offered a slightly more textured profile than other white wines and this pleased them. Winemakers for the most part want to please their consumers and make wines the market will enjoy. At the value end of the spectrum, this is especially so where large quantities of wine are produced at lower costs and sold for lower prices to the mass market. Following consumer preferences is important to that business; it effects the bottom line. If a little more texture can be created and make your wine stand out in the crowd, then it is good business to do just that. How do you achieve that? Grow your grapes in warmer climates where they will become very ripe or pick them later; age your wines in new oak barrels and use other wine making techniques that make a richer wine (full malo-lactic fermentation and lees stirring). If bigger is better, then way bigger must be way better, right?

Langley BC

The Chardonnay vineyards at Township 7 winery in British Columbia.

And so became the trend for value-end Chardonnay producers to grab more market share by making higher impact wines through later picking and greater exposure to oak and other wine making techniques that created wines that stood out at tastings. A good thing taken too far at some point ceases to be a good thing. Enter the overdone Chardonnay that tasted too oaky, too buttery and too rich. This style of Chardonnay was a bit of a roman candle: it quickly shot up, gathered lots of attention and then fizzled out. By the early 2000s the counter-reaction had begun. It was a part of an overall trend against big wines in general. An early marker of this reaction was Jonnathan Nossiter’s film, Mondovino. The premise was that the wine world was turning into a homogenous one of same wines, all made in a hands-on style that was about commercial success as opposed to artistic success. American wine critic Robert Parker was singled out for driving the trend towards bigger, oakier wines that were higher in alcohol. The famous wine making consultant Michel Rolland was viewed as the oenologist that could show wineries how to make wines that Parker would lavish high scores upon.

Stellenbosch south Africa

Waterkloof Circumstance Chardonnay – a top rated Natural wine out of Stellenbosch

While the movie lacked journalistic honesty, it did advance the bourgeoning trend against big oaky wines. Around this time the natural wine movement also gained notice. The movement decried intervention in the winemaking process and espoused that wines should be made “naturally”. The movement never gained too much traction because it never was able to establish a list of permitted practices and not permitted practices. Wine is a man-made product, it does not happen on its own, but the naturalists never did agree on what man could do and could not do in order to claim having made a “natural wine”. But most of the naturalists did agree that using new oak barrels was a no-no.

The move to less big wines got another blast of oxygen in 2011 when famous sommelier Rajat Parr and winemaker Jasmine Hirsch got together and formed a loose association called In Pursuit of Balance or IPOB. The two believed that wines in general, and California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in particular, had become too big, too rich and too oaky, and therefore out of balance. They advocated for a more restrained style of winemaking, in particular, lower alcohols.

They were eloquent spokespeople for their movement and succeeded drawing attention and advancing the conversation about what a balanced wine should be. 40 wineries joined them in their movement and would pour their wines in a travelling road show to demonstrate the balance of their wines. In June 2016 Parr and Hirsch, to their great credit, announced they would disband IPOB at the end of the year. Why? They felt their mission had been accomplished. They only wanted to start the conversation as to what was balance in wine. They never wanted to start an ideological war, which some of their sympathizers did and invoked the tenets of IPOB in their cause. The conversation was in full swing by the time they disbanded.

2018 Gray Monk chardonnay

An example of a wine using “Unwooded” on the label.

The result of these and other activities has been a general trend away from big wines, away from power and more towards elegance. As with most trends, some will try to make commercial success from it. Un-oaked Chardonnay is not only common but is being advertised as a dominant selling feature. The word “unoaked” or “unwooded” appears on labels and on shelf talkers as does its marketing cousin “naked”. The pendulum has definitely begun to swing. It has been very difficult to find that big, rich, over-oaked Chardonnay of the late nineties. But reputations are hard to shake, and Chardonnay continues to suffer from that bad rap.

Do the Chardonnay haters really hate Chardonnay? And do they hate it for the reasons they think they hate it? Below is a story from one winemaker who decided to test it out.

From: Mt. Salem Vineyards  https://www.mountsalemvineyards.com/i-hate-chardonnay/

“A) 80% of our new visitors swear they “hate chardonnay” and will render this unfiltered opinion without restraint. Most won’t even try our chardonnay, and many who do grimace in the process. This hurts to watch.

B) We sell all our chardonnay, most by the case, at more than 2x the average price for chardonnay in the U.S. Many of those buyers come back for more; most are disappointed when a vintage sells out. Some get angry.

How can we reconcile this disparity? The only rational way we can: capture some data.To do this we removed chardonnay from our daily tasting list (so new visitors didn’t know we made it) and instead offered an extra “mystery pour” for each guest’s visit.

We wrapped bottles of our 2014 chardonnay in brown paper bags, poured a splash in the visitors’ glasses, and asked them to tell us if they liked it, disliked it, or were neutral. The results surprised even us:

Like It 81%
Don’t Like It 6%
Neutral 12%
Total 99% (due to rounding)”

So, let’s sum this up:

  • If people know it’s chardonnay, then 80% say they hate it without even trying it.
  • If people try it without knowing it’s chardonnay, 80% say they like it.

The reality is that premium quality Chardonnay has been a quality wine for centuries. Those making quality wines, not seeking just commercial success, have not changed their winemaking style much in the past 30 years. The top artisans have always been about pursuing the best that their vineyards will give them. Consumer tastes may have some small influence on their style from year to year, but it is subtle. Consumer fads have no influence on them; it is the mass marketers that chase the latest trend. The artisans just chase quality. And always have. So when bigger wines are in style, their wines are not much bigger, or even bigger at all, and the same when leaner wines are in style.

Chardonnay tasting

The chardonnay lineup.

Our good friends Denny and Kathy wanted to have a dinner with some friends who had joined the ABC crowd but were open-minded enough to honestly assess a group of Chardonnay wines. They asked us along and asked us to choose the wines. Since Chardonnay is one of the most versatile grapes in the vinous world, capable of making noticeably different wines depending upon the terroir that it comes from, we were able to select four wines that typify four different styles of Chardonnay from four different regions. We started with a sparkling and then chose to represent the different styles of Chardonnay through body, tasting a lighter Chardonnay, a medium body Chardonnay and a fuller body Chardonnay. Each wine we chose was of a similar quality: very good to excellent.

Before the tasting began we gave our tasters this prelude: “It is important to note that there is no right or wrong here, no better or worse. Whatever you like or dislike is for you alone to determine. You might like all of these styles are you may like none. Some of you may prefer one style and the person next to you another. And always keep this in mind: whatever you prefer is what you prefer and no one should criticize that or attempt to change it. The purpose here is to learn something and perhaps even allow you to find out a little more of what your palate prefers.”

The evening was great fun and full of learning and surprises. Here are the wines we tasted and the general reaction to them:

Le Mesnil champagne wine label

Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

1. Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc

100% Chardonnay, method Champenois. Several of our tasters were surprised to learn that Champagne can be made from Chardonnay. Everyone enjoyed the wine, and many noted the crisp and refreshing character of this bubbles.

wine night

2015 Jean Marc Brocard Chablis

2. Jean Marc Brocard (Chablis, France)

100% stainless steel ageing, 6–8 months. 12.5% alcohol. 2g/L residual sugar; malo in tank. That Chablis was made with the Chardonnay grape was a surprise to many. The acidity and freshness were noted.

Willamette Valley Oregon

2014 Domaine Drouhin Arthur Chardonnay

3. Domaine Drouhin Arthur (Oregon, USA)

Partially fermented in stainless steel, partially in oak. This might have been the most popular wine of the evening. Tasters noted the step up in body over the Chablis and liked the balance.

Carneros Chardonnay

2014 Starmont Chardonnay

4. Starmont Chardonnay (California, USA)

20% new French oak and full malolactic fermentation. Here the richness was noted by some tasters but none felt it was overly so.

The general consensus was that each of the wines were very enjoyable and all were surprised that this was what good quality Chardonnay tasted like. None felt that any of the wines were excessively oaky, buttery or rich. Most of the tasters would not include themselves in the “ABC” group any longer.

Though there was a time that makers of Chardonnay, particularly at the lower end, strived to be noticed in ways that gave rise to the ABC criticism, few if any today are pursuing the overdone paradigm. If you have been staying away from Chardonnay for that reason, maybe now is a time to revisit a good Chardonnay again and see if your view has changed. Cheers!

9 Comments

  1. jdombrowski.italy@gmail.com'

    I’ve never been a Chardonnay drinker as I’m more of a red drinker. I’ve never heard ABC before, but there are some similar trends in Bordeaux, where I live, like with Sauternes. It’s also undergoing a revolution, but more to do with marketing since the younger generations have considered Sauternes a traditional wine the older generations drink at the holidays. Sounds very similar to Chardonnay not being cool to drink anymore.

    Sounds like you had a great time rediscovering Chardonnay at the dinner event and that you tried some really good wines. Sometimes we all just need a little push to get outside our comfort bubbles and try, or in this case re-try, wines.

    Post a Reply
    • We would say all grape varieties have a wide spectrum in terms of how they are made and taste. Climate, winemaking, barrel use, etc all have an influence and the results can vary widely. Vive le difference (as long as we keep our minds and palates open)!

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  2. stephenkrug18@hotmail.com'

    Thank you for choosing Oregon and specifically Drouhin. Oregon makes amazing Chardonnay. Worth visiting just for Chardonnay.

    Post a Reply
    • We couldn’t agree more. For all the accolades they get for Pinot Noir, on our last two trips to the region the Chardonnays have been standouts!

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  3. Robin@Crushedgrapechronicles.com'

    What a fantastic read! You had me riveted from the start. Chardonnay has gone through quite a bit in the public eye and you beautifully covered this journey.

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  4. kathy.g.molnar@gmail.com'

    Loved the ABC evening itself and great to read about it again. I was in ABC 2.0. Thank you for rescuing me!

    Post a Reply
    • You are most welcome…we think we’ve created a chardonnay monster ;)!

      Post a Reply
  5. rick@strongcoffeetoredwine.com'

    This is a great piece that needs to be seen and read. Allow me to mention this “take away”
    Quality wine is a personal pursuit from the winemaker to the consumer. Cheers

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you Rick and we couldn’t agree with you more…cheers!

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