There seems to be a reluctance among wine consumers to embrace chardonnay. The stunning and well-made grape alternatives available to white-wine lovers have given chardonnay a run for its money. And while these alternatives have marketed their products well, chardonnay producers have kept their eye clearly off the ball and refused to evolve to consumer needs and desires. Let's look at what happened.
I've been in the wine business for more than 45 years and have been intimately involved in quite a few wine trends — one of which was the very sad practice during the 1970s and much of the 1980s of over-oaking chardonnay. It took its toll on chardonnay lovers. I really do not know what precipitated this shift in chardonnay, but using so much new oak in the wine drowned out its natural varietal character.
Not only was new oak used on chardonnay, the wines were fermented in oak as well. It was a crazy period of time for American chardonnay producers. Many also encouraged full malolactic fermentation, which essentially killed the thirst-quenching flavors of the varietal and made the wines silky, undefined, butter-banana bombs.
It was hard to find cuisine that would go with these wines. A witty white Burgundy (chardonnay) producer once suggested at a tasting I attended in San Francisco that perhaps banana splits with caramel topping would do the trick. American chardonnay lovers, at the time, unless they were white Burgundy fans, had little alternative but to run with the bulls.
Simple, undefined, cheap California chardonnay, as well as mass-produced chardonnay from the southern hemisphere, meant another nail in the coffin for "serious" chardonnay consumers. From about 1995, we've been seeing a plethora of ill-defined, poorly structured, cheap chardonnay arriving chiefly from Australia, Argentina and Chile and hot-climate, high-alcohol chardonnay from California. Some of these wines hit under the $8 and are poorly made.
So here is the way to buy chardonnay: Stick with chardonnay from cool climates where the acid levels remain crisp and fresh and the alcohol levels don't climb above 14.5 percent. There is nothing worse than flabby or high-alcohol chardonnay, so seek wines from the Willamette Valley and selected areas in the Rogue and Applegate valleys. Of course, the great Macon in France will give you wonderful, crisp chardonnay for well under $15, which is a good deal. If you buy inexpensive chardonnay, you will get cheap flavor profiles. Chardonnay fits almost perfectly the old adage, "You get what you pay for."
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part-time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.