About a decade ago, there was a very active ABC movement among the wine community. ABC stands for Anything But Chardonnay.
The country was awash in rivers of Chardonnay, it was being ordered in bars and restaurants by the glass and bottle in amazing volumes.
The Chardonnay grape produces a juice that, when fermented, yields wine notes of crisp green apple and possible tropical notes like pineapple if cold fermented. Wine made from Chardonnay can seem sour in its tartness.
A secondary fermentation, malolactic fermentation, can transform malic acid notes of tart green apple to lactic acid notes of butter and cream.
Another winemaking method of changing Chardonnay’s flavors is to age the wine in oak barrels instead of holding the juice in stainless steel tanks. The oak barrel can impart notes of oak, toast, clove, caramel, butterscotch, and vanilla on the Chardonnay. Additional, more intense oak flavors are achieved when the Chardonnay is fermented, not just aged, in oak.
I think Kendall-Jackson is largely responsible for the enormous increase in Chardonnay’s popularity.
Kendall-Jackson sourced Chardonnay grapes from all over California, and ran all of the juice through malolactic and held the wine in oak barrels. The result was a buttery wine of oak, toast, cream and vanilla. Kendall-Jackson sold so much wine that other wineries were making Kendal-Jackson Chardonnay through custom crush relationships, as much as 250,000 cases of a label at a time.
People came to expect all Chardonnays to taste of butter, toast, cream, and vanilla. Soon, other wineries were hiding the varietal character of Chardonnay, the unique fruit notes, by increasing their use of malolactic fermentation and oak aging.
There was a time when all Chardonnays were boringly the same. Bottles of oak and butter, the fruit nearly gone.
It was said that if you put a rock through malolactic fermentation, held it in oak, and slapped a Kendall-Jackson label on it, it would taste of oak, toast, cream, and vanilla, with very little fruit, and someone would put it in their mouth to find out.
Thus was born the ABC crowd. Anything But Chardonnay, give me something that tastes like grape, varietally correct, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Marsanne, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris, anything still held in stainless, anything with fruit notes please.
If you have seen the incredible wine movie Sideways, you heard Miles, the main character, pronounce, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.”
Like Chardonnay, Merlot is often boring, bland, uninteresting, yet easy to drink with very little varietal character getting in the way. Miles could just as easily have declared, “I am not drinking any fucking Chardonnay,” but it wouldn’t make much sense for Miles to visit Santa Barbara, a big grower of Chardonnay, and complain about the varietal.
Does this mean that I never drink Chardonnay, or that I recommend that you don’t?
The great news is that in the last decade, wineries have decided that malolactic fermentation and oak aging are winemaker tools, but they don’t have to be used fully, or at all, with every Chardonnay.
Chardonnay, which was nearly uniformly boring as everyone chased Kendall-Jackson’s style because of Kendal-Jackson’s sales, is now an exciting wine to taste.
There are now wineries choosing to forego malolactic fermentation with their Chardonnay, and have clear tart green apple notes in their releases. Other wineries are choosing to put only a portion of their Chardonnay juice through malolactic and blending it with juice that hasn’t been put through this secondary fermentation.
Similarly, some wineries are holding their fruit in stainless steel tanks instead of oak barrels and allowing the fruit free rein. Other wineries hold some of their juice in stainless and some in oak and blend the juices to have notes of fruit and oak.
With blends possible ranging from no malolactic or oak to 100% malolactic and oak, the possible winemaking choices are nearly infinite. Winemakers are using these tools in different percentages and making wines that are unique, even exciting.
Imagine, as an example, visiting a tasting room and finding a Chardonnay where one third of the juice was fermented in oak, two thirds in stainless. Of the two thirds fermented in stainless; one third was aged in new french oak, one third was held in new american oak, one sixth in one year old American oak, and the remaining sixth was aged in stainless. Sixty percent of the juice underwent malolactic fermentation. Complex. Unique.
Chardonnay, once boring, predictable, is now a fun wine to taste. With winemakers using the tools I’ve talked about, and many others, differently, the finished wine is often a surprise. To me that makes wine tasting Chardonnays much more enjoyable.