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Sayonara, Chardonnay?

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Australians are drinking less Chardonnay and more Sauvignon Blanc, according to a London wine research firm. The number of Aussies who regularly drank Chardonnay fell from 81% in 2007, to 76% in 2008, 69% in 2009, and then again to 64% in the first six months of 2010.

That’s a 21 percent dip in 3-1/2 years, a drastic loss for any consumable.

The study concluded that the reason Australians are drinking less Chardonnay is because they’re “moving away from these heavier oaked styles,” which are so plentiful Down Under. What are they moving toward? “For the first time, more Australians say they’re drinking Sauvignon Blanc (65% of all monthly wine drinkers) compared with Chardonnay (64%).” Much of that Sauv Blanc undoubtedly is brought in from New Zealand.

“The other main beneficiaries from Chardonnay’s decline”, according to the study, appear to be “niche varietals such as Pinot Grigio (up from 18% to 24% penetration) and Viognier (up from 8% to 13%).”

I have a feeling the same thing is happening here in America. Chardonnay remains our number one white wine, by far, but there’s evidence its dominance is eroding. Some of this, I admit, is frankly anecdotal. But some of it is based upon fact.

My anecdotal experience is that there is greater interest, among the media and foodies in California, for white wines other than Chardonnay. We’ve all heard of an anti-Chardonnay movement among sommeliers and restaurateurs seeking leaner, drier, higher acid and more minerally white wines to pair with their food. We see the same sort of reaction among critics. I, myself, recently headlined a story in Wine Enthusiast “Getting Serious About Sauvignon Blanc.” In it, I noted a turn toward Graves-style wines from producers such as Mondavi, Chalk Hill, Brander, Illumination, Dutton Estate and Gainey.

Along more factual lines, you may find it hard to believe that in 2009, there were fewer bearing acres of Chardonnay planted in California than there were in the year 2001. But it’s true.

2001 bearing acres, Chardonnay: 93,316
2009 bearing acres, Chardonnay: 90,434

Yes, if you factor in the non-bearing Chardonnay acres in 2009 — 4,551 — the total Chardonnay acreage bounces to 94,986. But that is barely more than the total Chardonnay acreage in 2003, seven years ago. And that, despite the fact (cited by Wine Institute) that U.S. per capita wine consumption increased by 14.5% between 2004 and 2008.

There are many ways to interpret this data. Planted grape acreage is a more reliable gauge of grower expectations than crush reports, whose numbers are influenced by vintage conditions. Grape growers have their fingers continually in the wind, sensing changes in direction. If they haven’t been planting Chardonnay to any degree for a decade, there’s a reason: they don’t see consumer demand for it appreciating.

Growers, however, have planted more of other white varieties. Between 2000 and 2009, Sauvignon Blanc acreage is up nearly 36 percent. Pinot Gris, during the same period, is up more than 800 percent, although it started from a very small base. Viognier has nearly doubled.

I do wonder, exactly, why Australians are “moving away from these heavier oaked styles.” The study provides no guidance, except for a mysterious reference to “a growing rejection of the classic oaky Chardonnay taste” among consumers. Generally, when large numbers of people reject something suddenly which they had previously liked a great deal, there are profound reasons for it. What could those reasons be for the Australians? I suppose it’s a hankering for something different. Maybe a new generation in Australia is like the new generation here: more adventurous, less likely to drink what their parents drank.

Then again, maybe the long-rumored turnaround is occurring — the switch toward more nuanced, drier, more balanced wines. Maybe the Aussie migration from Chardonnay is one of those canaries in the coal mine that portend sweeping changes ahead.

  1. If you want a really flabby, oaky, fig-like Chardonnay there’s no better place to find it than a $6 Australian version. I think both the cheap price of Australian Chard and its tiresome flavor has hurt Chardonnay sales in general. In reaction to this you now see cheap Chardonnays like Woodbridge’s “lightly oaked” version that are crisp and fruity at $11 a magnum. And Constellation isn’t the only one. While I might write off cheap oily Australian Chardonnay, I think it is too early to see what will happen with American Chardonnay. In fact, if I were to make a prediction based on hope, it would be a resurgence of Chardonnay in a more attractive and drinkable version.

  2. I have an even less scientific theory for the seeming trend away from Chardonnay.

    When I visited Australia a few years ago, I found lots of wineries dropping their unoaked Chardonnays in favor of very young bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends. Those blends were referred to as SBS if Sauvignon Blanc were the heavier portion or SSB if Semillon were the heavier portion.

    They were fresh, bright and tasty wines, and, to my palate, at least, were far more interesting and enjoyable than most of the unoaked Chardonnays I was tasting.

    Since I only visited about four dozen wineries total, my observations are wholly anecdotal.

    In any event, it is probably a good thing to see other varieties get some play here in CA. However, if one looks at the same 2000 to 2009 comparison on an across the board basis, it is red varieties, Pinot Noir primarily but also Cabernet Sauvignon, that have more than replaced the small losses in Chardonnay, In fact, Chardonnay is now a larger percemtage of all white grapes than it was in 2000.

    Sayonara? Maybe it is just sayonara to vineyards that were marginal in the first place. Not such a bad thing either.

  3. Oops. I have just done a bad thing. I have suggested a trend without looking at the data. So, I have gone back, and pulled out the details of the Grape Acreage Report.

    The biggest percentage losses of Chardonnay acreage in California have happened in Kern, Fresno and Madera counties. Sounds like a parallel to Morton’s comments about flabby $6 Aussie Chards.

    In fact, looking further, in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Monterey counties, the total Chard acreage has either stayed steady or increased in each one of those places despite the fact that overall Chard acreage is down by about 8-9%.

  4. Steve, I buy a cheap ($4.99 to $7.99) Australian Chardonnay for a nice cool wine in the summer, it pairs well with the light summer fare I normally make during the heat of summer and can also be consummed by itself. I like to mix it up and go to a reisling, pinot gris, albarino or even an amazing petit manseng made here in southern Ohio. Viognier and traminette are also good whites and readily available here. So if “Old Chardonnay” is falling from grace maybe it’s because there are so many other choices now that folks feel comfortable with. Lest I forget, stainless aged chard is also an option. I prefer to leave the oak more to the big reds!

  5. A few more fun facts on the U.S. market, based on consumer research at Wine Opinions:
    –substantial numbers of high frequency and high end wine drinkers are aware of the Chardonnay=oak meme, although they are divided over whether that is good or bad.

    –millennial wine drinkers are less interested in Chardonnay and more interested in other whites (SB, Riesling, Spanish and French appellations).

    –generally speaking, tastes and purchasing are becoming more diverse across varieties. The effect on Chardonnay may be more noticeable because it has historically had less competition, and shift towards red wine consumption has “lifted all boats” for red varieties in general.

  6. Tom, I wish I could try some of that Petit Manseng.

  7. True, Charlie, but the really flabby, over-oaked Chardonnays came from the Central Valley. So the trend may be that people are turning away from sweet, fruit-juicy Chardonnays to more structured ones. But another thing comes to mind: those Central and North Coast Chards must be under considerable price pressure, which makes me wonder if consumers won’t turn to cheaper white wines, like Sauv Blanc, thereby frustrating the ambitions of the Napa-Sonoma growers who planted Chardonnay before they knew there was a Great Recession headed their way.

  8. You might be right, Morton. They say Chardonnay is the only “noble” white variety, and its inherent greatness may save it in the long run.

  9. David Vergari says:

    Sayonara? Flap-doodle!!! One door closes and another one opens. The beauty of Chardonnay is the myriad of stylistic paths a winemaker can choose.

  10. “Maybe the Aussie migration from Chardonnay is one of those canaries in the coal mine that portend sweeping changes ahead.”

    Doubtful – but we can certainly hope! :-)

    I do know that the next-gen Napa vintner set seem to prefer more vibrant, higher-acid, less-flabby wines, so I think there is something to the move away from the big & overoaked Chards… just not as fast as the acreage data might suggest.

  11. Yes, there is something to the move away from the big & overoaked Chardonnays. It began years ago with winemakers like David Ramey, Patz & Hall and continued with lots of others. It is not that Chardonnay is pulling back all that far, but that wineries are simply getting brighter fruit and better acidities. Back a couple of years ago, when it became evident that this trend was happening, some people wrote it off as vintage variation.

    Now, it is being attributed to all sorts of other things. Frankly, Scarlett, it does not much matter to what it gets attributed. Chardonnay, and other varieties as well, are being given more even-handed treatment. But, this is not France and we are not going to make wines like France. We are simply going to make balanced wines from ripe grapes.

    In point of fact, we already are. And it is hard to see anything in the grape acreage data that speaks to that trend. Suggestions of that sort simply reach too far.

  12. How much of the increase in Viognier acreage is contributed to co-fermentation with Syrah, vs Viognier based blends or 100% verietal wines?

  13. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    I sometimes wonder if the season and the light fare we consume has something to do with the trend. Even as Summer fades, people are eating more chicken, salads and fish. Crisp white wines pair well with these types of foods. Also, Chardonnay has so many styles, oaked, over-oaked, unoaked, fruit forward, etc. Some consumers may be afraid to buy a bottle not really knowing what kind of jeanie is in the bottle. SB is a little more reliable when it comes to purchasing a bottle of white wine. People just can’t see throwing money away; I know I can’t. I really like Rodney Strong’s 2009 Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc. It is reliable and affordable.

  14. Erik, that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer.

  15. Paul in Boca says:

    Steve,
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I learned a long time ago that the 5 “noble” grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay, and Riesling.

  16. Hi Paul, yeah I forgot Riesling. But I never heard that Nebb was one of the nobles. Pinot, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling.

  17. It’s not just California Chardonnay kids, I have watched the sales of White Burgundy, with the exception of Chablis…come to a screeching halt over the past two years. I was just talking to an importer last week and when asked, “How’s business” he replied “Everything is great except that white Burgundy sales are in the crapper”. We were blaming price for a bit, pointing a finger at the Euro but I almost never have anyone even ask me for Puligny-Montrachet anymore. Very strange and quite dramatic…

  18. What happened to Chenin blanc in the list of Noble grapes?

    The ten classic international varieties that Karen MacNeil lists include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Merlot, Pinot noir, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon and Syrah.

  19. Bob, I guess “noble” is in the eye of the beholder. Is Sangiovese noble in Tuscany?

  20. Michael Barry says:

    I stopped drinking those “oak evident” chardys a long time ago. Chardonay can make great wine but it needs to be crisp, dry & balanced to grab me.
    Riesling is the wine of the future, made dry without overdoing the acid it ticks the boxes. Pinot Gris/Grigio also has a lot of appeal.
    Lets have more wine safe under screw as made by the winemaker.

  21. Michael, I think Riesling is an acquired taste for most Americans. Somms love it, but the average wine drinker has problems with Riesling.

  22. Michael Barry says:

    Well Steve, if I had been offered most of what passes in the US for Riesling, I also would have a problem with it.
    Riesling made well is a delightful wine. I had a Riesling from Pey-Marin last month. It was evidence that honor can be done to the grapes in the US. The good Rieslings from Clare, Tasmania & Western Australia show the way.
    Dry, balanced & all under screw. Well worth looking out for.

  23. Michael, yeah I really dig the Pey Marin Riesling. A super wine. But I still think it’s not quite full bodied or rich enough to appeal to many Americans. Not that they have the production, anyway.

  24. Quite a while ago I told a retailer that someday Chardonnay will not be the most popular selling wine. Whether you believe in human evolution or not there is an evolution it the market as far as what people will pay, what they get saturated with and the buying publics palette.

    Again, quite a while back Chablis was easily affordable, when it got more popular and prices went up, Puilly Fuisse, and other Macons became popular, they were still crisp, though a little tart, and very affordable.

    I believe the key to white wine popularity rests in 2 basic factors. One major factor is a balance of crispness and body and alchohol. The other factor is price.

    Most of us want to drink the wine, not take small sips and go ‘ooooo’ and ‘ahhhhhh’ over it. It does becomes gauche and self promoting for a host to do so. People DO share great values they find. Those great values are not longer in ‘chardonnay’.

  25. gdfo, I couldn’t agree more. I used to drink quite a bit of Macons back when I could buy them for less than $10. Alas those days are long gone and I miss them.

  26. Ian Johnson says:

    It has been quite popular to bash both chardonnay and merlot for quite some time. Both can be made in a style that both regular consumers of wine and experts don’t particularly care for. I have a feeling that chardonnay is far from being in trouble of serious decline in the same manner that merlot has weathered it’s storm. Merlot now accounts for about 53% of total acreage in Bordeaux. In reference to Noble grapes vs Classic grapes: The term noble appears to have very little meaning. Classic grape varieties are as Bob Rohden states above. Many of us consider grenache to be also classic. They are the varieties that are capable of producing high quality wine in three or more countries.

  27. Steve
    Trends come and trends go. Chardonnay is the greatest white wine grape on the planet, and only riesling even comes close. Any winemaker knows this. Just because people use chardonnay grapes to make second-rate wines in order to chase the pocketbooks of the burger-gulping-light-beer-pepsi- drinkin’ nascar-fan electorate doesn’t mean squat to people who care about great wine. You are supposed to be one of those- people who care about great wine, to be clear. Sometimes you are so patently disingenuous in your quest for web-hits and hype that you are amusing. Yeah, chardonnay has become to great extent a caricature, the new “chablis”, Almaden-style, an icon commercialized to parody. You know as well as anyone what the potential really is. You have tasted it. Tell us, what are the greatest white wines in your experience? If they are not made from chardonnay or riesling, I’d love to know what I should be making. Thanks for pulling my jaded chain one more time. Mark

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