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Could Chardonnay’s long stranglehold as our top wine be ending?

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I was surprised to read that Sauvignon Blanc “is Britain’s favorite wine,” white or red, in the Daily Mail.

It has “pipped Chardonnay to number one,” the story says. (That “pipped” was a new one on me. I assumed it meant “surpassed,” so I looked it up on Google, with an additional search qualifier of “British slang.” One hit says it means “to be beaten at the last minute,” while another—close enough—is “to defeat an opponent.”)

So good for Sauvignon Blanc! You might recall that, just three weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?” in which I cited a report that sales of it are “on the rise” in the U.S., and concluded that “I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!”

Well, apparently the Brits are too (“coastal” meaning cool climate)! So let us put on our magical thinking caps and figure out what’s going on with Sauvignon Blanc in Britain and America?

Clearly, in both countries, tastes in wine are shifting. The Daily Mail article doesn’t offer many reasons why, so I’m forced to come up with my own guesses. If consumers in both countries are moving towards Sauv Blanc, does that mean they’re moving away from Chardonnay? I don’t think there’s any plausible answer except, Yes.

Why would that be? On one level, Chardonnay is a better wine than Sauvignon Blanc, objectively speaking. Wine drinkers have preferred Chardonnay to Sauv Blanc for hundreds of years, which is why prices for good Chardonnay, from California, France and other leading wine countries are higher than for Sauvignon Blanc.

So price is one thing Sauvignon Blanc has going for it. What else? Well, for one thing, it’s different—and to the extent people are just looking to be rebels, they might be turning to Sauv Blanc (and other white varieties) simply because they think that Chardonnay is what “everyone else” is drinking.

But Sauvignon Blanc is also a completely different wine from Chardonnay. It’s usually drier, tarter and less oaky, with greener, more linear flavors than Chardonnay, which is one of the world’s richest dry white wines (if not the richest). Sauv Blanc, therefore, is more food-friendly—almost by definition. And both America and Britain are nations of immigrants in which our choices of ethnic fare are limited only by the number of countries on earth. I’m a huge fan of Chardonnay, but I must admit it would not be my white wine of choice if I were eating Afghan, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and so on.

Actually, for a number of those cuisines, my choice would be beer; but I think it’s fair to say that Sauvignon Blanc is more “beer-like” than Chardonnay, so if a diner wanted a light alcoholic beverage with her meal and preferred it to be wine, not beer, she might well select Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Gris/Grigio is also popular, but when it comes to quality, Sauvignon Blanc beats it every time.

I asked my Facebook friends why Sauvignon Blanc is so popular and here are a few of their comments:

People who don’t like oaky Chard, tend to be the ones who are favoring sb, especially when made in the AUS/NZ style.

It is clean and refreshing…

QPR.

May be an image problem on the rise for Chardonnay that is benefiting Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon Blanc: 1) is well promoted in wine shops (esp. during warmer months) and available in many restaurants, 2) offers relatively good quality-price ratio, 3) availability – number of solid selections coming from old and new world regions, 4) at some point, everything old is new again.

A trend towards lighter, fresher cooking with vibrant international flavors

Millennials love fun and lively wines like SB

And, finally (although I don’t agree), Cat pee is in.

  1. Sam Scarpari says:

    Hi Steve,

    Coming from the land ‘Down Under’ (AUS) the Sauvignon Blanc wave has certainly hit here. Having NZ as a close neighbour and probably the best region to produce New World Sauvignon Blanc in the world (Marlborough) – We get inundated with copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc at rock bottom prices from NZ. Personally I don’t drink the stuff – but from a Restaurant Owners point of view – it is the best thing since sliced bread. The female demographic from the ages of 28 onwards drink Sauvignon Blanc by the bottle. Being summer time & having ease of access to value driven SB, the wave of this particular varietal has certainly peaked and is now on a plateau… Its reasons are simple – Attractive flavour profiles, matches well with food and certainly delivers value to the consumer.
    Our other massive white wine that is smashing is….. Regrettably ‘Moscato’ – Women demo 18-30 can’t get enough….

    Anyway I enjoy reading your blogs – All the best from Australia

    Cheers

    Sam Scarpari

  2. Why do you say Chardonnay is an OBJECTIVELY better wine? I don’t know enough to really evaluate, but that seems like a pretty bold claim and I’d love to know your reasoning behind it. Certainly not just because it’s been popular for a long time?

    Disclaimer: I like Sauv Blanc. Chard is probably my least favorite major varietal. I totally don’t understand the appeal (French ones can be a little better). I am, of course, a millennial.

  3. Nice thoughts.

    My two cents. Chardonnay is not out in these parts. It is still greatly loved and appreciated. But, Sauvignon Blanc is finally getting its due–or should I say “its long overdue”. It was not all that long ago when a leading writer in the Wine Spectator said that Sauvignon Blanc was a waste of time and vineyard space. He later recanted that opinion, but I (and it sounds like, you) would love to see far more Sauv Blanc in these parts. I would also love to see more of the Aussie SSB and SBS (Sauv Blc-Semillon and Sem-SvBlc) fresh, fruity, brisk blends.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    “. . . tastes in wine are shifting. The Daily Mail article doesn’t offer many reasons why, so I’m forced to come up with my own guesses.”

    Here’s a thought: it is from Australia and sold at advantageously low retail prices.

    Go into any “grocery store” in the U.K. and you see a disproportionate percentage of Aussie wines on the shelf. Their market share is the envy of American producers.

    Quoting this 5-day-old press release from the Australian Grape and Wine Authority titled “Australian Wine Exports See Rise in Volume and Value in 2014”:

    “The UK remains Australia’s biggest export market by volume dominated by bulk wine exports that are destined for Europe. Total volume increased by 4.5 per cent to 249 million litres.”

    Source: http://www.agwa.net.au/2014-wear/

  5. Bob Henry says:

    From this 2010 article in the New Zealand business press:

    “Aussies Plan Assault on Our Sauvignon Blanc”

    Link: http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/4143706/Aussies-plan-assault-on-our-sauvignon-blanc

    Excerpt:

    “Australia’s winemakers are plotting an assault on New Zealand’s lucrative UK export market with a new wine style they describe as a ‘sauvignon blanc killer’.

    “Unable to match the fruity and grassy flavours of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Australian growers are positioning ‘semillon blanc’ for launch in the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, later this month.

    “Australia’s winemakers, like their New Zealand peers, are struggling with production oversupply, but the Australians are also fighting an uphill battle to see off new world challengers and protect their traditionally dominant share in markets including Britain and the US.”

    Waddaya know: a Semillon-Sauvingon Blanc blend?

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    Waddaya know: a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend?

  7. Dear Adam, it is a bold claim, but one based thoroughly in history. Chardonnay has been considered one of the “noble” varieties by the most knowledgeable connoisseurs for centuries. And for me, history is very important (I would hope it’s important for Millennials too!)

  8. Bob Henry says:

    “On one level, Chardonnay is a better wine than Sauvignon Blanc, objectively speaking.”

    Subjectively (but not rhetorically) speaking, is Riesling a better wine than Chardonnay?

    Unlike Chardonnay which can be “monochromatic,” Riesling from Alsace and the Clare Valley (Australia) and Austria and Germany has a “color palette” from achingly bone dry to decadently sweet.

  9. @Steve “And for me, history is very important (I would hope it’s important for Millennials too!)”

    Why is history so important? The “noble” varieties are only that because they were in the right place at the right time. What if it had not been French wines but Spain, Portugal or Croatia wines that the English had liked best or maybe had the easiest access to back in historical times.

    Why weren’t the right bank Bordeaux classified with the left bank ones in 1855? Maybe because they weren’t widely distributed at the time. Just an accident of timing.

    Disclaimer: I am too old to be a millennial but like their views on wine.

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