Thirty years ago, an East Coast wine columnist described what he said was a great white Burgundy, a Meursault if I recall correctly, that he had just tasted.
Michael Pakenham of the Philadelphia Inquirer must have used 30 or 40 different descriptors to describe the multitude of aromas and flavors he found in the wine. I’m certain the description was valid for the style of wine then in vogue.
Great wine, implied Pakenham through this example, was multi-faceted, not to mention had a lot of stuffing in it.
The excitement of multitude flavors found in chardonnay didn’t, in and of itself, create the American demand for richer, bigger, more blowsy styles of chardonnay. But that certainly did happen, and winemakers across the country began to do unspeakable things to the grape, all in the name of complexity
The main tactics were putting the wine through a second fermentation called malolactic, then aging the wines on their lees in new oak barrels. This gave them a smoky, roasted character (from how the barrel staves smelled).
One ‘Burgundian’ tactic was to leave solids in the wines after the primary fermentation was done to allow tertiary flavors to develop ‘ the so-called sulfide-y solution. This was done with lots of lees contact and barrel aging.
Moreover, many of the wines had lower acid levels, to make them really succulent. Those who wanted a better balanced wine would serve them well chilled.
We began to see this become a major trend in the United States in the late 1980s. In some ways it is what created the huge demand for ‘buttery’ chardonnays with some buyers. The fad became a trend, and soon every winery that previously had suppressed the ML style of chardonnay was adopting the idea.
And that’s because wines of that style sold well.
However, by the mid-1990s, it was apparent, there were other buyers out there who preferred their chardonnays leaner, crisper, and with higher natural acidities. In some cases, the waters were being tested by small, courageous wineries willing if not eager to put the word ‘unoaked’ on their front labels.
The first one of this new trend I saw was in 1992 when Chapel Hill Winery in Australia’s McLaren Vale made what it called Unwooded Chardonnay. The wine was a success locally and was based on excellent fruit that smelled and tasted almost as fresh as a Riesling, but with a little more weight in the mouth.
It was just about this time that a number of major U.S. wine companies were looking into the Australian wine market. With strong connections to Australia, many of these wineries saw this upstart, chardonnay without any oak at all, as an interesting wine.
But although E&J Gallo and Kendall-Jackson, the largest U.S. players in the chardonnay market, were interested in this phenomenon, they didn’t make such a product for the broad U.S. market for a long while.
However, both launched market research studies to determine the viability for the U.S. market of an unoaked chardonnay. By the mid-2000s, the research began to pay off.
‘We knew that there was a new consumer out there that wanted a wine with lower oak, a wine that was more aromatic and slightly crisper, so we sought to make a wine that would fit into that niche,’ Kendall-Jackson’s chief winemaker Randy Ullom told me.
The wine that Kendall-Jackson launched in 2010 was called Kendall-Jackson Avant. Ullom said it ‘wasn’t aimed at converting those normal buyers who like barrel fermentation.
‘But we did market research and found that 17% of consumers said to us, ‘We want something younger, fresher, and more approachable.’ This wasn’t the older consumer, but it was the younger generation. These are buyers who are perfectly fine with screwcaps and diversity in the wines they like.’
Job Bonne, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, believes that a good deal of the interest in lighter styles of chardonnay is based on an older consumer who is thankful that the style of wine once in favor in California is returning.
The ‘new’ style of chardonnay ‘goes back to a style that California was still doing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s,’ Bonne told me.
‘And frankly there are consumers who have been around for a long time and remember when they loved California chardonnays that focused on fruit and not complexity, and wondered what happened to it. Now they are finding a renaissance’ in that style, he said.
But he also acknowledged the impact that the new Millennial buyers will have on the U.S. wine market for new wines and new styles in the coming few years. ‘There are 70 million new wine drinkers coming on line who have different expectations, and these lighter styles [of Chardonnay] are appealing to many newer buyers.’
The phenomenon of more delicate chardonnay, starting more than a decade ago here, soon led to all sorts of wines made in a similar mold. ‘Unoaked’ was one term that was widely used, but there are also the terms Naked, Unwooded, Oak Free, and others. Morgan Vineyards in Monterey County has a no-oak Chardonnay it calls Metallico. That refers to the stainless steel tanks that are the only vessels the wine ever saw.
When I first saw this style of wine, I suspected it would appeal primarily to Chablis lovers since the top wines of that Burgundian district are, by and large, not aged in new barrels, and have a very low-oak regime. If any at all.
And to a degree, the unwooded styles of American chardonnay did have a greater appeal along the East Coast of the United States, which has a long, historical love for Euro-styles that never developed that kind of traction along the west coast.
But it is also clear that the huge increase in unoaked chardonnays, over the last several years and in many regions of the country, is based on a number of other factors, some of which are purely economic. The cost of French oak barrels, for one thing: They are now $1,000 each or more, and may be used to greatest efficiency for three years at most.
After which, some wineries saw them in half and sell them as planters for $8.99 a half-barrel.
Moreover, aging a wine in oak adds months to the time before which it can be sent to market, delaying profitability. Ullom of K-J was asked if this lower-oak, lower-alcohol style of wine signals a transitory trend and that it may fade soon.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I think it’s just creating a line extension [and] it’s here to stay for a long time. Over the next 50 years, we think this will grow as the other (denser) styles shrink a little bit.’
When Kendall-Jackson’s research showed that this was a valid idea, there was one major concern of the K-J marketing department: ‘Is it going to cannibalize our other products? Well it didn’t,’ said Ullom. ‘We did research in six markets and didn’t come up with much of a variance. At least not enough to warrant saying that it’s good for only for this market and not that one.’
Styles Still Changing
The styles of chardonnay are changing to the more elegant in many areas of the southern hemisphere as well, due to a parallel movement. In New Zealand, where Chardonnay is a significant varietal wine for both domestic and international sales, a popular style had been the one wine makers call sulfide-y. This aroma has a lot of lees contact and challenges the consumer to confront some distinctively ‘reduced’ aromas, such as sulfur dioxide and faint elements of oxidation.
This style of wine became a huge success with many wineries in New Zealand and numerous wine makers adopted this more complex style of Chardonnay.
To hear a number of Kiwi winemakers talk about it today, this style is under attack.
‘Throughout New Zealand, winemakers are lightening up on their wines and making them more fruit-driven,’ said Simon Nunns, wine maker for Coopers Creek Vineyard in Kumeu on New Zealand’s north island. ‘We are seeing less of the sulfide-y style of Chardonnay and more fruit-driven wines.’
‘Consumers are asking for more fruit, so we [wine makers] have to respond to that demand.’
Bonne of the Chronicle noted, ‘I think we’re coming back to wines that have relevance to a longer winemaking tradition, and part of that is recognizing the specificity of place.
‘Not every winemaker will do that,’ but some wines are being made to revert to an earlier era of winemaking that was ‘more equitable in terms of fruit.’
He acknowledged the huge base of Baby Boomers still out there, wine lovers who remain major wine buyers.
‘But wineries have to be cognizant also of the younger buyers [who] want blended reds without a lot of tannin or oak presence, lighter and more elegant chardonnays, and many other wines. One would have to be crazy not to listen to what’s happening in the market.’
The Famed Wente Clone
Seven years before the 1919 start of Prohibition, a young Ernest Wente asked his family for permission to give to UC Davis, where he was a student, some of the plant material the Wente winery was growing.
Among the field selections that the young man gave to the Foundation Plant Services department at UC Davis was a clone called, for want of a better name, the Wente Clone.
FPS did a lot of work to clean up the clones to make them virus-free. Meanwhile work was done in vineyards from Stony Hill (Napa Valley) to Hanzell (Sonoma). Among the most notable work in Napa was done by Louis Martini at his Stanly Ranch in the Carneros.
So successful was this clone of Chardonnay that today the Wente Clone (and its cousin, Clone 4) are considered the most widely used in California.
A spokesman for Trinchero Family Estates noted that the clone has some of the most reliable fruitfulness and distinctiveness of all Chardonnay clones. He said the exotic ‘terpene’ aromas can be spicy, sort of Muscat-y.
‘The Wente clone is sort of the grandfather of Clone 4, said Kendall-Jackson’s Randy Ullom.
‘True Wente Clone has smaller berries and there are these random spice notes, kind of more tropical. It gives you a richer aroma, compared with some of the Dijon clones, which are floral and less spicy.’
He said the clone is reliable in producing a good crop, though it isn’t immune to smaller crops, such as what happened in 2011 where all varieties suffered losses due to a long, cold season. Ullom said even Wente Clone Chardonnay suffered losses in many vineyards of 50%.