Chardonnay still the world’s favorite |

Chardonnay still the world’s favorite

Quick, which wine is the world’s favorite?

If you have been in a bar and listened to people order, the answer will be readily apparent. Yes, “I’ll have a chardonnay” is still the most common phrase uttered.

According to the Impact DataBank 2007 U.S. Wine Market Book (the definitive source for data on the wine trade, which will set you back about the cost of a case of Kistler Chardonnay), one in five of the estimated 300 million cases of wine consumed in the United States in 2007 held chardonnay.

But in the last few years, chardonnay’s dominance has eroded. True, sales continue to climb. But, as a percentage of overall consumption, chardonnay falls a little further back each year. In other words, sales of chardonnay are growing slower than those of the industry as a whole. Why? There are a number of factors at work.

Foremost, more people are turning to red wine. Second, there is more interest in other white varietals. Pinot grigio, pinot gris and Riesling have all seen dramatic growth in consumption over the last few years. Then there is the continued growth of wine education, which, if you have read this column this far, you are a part of. Wine drinkers today have more adventurous palates and they want to expand their horizons.

And then there is the “ABC” crowd. Like anything on top, think the Yankees or Hillary Clinton, there comes a time when a backlash takes root. People turn to the Red Sox, or Obama, or, in the case of chardonnay, “Anything But Chardonnay.” This phenomenon began in the late 1990s. “I’ll have a chardonnay” became a little passe for those wine drinkers who had tried other tastes and traveled to other places in their wine glasses.

True, the chardonnay makers bear some blame for this. They commoditized the grape, growing more and more, and then oaking it to within an inch of its life to produce wines that lacked character and personality. Ah, but that is the way of mass marketing. When a wine style is hot, everybody does their best to get a piece of the action.

But one need not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a reason why chardonnay became popular to begin with and it is certainly not the fault of the fruit that it was turned generic by makers throughout the world. As someone who has continued to read this far, you are an educated wine drinker, and that gives you the right to seek out the seductive, clean, fruity, citrusy, melony, honeyed tastes that so many winemakers allow to linger in their chardonnays.

Let’s look at some global examples that may return you to the “I’ll have a Chardonnay” school of wine drinkers.

Begin in France. Did you know the elegant white wines of Burgundy are made from chardonnay grapes? For a treat, try the Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 2005. While still a child, this bright assemblage of chardonnay made from 12 different parcels in the Cote de Beaune appellation by a significant and tasteful maker does not carry the price of a Premier Cru (it can be found for less than $50), but in the mouth one can experience the very nature of the grape.

California chardonnay has been skewered for winemakers who leave it too long in oak, reducing the flavor of the grape and leaving it artificially smoky. But in the hands of a master, the use of barrels to age chardonnay can produce wondrous wines.

I defy anyone to swirl, smell and sip the Sbragia Family 2005 Gamble Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay and not say “wow.” Ed Sbragia, who made his share of big, oaky wines at Beringer, makes this gem with fruit from the Yountville section of the Napa Valley. It is an example of how great California chardonnay can be when made by an expert.

And for something completely different try the Kim Crawford 2005 Marlbourgh Unoaked Chardonnay. This wine, from the South Island of New Zealand, comes from a man who built a business from the idea that “the world needed a clean, top quality, fruit-driven Chardonnay devoid of heavy oak.” These crisp and affordable wines have helped to start a movement of winemakers who devote themselves to “naked” chardonnay.

Three winemakers separated by the seas. Three wines defined by different tastes and styles. A single vintage. One grape.

May chardonnay long reign as the world’s wine.

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