Wine Column: A lesson on the ABCs of chardonnay

Last year, Americans spent $2,026,986,920 in retail shops on chardonnay, making it by far the most popular white wine variety on the market. The dollar value of the next leading white variety, pinot grigio, was $751,972,054, followed by sauvignon blanc at $412,531,384.

While chardonnay’s appeal is broad and deep, there is a small backlash, the “ABC” (anything but chardonnay) movement. Chardonnay today is not the same as chardonnay was 40 years ago; some of this trend can be understood by looking at how this grape has grown in popularity while changing in style.

Before the 1970s, chardonnay was the predominant white grape of Burgundy, not planted to any great extent in other wine regions and not identified on any wine labels. Few people knew that their favorite French chablis or Montrachet was made from chardonnay. But when California wine had its post-Prohibition, post-war resurgence in the ’70s and ’80s, winemakers like Robert Mondavi transitioned away from jug chablis (which, coming from American appellations, could be a blend of anything, including apple wine, and rarely had any chardonnay in it) in favor of finer varietal wines, with the grape variety stated on the label to distinguish them.

Although chardonnay is considered a “noble” grape (along with sauvignon blanc and riesling, among white grapes), genetically it is related to a noble red grape, pinot noir, and a less-than-noble white grape, gouais blanc. “Gouais” means “peasant”; this grape was grown in the Middle Ages on inferior sites by peasants (as opposed to monks or nobles, who controlled the best land) in France. It was easy to grow and had high yields, but its wine was so coarse that it was banned several times.

Then, the peasant grape had a romantic liaison with the nobler pinot, yielding the bastard chardonnay, which was taken in and raised like a knight in shining armor by French monks and nobles. Sometimes, still, the gouais emerges, making for thin, sour and vile chardonnay.

Chardonnay grown on France’s Côte d’Or is traditionally fermented in small oak barrels, which were readily available and easy to transport by water before roads and rails were built. Burgundy is a cold region, and its vines rarely yield fruit with enough sugar to make more than 12 percent alcohol. There, chardonnay’s high acidity is naturally reduced in a secondary, malolactic fermentation, changing the apple-scented malic acid to softer lactic acid and creating buttery diacetyl (think of artificially flavored popcorn) along the way. The toasty vanilla aromas of these barrels augment the subtle citrus-pear qualities of chardonnay to make truly exquisite white burgundies.

In California, as chardonnay became more widely planted, the best winemakers tried to adapt Burgundian techniques to their own fruit. However, California chardonnay typically ripens with far more sugar and less acidity than in Burgundy. These wines therefore are more alcoholic, and are usually made with the addition of tartaric acid, which is sharper but more stable than malic acid.

After one harvest at California’s Kendall Jackson Vineyards, when there was so much sugar that it failed to ferment completely, the resulting sweet chardonnay caused a massive boost in sales to that brand; other producers began deliberately making slightly sweet, heavily oaky chardonnay with over 13 percent alcohol. This new style suited the barbecue-oriented American palate and has come to define chardonnay, though it has none of the subtlety and few of the refreshing qualities that originally made white Burgundies popular.

The backlash against big, fat chardonnay has led some winemakers, who don’t want to lose their customers or pull out their vines, to alter their approach to this variety. On Long Island (climatically more similar to Burgundy than to California), the grape is versatile, ripening well with a fine natural balance. Many Long Island winemakers are producing a range of chardonnay styles to satisfy different tastes.

Although oak-aged chardonnays are usually priced to reflect the high cost of barrels ($900 for a 60-gallon barrique), at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue the consumer can choose either unoaked or “La Barrique” at the same price. There, manager Jim Silver wants to validate the taste preference of his customers, rather than signify that one chard is better than another by giving it a higher price.

At the Lenz winery in Peconic, winemaker Eric Fry has backed off oak aging; though his top-priced Gold Label Chardonnay still has the most oak, his own preference is for the less woody “Old Vines” labeled wine.

If you don’t like caramel custard chardonnay, try one of these lighter, fresher styles before you go ABC.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.