You know you have a problem when you have to hold conferences to find ways to plot a comeback. The recent conference to find ways to boost chardonnay in Australia was such a case. In some ways this came across as a very public admission of marketing failure.
The first problem with Chardonnay is, it seems, admitting there is a problem. While the roots of the “problem” clearly go back to the success of the variety in the past, the fact is that Chardonnay is in retreat in some markets, but doing just fine in others. To some extent Chardonnay’s weakness may be the fact that on its own it doesn’t necessarily give the instant hit of sauvignon blanc, for example.
It is perhaps ironic that one of the causes of “globalisation” of certain grape varieties, including the likes of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, has been their respective reputations at home. Around the world, when would be vintners in new countries or regions have wanted to choose what to plant they have gravitated toward the “classics”, assuming that these ensured a simple formula for producing quality and marketability in one easy step.
Given the even more limited white grape options, the palette of much of the New World has ended up being a ubiquitous mix of some of the same varieties, regardless of widely varying conditions. The fact that chardonnay can indeed be grown and produce stylistically different but otherwise sound wines in a wider range of climes than the likes of riesling or sauvignon blanc, for example, has pushed its planted hectares far ahead of the field and, in so doing, increased its problem of ubiquity relative to the rest of the field. Few everyday wine drinkers (and perhaps even fewer “chardonnay socialists”?) have any concept of how Chardonnay is so inextricably linked to the wine aristocracy of champagne and burgundy.
With ubiquity comes over-familiarity. The unsurprising result was the rise of “ABC” – Anything But Chardonnay, itself a “movement” that means different things to different people. For some it is simply a case of overcoming flavour boredom by looking elsewhere; for others Chardonnay had become the emblem of how a globalised varietal palate had resulted in ignoring both the richness of varietal variety and the overwhelming of the concept of terroir.
In this environment the winegrowers of Marlborough even began grafting over their Chardonnay vines to convert to sauvignon blanc as quickly as possible.
So is there a way back? If Chardonnay is irretrievably lost on a downtrend, should the growers of this grape be pulling it up as fast as possible?
I think the answer is mixed, and that for all the growers who should persist and carry on trying to make the best Chardonnay based wines that they can (but avoiding the historic tendencies to overcrop the cash cow grape), there are also thousands of hectares that still have no future after being planted in the wrong places for all of the wrong reasons, only able to make the wrong styles for which there probably will be a declining market.
To win back the consumer, surely the way back for Chardonnay is a mix of the subtle (pop psychology) and the obvious. The subtle lies in the multiple ways of advising or reminding consumers that they have been or are missing out on something even better… The obvious is the simple point that Chardonnay can deliver so many things – multifarious styles, including fresh and fruity (if that’s what you want); food friendliness (when the oak and muscle are throttled back); ageability; complexity and real interest (which, ahem, many of the “competitors” most definitely lack). Chardonnay is a good match for a wide array of foods that would be a shotgun marriage with sauvignon blanc.
A healthier view of things is that sauvignon blanc is a style for its times and seasons. Some say that there are signs of chardonnay making a recovery already. That may be true, or it may be wishful thinking, but I do not doubt that it can – preferably by appealing to more drinkers who have become more sophisticated as they have moved on from sauvignon blanc, as inevitably they will.