It’s a common refrain: “I hate chardonnay.” So much so, in fact, that a whole movement has sprung up around it—the ABC faction. You guessed it. That stands for Anything But Chardonnay.
The ubiquitous grape had a substantial heyday in the 1980s and ’90s, when a lot of New World producers were attempting to emulate the revered white wines of Burgundy, France. But as chardonnay skyrocketed in popularity, wineries scrambled to make the wine accessible to the masses. The ’80s were an age of excess, and that was reflected in the wines of the time, which became increasingly more opulent and flamboyant as they gained their massive following.
Chardonnay in and of itself is actually a relatively neutral variety, meaning that it’s not particularly aromatic or overpowering. In Burgundy, chardonnay makes some of the finest white wines in the world because of its striking ability to transmit a sense of place wherever it’s grown. And there aren’t many places to grow wine better than Burgundy.
But in their pursuit of excess, the winemakers of the United States, South America and Australia wanted their wines to get bigger and bigger, bolder and bolder. Since chardonnay’s inherent characteristics typically take a back seat to the effects of location and winemaking techniques, it serves as an excellent canvas for the style those winemakers were trying to achieve, often through the effects of oak and malolactic fermentation.
A chardonnay’s characteristics depend in part on the type of oak barrels used (or in the case of some very inexpensive wines, oak staves or chips). Wines that spend time in new oak can have aromas and flavors that range from vanilla and coconut to cedar and spice. And then there’s that famous buttery flavor, which comes from malolactic fermentation, a process that converts harsh malic acid (like what you’d find in a green apple) to softer, gentler lactic acid (think Greek yogurt). Winemakers also frequently used to leave a fair bit of residual sugar in the bottle, leading to many of these wines bordering on dessert status. Without these winemaking methods, chardonnay is a fairly mellow and low-key variety with bright fruit flavors and often a pleasant streak of minerality.
So when people say, “I hate chardonnay,” they almost never mean they dislike the chardonnay grape itself. What they’re referring to are the winemaking techniques that have become virtually synonymous with the variety over the years.
The good news is that there’s a whole world out there of chardonnays that don’t rely on oak, malolactic fermentation or sugar to achieve their flavor profiles or that use them sparingly and with great balance. Some regions, like Burgundy, have been doing it this way for centuries, while others, such as parts of California, have only recently experienced a pendulum swing toward varietally pure and expressive chardonnays, thanks in large part to a growing backlash against the excesses of past decades.