It’s Chardonnay Day!! Celebrating a Much Loved and Maligned Varietal

by Chuck Hayward

It wasn't that long ago that we celebrated International Sauvignon Blanc Day, in fact it was actually just last week. Started five years ago, it has sparked a number of other "Grape Days" thanks to the increasing connections between the wine industry and social media. The goal has been to taste the grape of the day and use twitter and Facebook to share tasting experiences across the globe, raise awareness of the grape and do a bit of education on the side.

So now comes National Chardonnay Day and it's quite logical to ask why chardonnay, one of the most popular grapes in the world, would need a day of its own? If anything, the grape probably needs a bit of love these days as chardonnay seems to be a target for any wine writer or a sommelier with an ax to grind. The term "ABC" used to refer to the alphabet or Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat Winery but today is more popularly known for meaning "Anything But Chardonnay." Wineries that specialize in chardonnay are ridiculed. It's tough to be a chardonnay lover these days.

It wasn't always that way. From a historical perspective, chardonnay has been around for centuries having found a long standing home in Burgundy. Going further back, UC Davis researchers have used DNA analysis to conclude that the grape is derived from a cross of pinot blanc and a more obscure varietal called gouais blanc. Other anecdotal claims have traced its' origins back to the Middle East. Today, however, it has a global presence shared by few other varietals.

In America, chardonnay's history is much more recent. The first cuttings came to California just over a century ago when the Wente family of Livermore sourced some rootstock from the University of Montpelier, France's leading wine research center. Some of the first plantings to follow occurred in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Mount Eden and Ridge, in Napa with Louis Martini and Stony Hill and in Sonoma at Hanzell.

It nevertheless took decades before chardonnay gained a foothold with consumers in America. In fact, so little chardonnay was planted that the annual California Grape Harvest Reports put chardonnay in the category of "Other White Varietals" up until the mid-1960's. Things began to change shortly after as the beginnings of a wine culture began to take hold in the country. A growing segment of wine drinkers started to enjoy drier white wines, moving on from the rieslings and chenin blancs preferred for the table in previous years. Thanks to the rapid growth of California's wine industry following the Judgment of Paris, chardonnay was identified by writers and winemakers as one of the grapes that the state could produce successfully.

What accounts for chardonnay's popularity? Part of it lies with how it is made. For one, it's relatively easy to grow and the vines naturally produce a healthy, bountiful crop so it's good for revenue from a grower's perspective. In the cellar, winemakers can choose to get the wine to market quickly by fermenting in stainless steel. This low cost winemaking style popularized by wineries in Chablis are crisp and fresh appealing to those consumers who like a more elegant style of wine. Or they can invest in a more serious style that mimics the great wines of Burgundy using oak barrels and malolactic fermentation creating wines with greater texture and complexity.

But chardonnay's popularity also stems from the fact that the grape can communicate a wide array of flavors that are easily understood by novices and experts alike. For those new to wine, the language in wine descriptions can be hard to decipher, frequently scaring people away from a greater appreciation of wine. But the ability of chardonnay to easily transmit specific flavors makes it easy for consumers to identify specific flavors. Words like buttery, tropical and oaky are easy to identify in chardonnays. With that knowledge comes the confidence to tell a sommelier, "I'd like a buttery, oaky chardonnay with flavors of pineapple" and get a chardonnay from Monterey or Santa Barbara. For many. chardonnay becomes the first step to understanding the language of wine and a doorway to exploring other varietals.

But the chardonnay grape also serves an important function, creating a wine that appeals to a broad range of customers who may want something special or as an everyday beverage. It is an easy grape to like, for the consumer, the grower and the winemaker. Which is why it has been America's most preferred wine for decades. It's clear that just about everyone loves chardonnay, this is a day as good as any to show the grape just a bit more love. You know you want to!

Some of our favorite chardonnays at JJ Buckley:

2012 Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast

2009 La Follette Chardonnay Lorenzo Vineyard

2012 Mer Soleil Chardonnay Reserve

2011 Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountain Estate

2011 Shafer Vineyards Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch