Chardonnay: Don't call it a comeback

There seems to be a revival with the venerable chardonnay grape. The history of this fine white wine grape is vast and deep and encompasses every wine growing nation in the world.

Historically, the chardonnay varietal has its roots in the Burgundy region of France where many wine writers, wine historians and wine lovers feel is the best place for this elegant wine to be grown and produced. In this growing region the chardonnay wears many coats, from crisp Chablis to round and lush Montrachet.

Historically, Burgundy has also produced chardonnay without distinction but I am finding that the winemaking and viticultural practices have become so refined in Burgundy that it is becoming hard to find a chardonnay from there that is less than quite good. In fact my tasting notes on the last 30 chardonnays tasted from Burgundy indicate that the wines from there are quite good and priced well under the twenty dollar mark. This is an amazing phenomenon for any wine district.

In America we have, historically, struggled with chardonnay. In the 1970s chardonnay was finding its footing and went through a terrific identity crisis. Many of the chardonnay (principally grown in California) were so over oaked that it was virtually impossible to tell what grape one was tasting. I remember attending a chardonnay tasting in San Francisco in the early 1970s where 15 chardonnay from California were tasted along with 15 French white Burgundy.

This tasting opened my eyes to chardonnay and I found, as did many other wine professionals at the tasting, that the French wines were far more delicate, refined and more importantly, food friendly offerings.

For the most part (there were some notable exceptions) the California chardonnays were soaked in oak to the point of not being recognizable as chardonnay. When the food arrived for the attendees the California chardonnays stood apart in power, alcohol and wood and did not integrate with the cuisine at all, especially the light seafood dishes where the French wines blended nicely with most of the food offerings.

This tasting was an eye opener for many including the winemakers who attended. I sat with many of them after the tasting and was amazed at the discussions I was hearing. It was a sober afternoon for many of them. It was clear that their worlds had been rocked by the delicacy and refinement of their French cousins and how well the wines did with the array of cuisine offered that afternoon.

I think this tasting and the many that followed helped change the mind and practices of the American wine industry. By the middle and late 1970s and quite clearly by the early 1980s the American producers began to come on board with very nicely made chardonnay.

A few American chardonnay took important competitions in France in the mid '70s and viticulturists began to treat their vineyards with more respect with much better management and care giving winemakers better grapes in the process. It all began to evolve into much healthier, better tasting and more honest varietals which we are profiting from today.

In Oregon, Washington and California, chardonnay has become a wonderful value and sales are rising which is a good indicator that this grape has truly hit its stride with consumers. We are understanding this grape better every year and I think we will be wowed by what lays ahead for this wonderful and versatile varietal.

See you next week.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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