La Dolce Vita: Chardonnay is ready for a rebirth

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It seems hard to believe that it was about 20 years ago that expat New Zealander John Simes arrived to work at Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna, and set about changing the wine map as it appeared then. Within a couple of years his Chardonnays were gaining international recognition.

The 1994 vintage was named the best Chardonnay in London’s prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition and it left judges and buyers alike scrambling to figure out where the Okanagan was. Shortly after, Mission Hill became the first winery of the year winner of the Canadian Wine Awards.

We were introduced to that 1994 vintage by a friend, and it became an instant favourite. Full-bodied, creamy and toasty, it was a wine that was easy to drink on its own, not really needing food to bring out its qualities.

Coincidentally, it was right around that time that the ABC — Anything But Chardonnay — movement started. It certainly was no fault of Simes or Mission Hill. California wineries had invested heavily in Chardonnay and they were producing wines in much the same style as the Canadian icon. But heavily oaked wines don’t always show the best qualities of a grape and Chardonnay began to take a beating, among critics and consumers.

The backlash was probably more a media thing than a general consumer trend — Chardonnay is still one of the most popular varietals in North American markets — but other whites suddenly gained in popularity. New Zealand, in particular, was getting a handle on Sauvignon Blanc and wineries like Cloudy Bay were soon having trouble meeting the demand. Sauv Blancs from the Sancerre region of France’s Loire Valley were soon popular in restaurants and on store shelves, too.

In the Okanagan, Rieslings by Wild Goose and Pinot Blancs by Blue Mountain grabbed attention. And sparkling wine underwent a bit of a renaissance, with Sumac Ridge and Summerhill both producing fine samples made in the traditional style.

I think it took more than a decade for the ABC mindset started to settle out, and it came largely because winemakers began to take different approaches with the grapes. The biggest change was in the plethora of releases of unoaked Chardonnays. Crisp and fruity, they allowed consumers to rediscover just why Chardonnay is such a great wine grape. Oaked Chardonnays were made with a little more attention to subtlety and the malolactic fermentation wasn’t always carried to extremes. Malo, as winemakers call it, is a secondary fermentation, usually in oak barrels, that transforms malic acid to lactic acid. A wine that tastes distinctly of green apple becomes soft and buttery in the process.

It’s probably not unreasonable to credit the ABC movement with encouraging winemakers to push the boundaries of the grape. Chardonnay makes an excellent sparkling wine, the unoaked versions are terrific with seafoods and even dessert wines can be produced when botrytis, a fungus that draws out the water from grapes and concentrates their flavours, is used to advantage.

And, of course, the oaky, buttery Chardonnays didn’t become spectacular popular in the 1980s without reason. They have their own distinct appeal and they still remain quite popular with the consuming public.

What we are left with now is a wonderful array of choices. Chardonnays are made in countless styles, some meant to age and others to be consumed immediately. Chardonnay grapes are still one of the most heavily planted of all varieties, and they are grown in more countries and regions than any other grape.

I’ll admit that it’s only recently that I have even bothered to sample Chardonnays when I visit wineries and Angela and I are both still often surprised at how much we are enjoying them. We even purchased a few bottles on our last visit to the Okanagan.

The lesson, I suppose, is that a rest can also be as good a change. Our unplanned sabbatical has reopened our minds to Chardonnay and I suspect we are not alone among wine lovers.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.