Too early to write chardonnay’s obituary

A few weeks back, Foster’s Group held a little conference, titled ‘restoring the maligned reputation of the world’s greatest white grape variety’.

Nielsen figures released at the event show that chardonnay began its shocking fall from grace in August 2004 – after thirty years as the darling of our industry. Since 1976 our production had grown from a bucketful, to 17,400 tonnes in 1986 to 444,000 tonnes in 2008.

But domestic sales are still falling (7.1 per cent in the year to August 2009 in a white wine market that grew by 6.9 per cent). And to add to the ignominy being heaped on chardonnay, the usurper is the ignoble sauvignon blanc.

The Nielsen figures reveal that sauvignon blanc overtook chardonnay as our biggest selling white in March this year – and left it in its dust. New Zealand wine, representing 70 per cent of our sauvignon blanc sales, continues to grow at an extraordinary 35.9 per cent. But it’s too early to write chardonnay’s obituary.

The problem with chardonnay seems to be partly one of image – suggesting long-term flaws in the way it’s been marketed and packaged, combined with consumer memories of the fat, heavy, oaky styles that once excited wine drinkers. It matters little that this was twenty years ago and that styles have since moved on. Drinkers haven’t heard the message.

Foster’s attribute part of the decline to fashion – linking it to Kath and Kim’s ‘kardonnay’ (but not their ‘sauvignon plonk’) and the ABC (anything but chardonnay) movement.

If popularity breeds its own counter culture, then sauvignon blanc could be headed for the same fate as chardonnay. It’s everywhere we look – dominating wine lists, pushing good riesling and chardonnay from retail refrigerators and dominating the Nielsen list of Australia’s top 10 whites selling for between $14 and $19 a bottle.

In the year to August, sauvignon blanc and blends, including five New Zealanders, held eight of the top 10 spots. Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc topped the list (we drank $48.7 million worth), followed by Giesen and Stoneleigh, then Montana in fifth position and Secret Stone in ninth. The only chardonnay was Oyster Bay from New Zealand.

If there’s to be a reaction to New Zealand sauvignon blanc it could come in the next few years in the face of a real or perceived decline in quality. The New Zealand invasion began with high quality products, notably Cloudy Bay of Marlborough, founded by Australian David Hohnen in the mid eighties and now owned by Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton.

The quality gap between Marlborough’s best, like Cloudy, and the worst is now wider than ever following years of large scale planting. New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc hit 177 thousand tonnes in 2010, following harvests of 169 thousand tonnes, 102 thousand tonnes, 96 thousand tonnes and 63 thousand tonnes in the previous four vintages.

A simple fact of rapid expansion is unequal quality – based on vine age, site selection, vineyard management and winemaking, and the skinny flavours arising from overcropping. Certainly much of the New Zealand material now coming our way is pretty ordinary in my opinion.

Not surprisingly, New Zealand’s overproduction means lower prices. This starts with declining grape prices (Marlborough sauvignon blanc fell from $2,230 a tonne in 2005 to $1,651 in 2009) and flows immediately to wine prices – confirmed by the rapid growth of cheaper New Zealand sauvignon blanc in Australia (1,035 per cent in the $8–$11 bracket; 59.1 per cent in the $11–$14 bracket in the year to August).

Of course, waiting for the sauvignon blanc rot to set in isn’t going to save chardonnay’s bacon. Its revival will have to be driven by makers. And that will come from a high base. Despite its decline bottled chardonnay still accounts for $269.7 million in sales; 25.5 per cent of all bottled wine sold in Australia; and 92 per cent of sales over $19.

Foster’s consumer taste testing shows that even non chardonnay drinking sauvignon blanc drinkers like chardonnay when they don’t know what they’re drinking – provide they’re fresh, low or no-oak versions. So there’s hope.

But I don’t think unoaked chardonnays are the way to go. Modern chardonnays gain great complexity, but not oak flavour, from barrel fermentation and maturation. Perhaps the biggest shift, as we inevitably rip out many chardonnay vines, will be in sourcing from the cooler areas that produce the crispest, finest flavours. With such a versatile variety, that still leaves many options in Australia.

Marketing it then remains the issue, just as it is now. Ultimately, though, it’s a superior grape variety producing beautiful, complex flavours. It will ride out the fads and remain one of our biggest sellers as long as we drink white wine.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009