Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The ABC Conundrum

By Julianna Hayes
It amazes me when consumers are driven to buy or snub a particular product based on the preferences or whims of a fictional character.

Wine enthusiasts swooned over Pinot Noir when cynical imbiber Miles sang its praises in the wine-soaked black comedy Sideways. Meanwhile, the movie had the opposite effect on another varietal in an infamous scene outside a restaurant when Miles declared, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any @#$%& Merlot!” That led to a significant cooling in the marketplace toward that wine.

Hollywood’s vinous tentacles were far reaching, even affecting local sales of these products. The interest in B.C. produced Pinot Noir was piqued and local makers who have focused on this challenging variety were finally rewarded for their efforts.

Fortunately, the insatiable thirst for B.C. wine in general balanced out the negative press for Merlot, which is the most planted grape in the province. But elsewhere in the world, sales of the wine truly suffered.

Now it seems Hollywood has done it again and this time the victim is Chardonnay.

Renowned British wine writer Oz Clarke sounded the alarm last week following the release of statistics demonstrating slumping sales of the white wine. He blamed it on the “Bridget Jones effect.”

“Chardonnay has made some of the world’s greatest wines. Everyone appreciated it – until Bridget Jones,” said Clarke.

After yet another dismal attempt at finding love, the hapless heroine goes back to her “miserable bedsit,” said Clarke, and writes in her diary, “I’ve failed again, I’ve poured an enormous glass of Chardonnay and I’m going to put my head in the oven.”

“Until Bridget Jones, Chardonnay was really sexy,” said Clarke. “After, people said, ‘God, not in my bar.’”

Personally, I think Clarke is seriously behind the times. Bridget Jones was a phenomenon for about a decade, appearing first as the lead character in Helen Fieldings’ books, then as a weekly column in the UK newspaper, The Independent, and finally as two blockbuster Hollywood flicks, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. But her run ended in 2005. Surely it couldn’t have taken this long to have an impact. The influence of Sideways, released in 2004, was almost immediate.

Seems I’m not the only one who thinks so. British wine expert Christopher Piper attributed the most recent sales slump to the tail end of the “ABC” – Anything But Chardonnay – backlash, a consumer boycott of all the over-oaked and unremarkable Chards in the marketplace.

He said consumers are now starting to come around and that the white wine is no longer uncool to drink. I agree.

On the local front, Chardonnay is the second most planted grape in the province, ironically. And while I have heard the ABC term bandied about, for the most part it has come from individuals who never embraced Chardonnay in the first place.

Like Merlot, there is a disproportionate amount of mediocre Chardonnay in the marketplace. The bulk and lower-end versions tend to flabby, flat and cloying without the cleansing acidity needed to give this fruit-bomb of a variety its balance. Adding to the problem has been the heavy-handed use of oak, resulting in wines that were little more than a mouthful of sweet butter.

Being touted as the “red wine lover’s white” didn’t help matters either. After all, if you prefer red, why bother with a white wanna-be?

But there are a lot of reasons to love Chardonnay. It’s tremendously versatile with its wide range of styles. It is the one white grape that winemakers can truly sink their teeth into, as it can be taken in various directions in the cellar.

There are the unoaked, crisp, lean, mineral versions in the style of world-famous Chablis. There are the unoaked, super ripe, perfumey, tropical fruit-forward wines common in New World regions. There are the understated oaked and refined versions in the Burgundian style. There are the super oaked, buttery and full-bodied wines attributed to Australia, California and Chile. And there are the sparkling versions in the style of Champagne.

In British Columbia, you can find examples of all five distinct styles and many more in between. Thus somebody who claims to not like Chardonnay has clearly not explored the options available.

All appeal to me in someway or another, whether it be for pairing with certain foods or for sipping on their own poolside or fireside. But my preferences lean toward the understated oak variety – wines that have complexity and age-ability with toasty, buttery qualities, ripe fruit and acidity all in perfect harmony.

At virtually every mass tasting I attend, one of the goals I set is to find one or two stellar Chardonnays to add to my drinking repertoire. I am rarely disappointed.

Taste Test

95-100 Sets the bar.
90-94 Outstanding, has wow factor.
80-89 Good to very good.
70-79 Average, may have minor flaws.
60-69 Drinkable, but not recommended.
00-59 Undrinkable.

Mission Hill 2006 S.L.C. Chardonnay
Appearance: Brilliant golden colour, fat legs
Aromas: Apricot preserves, pear, green apple skin, orange, golden apple, hazelnut, butter, some floral notes
Flavours: Apricot, orange peel, apple skin, nuts, butter, lemon oil.
Body and Finish: Well balanced on the palate with roundness and acidity, clean, extended finish.
Overall Impression: Rich, delicious but not over the top, this winemaker knows his way around Chardonnay.
Cellaring Potential: Drink now and through 2010
Would I Buy It?: Yes, for special occasions or for a treat
Score: 89
Price: $29.99
Availability: BC LDBs, VQA shops, private retailers

Jackson-Triggs 2006 Sunrock Chardonnay
Appearance: Luminous gold colour
Aromas: Baked apple, pineapple, hazelnut, honey, lemon, lees, butter, vanilla
Flavours: Baked yellow tree fruits, bright tropical fruit, nectarine, lemon oil, vanilla.
Body and Finish: Ripe, round and sweet entry, oily palate with some citrus on the finish for balance.
Overall Impression: Ideal for those who like a rich Chardonnay without a lot of acid.
Cellaring Potential: Drink now to retain its freshness
Would I Buy It?: Once or twice
Score: 87
Price: $25.99
Availability: BC LDBs, VQA shops, private retailers

Red Rooster 2007 Reserve Chardonnay
Appearance: Lustrous pale gold colour
Aromas: Vanilla, lemon, clove, pineapple, baked yellow fruit, faint toast and butter
Flavours: Golden apple, tropical fruit, citrus, vanilla, lemon.
Body and Finish: Ripe entry, medium body on the palate, refreshing finished with good length
Overall Impression: A well-balanced fruit-forward version that is highly quaffable
Cellaring Potential: Best young and fresh
Would I Buy It?: Occasionally
Score: 88
Price: $21.99
Availability: BC LDBs, VQA shops, private retailers

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