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Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, chardonnay became all the rage on the basis of its opulent, buttery and full-bodied style. These popular wines were typically 14.5-per-cent alcohol and marked with butterscotch, toasted nuts and ripe peach and tropical fruit aromas. They were uniformly big and rich, with a creamy texture and no shortage of oak-derived character. A winemaker from Australia once described these old school, heavy-handed chardonnays as “step on a rake wines.” Their in-your-face style delivered a wallop of wood to the senses.
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, Rombauer and Chalk Hill were standard bearers for heavyweight “peaches and cream” chardonnays from California, while Rosemount, Lindemans and Wolf Blass helped introduce the world to the buttery and bold Australia model. The style became so popular with wineries around the world that it inspired a backlash, the so-called ABC drinker (Anything But Chardonnay) who was reportedly tired of the uniformity of most chardonnays on the market. While sales figures never really saw a drop-off, the trend for butter and nougat turned to lighter and brighter expressions of chardonnay.
The shift in style was a boon for producers in cool climates, especially Ontario’s wine regions and Okanagan wineries situated around Kelowna and Naramata, but fans of the full-on style were left in the lurch like vinyl aficionados when the music industry went digital.
But there are signs that the lean, steely and lemony style of chardonnay that became the accepted fashion is putting on some weight. In general, there’s less of a one-size-fits-all approach. Zesty models are available alongside ones with more generosity of fruit and obvious oak influence.
These days I’m seeing more unabashedly rich chardonnays from California as well as warmer regions in Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand. Ménage à Trois Gold is a label that embraces the buttery excess of the old school Cali style. It’s too much of a good thing to my taste, but fans that have been searching for a white wine with punch aren’t likely to complain. Many wineries in Napa and Sonoma never abandoned the style because it continued to sell in the domestic market, but listings dried up as international buyers followed the trend. Old school classics, including the quintessentially buttery character of Rombauer or the ripe Cakebread and Chalk Hill models, are turning up more frequently at bottle shops. Like vinyl collectors who never lost their fondness for the warm reverberation of records, wine lovers who cannot shake the switched-on thrill of the traditional rounded chardonnay flavour are finding themselves with increasing options.