Ironically, America’s two most maligned wine varietals — chardonnay and merlot — remain among America’s most popular. Despite overwhelming negativity in some wine circles to chardonnay especially, it remains America’s No. 1 bestselling varietal wine.
Chardonnay is made in a variety of styles. Over the past few years I have heard a lot of whining from some wine consumers and wine pros about their intense dislike of creamy, buttery, oak-aged chardonnay.
In response to this criticism, some chardonnay producers have overcorrected, eliminating oak aging and malolactic fermentation. Oak imparts flavor to wine. It is, in fact, oak that gives chardonnay a hint of vanilla on the palate, and it is generally malolactic fermentation that imparts creaminess or buttery mouthfeel.
Conversely, chardonnay aged in stainless steel and not exposed to malolactic fermentation can in some instances be bracingly austere. Such chardonnays are generally marketed as “naked” or “unoaked” chardonnay. These wines do have their followers, but it should be noted that one of the best-selling chardonnays on the market today is a wine aptly named “Butter.”
The success of Butter, a product of Jam Cellars owned by John and Michelle Truchard, has caught the attention of other winemakers who, in like form, have given us wines with names like “Custard,” “Bread and Butter” and most recently Trader Joe’s entry into this category, “Big Churn.”
A clue to the success of these easy-drinking chardonnays may be revealed in a large-scale survey of alcohol beverage consumers commissioned by the world’s largest wine company, E&J Gallo.
Results of this study signaled a word of warning to thousands of wineries trying to expand their dry wine sales because it revealed, drum roll please, 60 percent of wine drinkers surveyed prefer a little sweetness in their wines.
The study also revealed that wine has become democratized; the largest single attitudinal change from five year ago is that wine should be fun.
People are more comfortable drinking wines they enjoy. Wine occasions are also becoming less food-centric, as entertaining and gatherings are increasingly more spur-of-the-moment, hanging-out types of affairs.
The popularity of chardonnays like Butter and the continuing popularity of the brand that invented the style, Kendall Jackson, is confirmed by this study.
Today’s wine consumers are more about drinking wines that are pleasurable with or without food, and they obviously pay no heed to chardonnay naysayers.
According to the Wine Institute, chardonnay has remained the top-selling varietal for more than a decade in America, but maligned merlot has not fared as well.
Once the go-to red wine grape for America, merlot took a precipitous fall from grace with the release of the movie “Sideways,” in which the main character Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, utters a line that caught a fickle wine drinking public’s attention. The line is “I’m not drinking any expletive merlot.”
Miles was a pinot noir connoisseur. Overnight, merlot sales took a drop and pinot noir sales soared. Pinot noir ranked fifth in 2017 varietal wine sales — behind chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, red blends and pinot grigio — according to research by Dr. Liz Thach, master of wine, distinguished professor of wine, researcher and journalist.
Merlot does not appear in the Top 5, but it should be noted it is usually a major component in most red blends.
Excellent merlot is still available, but it can be costly. Last year, an excellent merlot got its revenge when a 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard merlot was named Wine Spectator magazine’s Wine of the Year for 2017. It might be premature to write off merlot.
As one whose occupational hazard is tasting a heck of a lot of pinot noir, I am overjoyed when offered the opportunity to taste an excellently made merlot and, yes, a well-made, buttery chardonnay.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.