The Chardonnay Oak Battles Are Over

Closet Chardonnay Drinkers Stand Up.

Chardonnay can be a divisive grape, and I blame the 80s and the 90s for that. The 80s was a wine era where big, oaky Chardonnay was all the rage and what our market saw in abundance. Consumers gravitated to beverages with ripe and sweet descriptors, a thing that wine marketers and savvy producers did not miss. Naturally, as purchase data showed that a sugar-coated mouth feel seemed to be what consumers wanted, so consumers got.


The number of heavily oaked Chardonnay, especially from California and Australia, was rising. From new oak barrels to mounds of oak chips, these savvy producers were adamant about giving consumers that vanilla, caramel and butterscotch (some of the flavours imparted by oak) taste they seemed to want. I call this the decade of the Oak Battles!


Being a Canadian, you know that mentions of oaked California Chardonnay and the decades of the 80s and 90s cannot stand without talking about the Free Trade Agreement, signed between Canada and the United States, in 1987.


The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) affected several Canadian industries, but as far as wine, the era post FTA saw a dramatic increase in import wine sales. Those California Chardonnay's were making it onto our shelves, and we were drinking them. Data shows Canadians had a real fondness for white wines in those decades, the most popular being Chardonnay!


The oak battles continued well into the 90s, but tastes began to change at the turn of the century. This, ironically, was just after the period when we started to see California dedicate more land to red wine vines. I am not saying that California is to blame for the decade of the Chardonnay Oak Battles, but the viticultural timeline of the Golden State does make me want to put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and get to the bottom of it. We'll leave the sleuthing for another day.


The Chardonnay Oak Battles led to movements like the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), and wham, just like that, Chardonnay was no longer cool. I have several friends and guests at events who tell me that they 'hate Chardonnay', which is a big statement. Have they tried every Chardonnay on the planet? Usually, in cases like these, I pour a glass of cool climate Chardonnay, and the 'I hate Chardonnay' seems to dissipate.


For all the hate mail Chardonnay gets, it is still the number one white wine varietal in the United States, and it is the most popular in Canada. In fact, in 2019, Chardonnay sales rose by 2% in Ontario. This data makes me think, like with most things, the naysayers are just simply the loudest, and we live amongst a bunch of closet Chardonnay lovers.


For the record, you can pour me a glass of cool-climate Chardonnay any day. (That rhymed!)