Towards a Sociology of Chardonnay (Part I)

Cold French wine Chablis made from Chardonnay

Image via Wikipedia

Building up to my upcoming piece on the sociology of Chardonnay, I wanted to recall a 2007 piece on the subject. In the article A glass of versatility in the June issue of New Statesman, Roger Scruton says the following:

Everyone knows about Chardonnay. At least, they think they do. How it has happened is a deep question of sociology; but it has happened, and there is no going back: everybody today has a clear and distinct idea of Chardonnay. Go to any competent restaurant in this brave new world, and there will be a selection of Chardonnays on the wine list. Enter a bar anywhere in Britain, Australia or America and ask for a glass of Chardonnay, and you will be instantly obliged. People who know nothing about wine have nevertheless heard of Chardonnay, and in all probability retain a memory of tasting it. It is a wine people rely on, swear by and sometimes even recognise. Yet there is hardly any grape with so varied and unpredictable a taste…

The sociologist’s task is indeed to try to figure out why, how, when and who on earth would be responsible for such a paradox. Is it branding? Is it something about the taste, contrary to what Scruton says? What about the French or France factor–we all have a stereotypical and positive view of that place when it comes to elegant food and drink? Or the fact that Chateau Montelena won the 1976 Paris tasting?

Chardonnay is the grape from which the world’s greatest white wine is grown in those tiny Burgundian vineyards whose legendary names – Montrachet, Blagny, Corton-Charlemagne – expand in the brain as their wines expand on the palate. But the same grape produces the steely wine of Chablis, the oily estate wines of Australia, the carefully regulated brands from California, and the madcap Chardonnays of the Languedoc, often produced by Australian exiles in flight from some scandal back home. It is the world’s most versatile grape, producing sharp and sprightly aperitifs to rival the fragrant, buttery wines of the Côte d’Or.

What is happening in the world of Chardonnay? Have you noticed anything? Do you like Chardonnay more or less now than before? What characteristics of this grape is it that lets consumers go crazy for it? Is it simply that it is easer to say “Chardonnay” than try to remember one of those other white grape varietals? Is the selection pretty bad? Is Chardonnay the altogether king of white wine grapes? Let me know.

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  1. #1 by Ectomorph on February 20, 2011 - 3:03 am

    Here are some questions about chardonnay. (1) I’m sure you’ve had “unoaked chardonnay.” Has any of it stood out for you, positively or negatively? The few bottles I’ve tried have all been kind of characterless. (2) Does anyone make sweet wine from chardonnay? I’ve never heard of that. I read an interesting argument (maybe by Lyle Fass) that the really noble white varietals are riesling and chenin blanc, because they show beautifully in so many kinds of wine. (3) Does anyone make vodka from chardonnay? The world needs more high-end niche vodkas!

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