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Published:  23 July, 2008

Last month, Harpers hosted an "Anything But Chardonnay?" seminar in London, focusing on the future of the world's favourite grape. Among the issues up for debate were the split identity of Chardonnay, and the tough choices facing those producers who fear that the grape is out of control

In association with its first ever supplement on a single variety - Chardonnay - Harpers recently held a seminar and blind tasting devoted to the world's favourite white grape. The debate, held in London on 25 July, was chaired by Tim Atkin, editorial director of Harpers, and featured (in the order in which they spoke) Mike Paul, managing director of The Destination Wine Company; Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot; James Herrick, managing director of WineProphet; and Bill Baker, managing director of Reid Wines. The panel was asked to address key questions such as: how should Chardonnay be marketed, especially given the looming surplus? Is Chardonnay in danger of losing its popularity? And can a Chardonnay be both a brand and a terroir wine? A summary of the speeches and questions from the floor follows, and the results of the blind tasting (you'll be surprised) will be published in Harpers on 24 August.

Tim Atkin "There's Chardonnay and Chardonnay," Atkin began. "There's Montrachet, and there's the Chardonnay grown in greenhouses in South Shields." But there's a danger that by being "all things to all men", Chardonnay will further lose its identity, becoming no more than a generic white wine style. Witness such twisted variations on the theme as low-alcohol and low-calorie Chardonnays, and Chardonnay with added fruit flavour (quite apart from the children, dogs, country clubs and shampoos named after the grape in the USA). The situation is such that US importer Terry Theise gives Riesling to those who ask for Chardonnay, saying that all of the best Chardonnay comes from the Riesling region. Meanwhile, at all points on the price and quality spectrum, "it's getting pretty difficult to tell where a Chardonnay comes from" (as demonstrated by the preceding tasting). The danger will be all the greater in a growing surplus situation. Although there are conflicting signals as to what will be in surplus where and when, Chardonnay plantings have risen 400% in Australia since 1990, and some of it is not yet on stream. All over the New World, Chardonnay is something of a cash cow. And that contempt may be bred by familiarity is suggested by a recent Wine Spectator poll, in which less than 40% of respondents said that they enjoy it; 22% that they can "take it or leave it"; 11% that they "don't particularly care for it"; and 4% that they "hate it, and run the other way when they see it coming".

Mike Paul Such a gloomy prediction struck a chord with Mike Paul. He disagreed with James Halliday's conclusion in the Chardonnay supplement that: "The ABC club is but the figment of the imaginations of jaded journalists picked up by the seagull set." Paul argued: "The ABC movement is a real movement, and the crucial issue is whether it will become a mainstream movement." He would take his Antipodean friend [Halliday] to Richmond, in Surrey, "a Chardonnay-free zone", to show him the way things were going. The discounting and overpromoting of varietal wines "will be accelerated by a tidal wave of commercial Chardonnay, which has to demean its image". And "it is an image issue, it's not about winemaking solutions". For this reason, "it will be difficult even for premium producers to escape the quicksand". Paul drinks Chardonnay, and thinks it's responsible for "most of the great white wines. But they're not marketed as Chardonnay." Any premium producers who attempt to do so "will abnegate control - their destiny will become that of Chardonnay itself". So far, only Burgundy has managed to divorce itself from the variety and "remove itself from its competitive set. Even the ABC club drinks white Burgundy." But producers attempting to build brands of Chardonnay would be well advised to rely less on its name. "It's a margin issue, not a volume issue," and if producers "believe that a flood of Chardonnay will ruin the market, then the only way to protect margins will be to market Chardonnay as something other than Chardonnay".

Pierre-Henry Gagey As if proving Paul's point, Pierre-Henry Gagey began by saying: "I'll use the Chardonnay word more in the next ten minutes than I have in the last year. Nobody even knew ten years ago that white Burgundy was Chardonnay. It's not something we've chosen: it is Chardonnay which has chosen Burgundy. Chardonnay in Burgundy has built itself - through mutation, through transformation - to be in symbiosis with the soil. It is only an excuse for the expression of the soil, which God has given." The abiding appeal of Chardonnay, Gagey argued, comes from terroir. As a grape, "it is simple, people drink it because they understand it. But after a time it can become boring." Appropriate terroir is found not only in Burgundy, however. While the distinction has long been between the New World and the Old or "traditional" World, "the new segmentation will be well-made versus terroir wines", and both will be found worldwide. Producers will need to choose one or the other, and those who attempt to be in between "will die". "This is the direction of the market, and I'm glad of it." He agreed with Paul that the name "Chardonnay" will disappear from an increasing number of terroir wines, and looked forward to a time when "Chardonnay" was no longer a heading on wine lists.

James Herrick "I beg to differ with the ABC school," countered James Herrick. He asserted that Chardonnay as a variety is "technically superior". "Ordinary Chardonnay is ordinary - but less ordinary than ordinary anything else." Herrick's gripe was that consumers are so often "cheated out of true Chardonnay. Australia and California allow up to 15% of other grape varieties - any damn thing. Chardonnay is better unblended. Period." Instead of jumping on the ABC bandwagon, "somebody should start a campaign for real Chardonnay," he suggested. He also doubted that there would be problems resulting from a surplus. He accepted that "Chardonnay gets planted in the New World because everybody thinks they can sell it at a profit." But even so, of the 7 million hectares of vines in the world, less than 120,000ha (less than 2%) are planted to Chardonnay. Herrick thinks that the Chardonnay name is still seen as helpful in marketing terms - at least by others. When he suggested calling one of his wines "James Herrick Classic Dry White", Oddbins insisted that it be marketed as a Chardonnay.

Bill Baker Still smarting from the fact that he had been forced to curtail his lunch, Bill Baker curtailed his speech too. He bluntly stated that: "There won't be a problem. The UK is a conservative market. And once it's got its teeth into something, it's difficult to get them out. Essex Girls and Hooray Henrys like Chardonnay, and they're going to carry on. "There are two kinds of Chardonnay: baked beans Chardonnay and proper wines - vins de terroir." He agreed with Gagey that "people are making great Chardonnay" all over the world, and said "we should make sure that we seek these out".

Questions & Answers TA: Has Chardonnay devalued "terroir"? MP: Terroir is only a point of difference ["Bollocks," interjected JH]. It's part of the marketing mix - which isn't to say that it doesn't make a difference to those who can taste it. JH: It's exposed the truth and the lie. Ordinary wines can't hide, they've been shown to have no clothes. Another lovely thing about this terroir nonsense is that you can make wine in small quantities. A 100ha block divided up into 100 1ha plots will give you a lot more money. P-HG: Terroir exists only where you have harmony with the vine. This takes time, which is why the New World doesn't understand it. But not all Old World wines express terroir. Some Burgundian merchants are adding the name of the grape to labels because we can't express terroir in all wines, especially regional wines. TA: Is it legal? P-HG: It is not illegal. INAO is against it because INAO is intellectual, the guardian of terroir. I'm a member of INAO. But many AOC wines are not terroir wines. JH: It is illegal. But if nobody complains, it's OK. MP: It's a big mistake. Why tell consumers that white Burgundy is just Chardonnay?

Anthony Rose: [Getting back to ABC] what about all the other letters of the alphabet? BB: Well, what other varietals will anybody persuade people to drink? Riesling hasn't worked. AR: New World Riesling is working. Jacob's Creek and Nottage Hill wouldn't produce Riesling if they didn't think it was going to sell.

Conclusion So, after a stimulating exchange of views, the audience and panel still disagreed as to whether Chardonnay has had its day. But the questions were clearly well worth raising. And as Mike Paul stressed, the trade itself will determine the answers: "All of the key trends are trade- rather than consumer-led: it's far too confused a market for that."