Three cheers for chardonnay

As summer approaches (albeit hesitantly at times), and with it the seasonal change in our dining and drinking habits, wine drinkers find themselves lured by a glass of chilled white wine.

Reds are fine for winter and for those moments when the barbecue is turning out well-charred slabs of meat, but the lighter fare of warm-weather meals calls for a well-chilled (not too chilled) white wine.

Consumers have many choices in white wine, and while some varieties such as pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and viognier will always have their time in the sun, data reveals chardonnay remains the favorite white wine of the American wine consumer.

According to a report from Nike Communications, a 2016 survey of consumer habits revealed 42 percent of U.S. white-wine drinkers said they prefer chardonnay.

Chardonnay sales in the U.S. in 2016 totaled almost $2 billion, representing nearly 20 percent of all wine sales, amounting to more than 58 million gallons of chardonnay, enough to fill more than 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

So popular is chardonnay it even has its own holiday, which you might have missed. National Chardonnay Day (May 25) may or may not entitle you to a long weekend but it certainly opens the door for a glass of wine.

Chardonnay’s popularity isn’t surprising, since chardonnay comes in many styles, is widely available and generally affordable, and is easy to pronounce.

The latter isn’t just a punch line. Most people won’t order something you can’t pronounce, a fact noted by the late Robert Mondavi, who in 1968 introduced his drier (less-sweet) version of sauvignon blanc by changing the name to fumé blanc, not only in deference to the popular dry Loire Valley wines made from sauvignon blanc but also in hopes people could pronounce fumé blanc.

The U.S. remains a #Chardonnation, as the people at Nike Communications like to put it, and according to some 2014 Nielsen data, is America’s most-asked for wine variety, followed by cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio, merlot and pinot noir.

Why? Because people like the way chardonnay tastes.

“I love this grape, it’s such a nice food wine,” said winemaker Nancy Janes at Whitewater Hill Vineyard. “It’s sometimes hard for me to pin down the complexity of chardonnay but it’s so food-friendly.”

Riesling may be known as the world’s most-transparent grape because it shows its place of origin so clearly, but chardonnay may well be the most-neutral and the grape winemakers love most to work with.

It grows almost everywhere and can be adapted to nearly any style, from lean and crisp to buttery and round, heavily fermented in oak barrel or completely non-oaked in stainless steel.

Chardonnay, by its nature, benefits from the judicious use of oak but by that very mutability led to a downturn in chardonnay’s popularity around 2000 when a consumer backlash against the increasing use of oak and oak flavorings (some fad, some to cover sins in winemaking) brought on a consumer backlash in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement.

Since then, the general movement in winemaking is back toward using oak as a highlight, not the feature, although there still are many people who want a mouth-filling, buttery chardonnay.

It’s been said you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince or princess, and the same might be said of chardonnay. It takes some research (tough, but someone has to do it) to find the right chardonnay for you, but given its abundance and popularity, the field work will be rewarding by itself.

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