The late 1980s to mid-1990s saw the popular stylistic presentations of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in the New World take a sharp detour from what had always been considered a more refined, food-friendly and elegant Old World model. Some will point to this time of change as being in line with what specific and influential critics preferred. Many vintners, in an effort to achieve higher scores and bolstered sales, began picking later and modifying winemaking regimens to produce wines displaying more forward fruit, softer tannins and lower acidity coupled with increased oak and alcohol. Others will say it was the choice of consumers that drove the producers' stylistic change.
It appears that sets the stage for a classic, "What came first the chicken or the egg argument" that continues on today.
But either way, much of the wine drinking public soon tired of this departure from a more classic style, and the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement began developing steam. This was soon followed by a similar, albeit not as powerful, ABC (Anything But Cabernet) chorus. As the wines of that day became more powerful, many avid consumers became tired of the overshadowing influence of oak and alcohol and began seeking out other, often lesser known, wines that enticed the palate rather than accosting it.
Enter Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites along with Pinot Noir and Merlot for the reds. These "trailblazers" were not new in the market but in a sense became rediscovered as alternative choices in the ABC climate. Enterprising importers began searching beyond the well traveled areas of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and several others to discover a whole world of previously "undiscovered" growing areas and local varieties in the Old World that paired well with the meal, while offering diversity and choice when planning the menu.
As imports thrived and gained a prominent market-share, New World growers in California and elsewhere began expanding their plantings with these "newly discovered" varietals to establish domestic vineyards and take advantage of an expanding market.
Yet another (and perhaps more meaningful) outgrowth of ABC movements began to unfold closer to and shortly after the turn of the century. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were (and remain) the most heavily planted premium wine grapes in both California and throughout the world. So, they both continued on as an extremely large worldwide investment that required financial protection. With this in mind, many producers began to re-think the market dialing back on the oak and alcohol first in their Chardonnays and following, perhaps to a lesser extent, with their Cabernets.
More Chardonnays exhibiting elegance and grace began to reappear in the late-1990s. North Coast Cabernets soon joined the parade with an increased momentum inspired by the 2005 vintage where its characteristics paired well with the consumer's rediscovered palate preferences. Still, a significant following remains for the newer bolder styles that were supported by critical acclaim.
There's no doubt that the ABC movements rattled the wine market with many producers facing a fork in the road on deciding which direction to pursue. Should they continue with the bolder, "fatter" (i.e. lower acid) wines featuring early accessibility with excess oak and alcohol in their quest to maintain prominent positions in the ever-powerful 100-point scoring systems? Or recognize the rising voice of many consumers to retrench on that position and offer wines with a more classic structure, balance and appeal?
As an example, during that time Australia was growing in their worldwide export programs lead by Shiraz (aka Syrah) and Chardonnay with a lesser position in Cabernet. Virtually all of their exports - especially to the U.S. market - stressed the bolder approach with warm weather, riper, high alcohol Shiraz from the Barossa and over-oaked Chardonnays from the cooler Margaret River and elsewhere. When sales and acceptance of these styles began to plummet (about the same time the ABC movement was gaining strength), the Australian winemaking community realized a stylistic adjustment was urgently needed.
In a recent Winetitles Media post, "From polarising to popular: why Chardonnay is back in fashion," Margaret River winemaker Freya Hohnen stated: “Winemakers in Margaret River started working together, and through trial and error and by listening to wine drinkers, they refined and evolved the style. Today, Margaret River Chardonnay has found its sweet spot. It’s not too lean and not too powerful – and the feedback from wine drinkers is that this is the kind of Chardonnay they love.”
Looking back on the ABC movement raises an intriguing question. Was it the stylistic change to bigger and bolder wines that created ABC, or the more classic stylistic movement created by ABC that left the larger impression on the market? Whatever the answer, the wine market has demonstrated its resiliency and ability to provide options that will satisfy the growing consumer demand.
Today's wine drinkers are finding a broad range of stylistic choice with Chardonnay and Cabernet as well as countless other varietals and blends originating in a multitude of growing areas both near and far. The market influence of the Millennial generation is encouraging the continued expansion of new varietals, blends and growing areas while fans who grew up with the bigger/bolder wines of the 1990s and 2000s remain tied to these wines and their stylistic expression.
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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.