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Monday Manifestos
Unoaked Chardonnay Gains A Foothold

By Stephen Eliot

I am beginning to think that unoaked Chardonnay just might be here to stay. What is more surprising to me is that I think that it is okay…both unoaked Chardonnay, that is, and the fact that it seems to have found a secure little niche for itself in the market.

No, I am not talking about the remarkable wines of Chablis – and make no mistake, there are many that are not -- or the daily quaffs of Mâcon and the various Italian versions from Friuli, Alto Adige and points north. No, I mean the considerable collection of those from up and down our own west coast, from Santa Barbara to the Columbia Valley. A collection, by the way, that is both expanding and improving.

I confess that I have been very slow to warm to our home-grown versions, and I would argue that the change of late has been more with the wines than with me. I have never been entirely comfortable with claims that Chardonnay is inherently a neutral, near-characterless grape, but it would be hard to refute the notion based on most early versions, and far too many, especially those bottled with screw caps, suffered from dissuasive levels of sulphites. As is the case with most anything, however, a little empirical knowledge can go a long way. Practice will always make better if not perfect, and winemakers who are playing with malo-lactic fermentation and extended lees-stirring are finding new and interesting Chardonnay expressions that are wholly unreliant on oak.

I was never and still am not entirely certain of what began the trend for unoaked Chardonnay here in California and the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps there is just too much of the stuff, and, with the exegencies of leaner economic times, it simply made sense to ferment it in steel tanks, bottle it up and get rid of it as fast as you could. The thought certainly occurred to me more than once upon tasting this or that new version. On the other hand, maybe the number of unoaked Chardonnays began to reach critical mass due to the dictates of fashion and the unrelenting need for the new. Truth be told, I expect that there is no one simple cause.

While a handful of apostles of unoaked Chardonnay have been anointed by some as visionaries and the vanguard of a true revolution, it strikes me that the seeming success of unoaked Chardonnay is not due to limited-production, hard-to-find wines. No, quite to the contrary, it is affordable and accessible wines that explain unoaked Chardonnay’s popular rise. Unoaked Chardonnay, it seems to me, is not about connoisseurship as much as it is about simple pleasure and ease.

Now, I am not about to give up my complex Côtes de Beaune whites or my rich, wonderfully deep, barrel-fermented favorites from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Monterey or the Central Coast, but I admit that I have thawed a bit when it comes to the unoaked stuff. You might even find me find me enjoying a glass or two on a warm afternoon as Summer draws near.


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by TomHill
Posted on:4/15/2013 10:25:49 AM

Yup...pretty much agree w/ you here, Steve. I recall some of those un-oaked versions from the '70's-'80's that were thin/vapid/lean/eviscerated wines that were totally devoid in character. I, too, have been finding a lot more of late that I like quite a bit...and not just as simple summer quaffers. Some have some richness & texture and almost a Riesling-like perfume to them. Chard is a grape that has a lot of character on its own and doesn't always need to be tarted up w/ new oak. Lipstick on a they say.



by Brian Loring
Posted on:4/15/2013 7:57:02 PM

Not my favorite style in general, but if the fruit is picked ripe enough, and they do ML, some of the un-oaked versions can be quite tasty :)  The non-ML ones are too challenging for me - not a fan of grapefruit notes.

Unoaked Chardonnay can be great.
by John Cesano
Posted on:4/16/2013 2:10:07 PM

I think we sent you review samples of our 2011 Chardonnay from McFadden some time back, after it had taken a Double Gold at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Unoaked and zero malolactic, it was the top awarded Chardonnay in Mendocino County. I hope you enjoyed it.

by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/16/2013 2:32:55 PM


Thanks for your note. We will review the wine in our May Issue as an easy-to-like GOOD VALUE.

Unoaked Chardonnay
by Cynthia
Posted on:4/17/2013 6:19:30 PM

Unoaked Chardonnay's have been on the rise...and lets not forget how food friendly they are especially with seafood...




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