Over the past few years, Americans have awakened to the fact that wine should taste like wine, not oak juice.
The use of French oak barrels in California was pioneered by Robert Mondavi in the 1960s and 1970s. Mondavi was concerned with putting California on the world wine map, and his theory was simple: Oak was used to produce the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, so more oak would make great wine here. Regardless of the strength of a particular vintage, he used new, small barrels, which imparted the greatest amount of tannin and flavor to the final product. The result was frequently a wine which was dried out and overwhelmed by the cask in which it had been aged.
Increasingly, American consumers are rejecting that type of wine in favor of a beverage which is lighter, fresher and more natural, as well as more compatible with food. Many Chardonnay producers have dialed back their use of oak, and some are using none at all.
Unoaked Chardonnay is nothing new—the French call it Chablis, and have been making it for roughly 1,000 years. Most of the greatest Chablis producers, including the stratospherically priced Dauvissat and Raveneau, would never think of using oak. They prefer a wine which is defined by crisp acidity and classic Chardonnay flavors of citrus, apple, melon and pear.
Here at home, more and more unoaked Chardonnay is appearing on the market. Good versions are available from California (Melville, Iron Horse, Joel Gott, Mer Soleil Silver and Bernardus) and Oregon (Rex Hill, A to Z and Chehalem), in addition to Australia (Elderton, Trevor Jones, Wishing Tree and Spring Seed), New Zealand (Brancott, Babich and Kim Crawford), South Africa (Brampton and Star Tree) and Italy (Lageder and Elena Walch). I recently sampled the Naked Chardonnay from Snoqualmie in Washington State ($12), which had luscious flavors of green apple and ripe pear, along with a texture that was viscous and vibrant at the same time. It’s an unusual and distinctive wine that pairs well with a range of dishes from Asian/fusion to white meats in substantial sauces.
Irony of ironies: While there are some expensive bottles on the market, the fact is that a Chardonnay made without barrel aging will be usually significantly less expensive than its oaked counterpart, making it pleasurable to drink and a bargain at the same time.