Rediscovering Chardonnay wine: The unoaked version

Chardonnay has become the whipping child of the wine world — the veritable before-the-ball Cinderella or Joan of Arc. But this unfortunate rep has a reason behind it. There are a crapload of disgusting, woodchipped and buttered Chardonnays lining shelves of every American retailer. And, like Merlot before Sideways busted its ass, the quality level simply plummeted into the deep sea of average wine. Sweet-lovin’ consumers fleeing White Zin, after the populist mocked them, found solace in the softer, fruitier Chardonnay grape. It was comforting and easy to drink, like a cold bottle of Kendall Jackson on a warm summer day.

And people bought the hell out of it. Chardonnay quickly became the drink of choice, its back labels rife with balderdash and enticing talk of vanilla, oak and butter. Grapegrowers, anxious to keep up with demand, sought out other locations to plant this new favorite white, expanding production and flooding the market with less expensive and, eventually as profit overweighed focus on quality, less attractive fruit. It’s now the second most planted white grape variety on the planet, after Airen in Spain, and grows in virtually every wine region across the globe.

Chardonnay became Merlot Part Deux. Over-produced, over-manipulated and overwhelmingly saturated on the market.

But the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Consumers graduating from the same ‘ole, same ‘ole have begun eschewing the Chardonnays drowning in butter like shrimp at Red Lobster or that taste like a termite’s lunch. “Where’s the fruit?” they ask. In the bandwagon effect, people who shouldn’t be making this wine are making it. And the backlash has started.

I participated in the recent Twitter Chardonnay Day event. People reportedly from three different countries all tweeted about a Chardonnay they tasted that day, gathering together under one #ChardonnayDay hashtag (not on Twitter? Make sense of this here). That evening, I attended an event celebrating this beaten down grape, in the hopes of finding Chardonnay that resembles, well, grape juice. Not the additives employed to cover up what might be questionable fruit.

I found it.

During my wine writing career, I’ve tasted hundreds of Chardonnays from around the world. There are plenty of producers who deftly display a restrained and elegant touch with the oak barrel and malolactic fermentation (what’s this?). Some, like Jordan Vineyards, are combatting the oaky-buttery rebellion by blending in stainless-steel-fermented Chardonnay with the oak-fermented version. As well as limiting the use of “malo” which helps even out the flavors, and leaves some tart acidity in the juice. Jordan’s 2009 Chardonnay from Russian River is my favorite of theirs in years, showing peaches, red apples and a very light touch of vanilla oak.

Because of this newfound love of unadorned Chardonnay,”Unoaked”, “Virgin”, “Naked” and “Stainless Steel” monikers are becoming more and more prevalent on labels. I call them the American version of France’s Chablis. Chamisal Vineyards, from Edna Valley in California’s Central Coast, makes an outstanding, clean, crisp stainless Chardonnay from the 2010 vintage. The lack of oak allows the natural apricot, pear and red apple flavors of this usually obscured grape to shine through like the sun after a rain. It’s refreshing, really, and this wine made me re-appreciate what Chardonnay can be.

The taste difference between oak-aged and/or fermented Chardonnay and those that don’t see wood can normally be summed up in one word: minerality. It’s a fancy word that indicates an underlying crispness on the tongue. It smacks of slate rock after a rain, granite or stone. The grape literally pulls these flavors from the soil and Chardonnay has an incredible ability to showcase this flavor profile.

Wine collectors around the world pay big bucks for minerality-ladened wines crafted in France. The U.S. can deliver it, if only the wineries could get over their fascination with oak and malo. Snoqualmie, an organic winery in Washington State, is one that has perfected the art of stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay. Winemaker Joy Anderson’s 2009 Chardonnay from Columbia Valley showed bracing acidity, peaches and apricots with a lingering red apple finish. Well made, from start to finish. And for only $13, it’s a freakin’ steal.

Another fantastic one in the $13 range is Four Vines 2009 Naked Chardonnay, out of Paso Robles California. It’s been a favorite of mine for many years now, with a lighter body and more tart citrus fruits like lemon and lime. It’s the Chardonnay that drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, around $17, and like your wine with a ‘lil sugar, then Morgan 2009 Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay just might work. Slightly sweet (sw=3), it has intense, ripe peaches, pears and a crisp, lemony finish. If the tart stuff doesn’t work for you, then this is a good bet.

Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape varietal in Washington State and Buried Cane winery must have their pick of the best vineyards. Out of the 20 or so Chardonnays I tried for this column, it was my favorite. Buried Cane 2009 Whiteline Chardonnay from Columbia Valley strikes a perfect balance between creamy mouthfeel and bracing acidity with green apple doused in lemon flavor. Lime and also enters the game. It’s light-bodied and would pair quite nicely with a lounge chair by the pool. And a straw.

If wineries keep up this kind of Chardonnay work, I may just have to like it again.

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6 comments to Rediscovering Chardonnay wine: The unoaked version

  • Karina

    The 2009 Chardonnay from Anderson’s sounds like a lovely combination! I’m not a huge fan of Chardonnay, but that sounds absolutely wonderful that I must purchase that! Would you say it is overly sweet for one who enjoys wine that is more on the dry side? Thanks for all your wonderful suggestions!

  • Taylor Eason

    The only Chard listed that has any sweetness is the Morgan Metallico. The others are completely dry and crisp.

  • Karina

    Sounds good! If you don’t mind me asking, which one is your personal favorite of the bunch?

  • Taylor Eason

    The Chamisal was my favorite but it’s harder to find. But the Buried Cane is around and quite fabulous.

  • Lisa

    Stanley Lambert wines also has a Pristine Chardonnay (stainless steel barrels) that is really nice…

  • Karina

    Are there any particular ones from Chamisal that you’d recommend? There’s quite a selection. Thanks for your suggestions! Lisa, may I ask if there’s a huge difference in the stainless steel barrels?

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