For hundreds of years, winemakers worldwide have aged their wines in oak barrels, usually French Oak, to manipulate the true flavors of the fruit, believing the oak to enhance the enjoyment of the wine. It is what one expects when tasting a new wine, and usually the question will proceed or shortly follow, “what kind of oak was this aged in and for how long?” In the case of Chardonnay the same is true, and many who worship this varietal look for new possibilities of Chardonnay, with a buttery mouth, vanilla and oak tones. For the enthusiast, it is what is expected; the “norm”, and not aging in oak would be a sin.
However, more and more I am encountering vintners producing their Chardonnay in Stainless Steel tanks, because they believe it important to taste the qualities of the grape alone. In their opinion, and that of a growing following, that these grapes, being delicate in nature with precious flavors on their own, don’t need added flavors of storage in the oak barrels. What you will find as you sip a fresh, clear, properly temperature un-oaked Chardonnay, is the ripened fruit and the soil enhanced flavors that produced that grape.
Now some might argue, with some truth, that barreling Chardonnay assists in gentling a wine via the oxidation process along with creating needed flavors of vanilla and caramel to the Chardonnay, thus the end product adding a certain richness to the mouth. On the other hand, and I myself find this especially south of the border (of Oregon), a tad to much oak can be used, and in some cases might be on purpose, not to cover up a wine that just doesn’t taste good of course, but for “some other” reason. The fact is just that a growing population of Chardonnay drinkers out there getting overpowered by oak in their glasses. And then you need to examine the effects that has on the meal you are serving it with. When choosing Chardonnay’s for a particular food pairing or just with a snack or alone, remember that the oak process was first put in place to enhance the flavor of the wine, not to dominate it.
Chardonnay created in stainless steel may not have the complexity, color and flavors produced by those aged in oak, but they do for the most part bring you crisp, clear and refreshing Chardonnay that can be a pleasure to sip with food or without. With an ever growing popularity of wine buy our younger generations, maybe a simpler well made glass of un-oaked Chardonnay might be just the thing to start someone on the road to finer and more complex wines?
Today you will find many of the Chardonnay that is produced for the world by New Zealand and Australia wineries are un-oaked Chardonnays, most with screw caps. A major advantage of producing the un-oaked wines is that an earlier release date is achieved, so off to market they go. Europe as well as the United States is also seeing more and more of their wineries producing oaked as well as un-oaked Chardonnays, thus pleasing every wine sipper out there. However, a word of warning to those of you out there pleased with that, because god forbid if your favorite winery didn’t have your oaked! You need to at least give it a try, purist or not! Because that’s what us “Wine Snobs” do right? Just be prepared to walk away from the tasting table with a smile on your face and the realization that it wasn’t all that bad.
Is it time for a story? Yes it is. Early this year while visiting some of my favorite wineries here in Oregon, my wife and I stopped into one and my wife was thrilled to find that the Vintner was pouring his long awaited new un-oaked Chardonnay. As we sipped, swirled and swallowed (for a change) the same smile crept on both of our faces. He had produced one of the best I had ever encountered to date. Our smiles soon disappeared when he informed us he had a limited production, as he was trying something new, and just wasn’t sure the outcome. He had sold out all within a couple months, with a few bottles left just for tasting, and anticipation for the next release. When I asked him the expected production volume of the next vintage, he told me about the same as the first. I managed to escape the tasting room with one bottle, while dragging my sputtering wife along with me.
During the past six months or so, when ever we see this Vintner and his wife, the first question my wife asks is whether that un-oaked Chardonnay has been released yet, and when he says no, she tells him when it is, hold a case of it.
So the morale of the story is, the next time you come across a un-oaked Chardonnay, try it, you just might like it. As is the case with so many things in life, there is always another experience out there for you to try.
That’s what makes it Life.