Chardonnay, Please, and Hold the Oak
By Tina Caputo

Remember when new oak barrels were a badge of honor for vintners?  They'd even brag about them on their wine labels: 'We use 100% new French oak barrels every year!'  The message was not only that these wineries spared no expense in the winemaking process (new barrels every year!), but that their Chardonnay was absolutely packed with toasty vanilla-oak character. 

To thousands of wine lovers, this was a major selling point.  In fact, I distinctly remember telling a friend in the early `90s that I really liked the 'oaky-buttery' style of Chardonnay.  And I wasn't alone. 

Eventually, I grew tired of that oak-butter thing and moved on to crisper wines.  As my preference shifted from oak to fruit, I found it harder and harder to drink Chardonnay.  As it turns out, lots of former Chard-heads had the same experience, and a backlash was born. 

As oak-weary wine lovers began seeking out more fruit-driven Chardonnay, wineries responded to the anti-oak-juice movement by fermenting and aging their Chardonnays in stainless steel tanks.  What began as a novelty soon became a full-on trend. 

While a decade ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a single example of unoaked California Chardonnay at your local wine shop, today there are at least a couple dozen options on the market.  Just a few of the wineries producing unoaked Chards include: St. Supery, Sebastiani, Valley of the Moon, Kunde Estate, Sonoma Vineyards, Toad Hollow Vineyards, Marimar Estate, Byron, Cambria, and Carmel Road. 

There's even a website devoted to oak-free by a Miami couple with no connection to the wine industry. 

Light Oak, Hold the ML

Steering clear of oak barrels isn't the only way to produce fruit-focused Chardonnay; taking it easy on new oak and skipping the ML can also do the trick.  (For you non-wine geeks, 'ML' is short for malolactic fermentation, a process that transforms sharper malic acid into softer lactic acid, lending a creamy or buttery character to the finished wine.)

For more than 50 years, Napa Valley's Stony Hill Vineyard has been making fabulous Chardonnay using only neutral barrels--most of them over 10 years old--and foregoing ML.  Stony Hill Chardonnays are crisp and delicious, with great acidity and mineral notes, and citrus and green apple fruit flavors.  Though the winery's approach to winemaking is seen as a bit revolutionary in the Napa Valley, the wines have earned a cult following. 

Likewise, Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena skips the ML and uses only about 10% new French oak barrels.  (New barrels impart more oak character to wine than barrels that have been used for a few years.)

'If you can taste the oak, there's too much,' says Chateau Montelena winemaker Bo Barrett.  'Just a kiss of oak is how we've always described it.  As our wine ages we want it to be balanced at five to seven years.  A huge amount of American Chardonnay that's sold is ready to go today--it's basically pre-aged with a lot of wood or ML.  So our style of Chardonnay is quite minimalist when it's young, it's driven purely by layers of fruit flavors.  It's the fruit that drives it in the first three years, then the terroir, the wood, and the other flavors and the complexity start to evolve.'

Leaving ML out of the process helps retain the acidity of the wines and keeps them from becoming flabby.  'A white wine has to have that crisp acidity,' Barrett says.  'So I think the [lack of] ML is a key component of why we've been real successful with our Chardonnay.'

Though he says he understands the tasty appeal of unoaked Chardonnay, Barrett says he couldn't go that route at Chateau Montelena.  'We couldn't do it because the wine is so lean and austere going into the barrels,' he says.  'You wouldn't have the graciousness or the user-friendly quality.'

But regardless of whether or not oak is used in the process, he says, Chardonnay grapes produce beautiful wines--if they're treated the right way. 

'There's no question that Chardonnay is a damn delicious grape,' Barrett says.  'When people taste the wines where the grape is dominant, rather than the oak, it's just really, really tasty.'

And he's right.  But like many lapsed Chardonnay lovers, I sometimes I need a reminder that there actually are Chardonnays on the market that won't leave oak splinters in my throat. 

The trick, of course, is in deciphering which ones they are.  Not all unoaked and fruit-focused Chardonnays are labeled as such, but there are usually clues in the back-label descriptions.  Look for references to stainless steel fermentation/aging, neutral barrels, low percentages of new French oak, and partial/no ML. 

And if that doesn't work, just pop the cork on a bottle of French Chablis.