- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006


Think again. If you automatically associate chardonnay with blowzy flavors that resemble movie-popcorn butter or vanilla taffy, you’re tasting the winemaking rather than the grape.

To appreciate this variety’s intrinsic character, look instead for wines that have experienced minimal manipulation, particularly those that have been exposed to little, if any, wood.

These unoaked versions tend to taste crisp and lively, their flavors echoing fresh fruit rather than 2-by-4’s. Sipping them can give you a whole new perspective on chardonnay, the world’s most popular white wine.

Chardonnay today is ubiquitous. It grows just about everywhere vines are cultivated, the only exception being those European appellations whose regulations prohibit it.

Otherwise, from east to west, north to south, cool to hot, the winemaking world overflows with chardonnay.

Fifty years ago, the map looked very different. Back then, chardonnay was cultivated in significant volume in just one region — Burgundy in northeastern France. It also was planted in Champagne, but, of course, it was not used there for still wines.

Grand cru white Burgundy, 100 percent chardonnay, was widely considered to be one of the finest white wines in the world.


Then, starting in the 1960s, the global wine revolution led vintners in California and Australia to plant chardonnay and begin making varietal wine with it.

Before long, their compatriots in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, various European countries, and even India, China and Japan followed suit. Why? Because this revolution involved not just planting grapevines in new places but, as important, making wines that would be modeled on the world’s very best.

In addition to grand cru Burgundy, the other generally acknowledged top white wine at that point was German Riesling.

That grape, however, turned out to be very site-specific. It did not make particularly interesting wines when planted in warm locales, and most of the emerging New World wine regions were just that.

By contrast, chardonnay seemed to thrive just about anywhere it was planted.

By the 1980s, vintners were growing it all over, and consumers who had never heard of it before were asking for it by name.

Not surprisingly, many winemakers at the time employed Burgundian techniques. They induced malolactic fermentation, a secondary process that converts harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid, making the wines feel smooth.


They slavishly stirred the lees or spent yeast cells, trying to bring out toasty, buttery flavors. Most important, they aged the wines in forests of new oak barrels, adding a sweet, vanilla character. The result: an ocean of tropical, fruit-cocktail-flavored wine.

Chardonnay made in this style proved pleasant enough, but it rarely tasted much like white Burgundy, being overt rather than subtle, and heady rather than refreshing. That’s because though this grape grows well in many different places, it nonetheless is quite sensitive to locale.

Plant it in a cool, mineral-rich spot such as Burgundy’s Cote d’Or, and it will yield wines that taste refined as well as rich. Planted in denser soil in a warm place, say the Napa Valley in California, it will produce heavier, more tropical-scented, but simpler wines.

Global chardonnay styles have been evolving, however, over the past decade or so. More and more vintners, in both the Old World and New World, have backed off from heavy-handed winemaking.

Particularly if working with grapes grown in warm climes, they have tried to preserve the personality of the grape rather than add or impose some other character to the wine.

This new style sometimes entails avoiding malolactic fermentation so as to retain freshness. It also sometimes includes using native instead of cultivated yeasts. The most significant change, though, involves a more sensitive use of oak.

Oak barrels contribute flavor to wine in two ways — first, by allowing the wine to come into contact with oxygen, wood being naturally porous; second, by imparting flavor, wood being naturally sweet.

Winemakers looking for a sweet, toasty character will put their newly fermented chardonnay into as many new oak barrels as they can afford. (If they are making an inexpensive wine, they will add as many oak chips as they can afford.)

On the other hand, winemakers looking for refinement and subtlety will want to use oak more judiciously. They will use only tight, finely grained wood and mix new barrels with more neutral older ones.

Sometimes, they will eschew wood altogether.


Unoaked wines epitomize the new, subtler style of chardonnay. They do not take their cues from grand cru Burgundy (although they often do give more than a passing nod to French Chablis) but instead express what the particular grape and site have to offer.

When well-made, they tend to taste fresh and lively, with nuances that come more from the vineyard than the winery.

These “naked” wines, as Australian winemakers sometimes call them, are enjoying a surge in popularity. Although many are made with grapes grown in warm, even hot climates, more and more are coming from cool locales. These can be especially refreshing. They taste vividly and vibrantly of the unadorned grape.

Trying some of them may compel you to rethink what chardonnay is all about.


Here are 10 unoaked or minimally oaked chardonnays that have impressed me lately.

Since I’m recommending them with equal fervor, I’m listing them simply in order of price.

• Domaine de Bernier, Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France, 2004 ($10) A super value, this wine comes from the western Loire Valley, near the region better known for Muscadet. It tastes of crisp apples, pears and peaches, and provides delicious warm weather sipping.

• Quara, Cafayate Valley, Argentina, 2005 ($12) Bright and lively, this easy-sipping wine hails from northern Argentina, where the vineyards lie in the shadows of the Andes Mountains. The region is cool but sun-drenched, and the wine tastes both rich and racy.

• Omrah by Plantagenet “Unoaked,” Western Australia, 2004 ($15) Here’s an example of different techniques yielding a superior wine. Although fermented and aged in steel rather than wood, it has rested on lees that have been stirred frequently. The result: a crisp wine with a nutty, almost breadlike undertone.

• Nepenthe “Unoaked,” Adelaide Hills, Australia, 2005 ($16) Vibrant and youthful, tasting of lemons, apples and peaches, this is a fruit-filled yet zesty wine that seems in near perfect balance. Delightful.

• Kim Crawford “Unoaked,” Marlborough, New Zealand, 2004 ($19) Rich but at the same refined, this is an extremely elegant rendition of chardonnay — perfect for accompanying poultry and fresh seafood dishes.

• Chehalem “Inox,” Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2004 ($21) “Inox” means steel in French, and this Oregon chardonnay has been aged in stainless steel tanks rather than oak barrels. It displays a vivacious, hence engaging, personality. Look also for the 2005 vintage, due to arrive in this area fairly soon.

• Morgan “Metallico,” Monterey, California, 2005 ($22) Impressive because it is so harmonious, this wine is beautifully balanced. A touch heavier than many other unoaked chardonnays, it should pair well with richer dishes — crab imperial, for example, or steamed lobster.

• Joseph Drouhin, Chablis, France, 2004 ($24) Although not true of all the wines made there, the region of Chablis in France is the original home of chardonnay that sees little if any oak. This rendition was vinified and aged in steel. It tastes flinty, with citrus fruit flavors, and a cool, soothing core.

• Vie di Romans “Ciampagnis Vieris,” Friuli, Italy, 2004 ($33) Consistently one of Italy’s finest chardonnays, this wine is fermented in steel and aged in fairly neutral oak barrels. It has a rich texture but lean, mineral-rich flavors.

• William Fevre, Chablis “Fourchaume,” France, 2003 ($47) From a freakishly hot vintage, this wine is richer than most Chablis, but at the same time enthrallingly complex, tasting of fresh citrus and dried apricot fruit, with underlying notes of minerals and toasted nuts. A winemaking tour-de-force, it should age well for many years.

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