How Much Wood Would A Good Wine Want?

steel-barrelsFast on the heels of Jessyca's wedding wine recommendation request from Twitter, in this episode – dear readers – I thought I would take you on a journey to the land of Unoaked Chardonnay. Grab a glass, kick back and enjoy the ride!

My education on unoaked Chard started when Jess and I went to SummerTASTE at the Grove a few weeks ago. This LearnAboutWine event was co-sponsored by The Whisper Restaurant and Lounge, and focused – specifically – on unoaked wines. Naturally, most of the wines offered were white and fruity. I have to admit that a lot of them were also not my preference.

Then I wandered over to the Sweeney Canyon tasting table.

I was first poured a taste of 2008 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay in order to contrast against future pours. This wine was presented only for sweeney-canyon-chardonnay1contrast, and it was made clear that what I was drinking was not even available for purchase. Good thing! As the pourer promised, this wine was undrinkable: sour and harsh and unpalatable. The 2007 was worlds better. It was smoother and sweeter, with a fuller and richer – although oily – mouthfeel. The 2001 was, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. The 2000 I was poured last just did not match up with the quality of the 2001.

But here is what really got me: None of the Chardonnay at this table had ever touched wood. Nor had it undergone malolactic fermentation (MLF).

What I didn't realize at the time is that this method of producing Chardonnay has been around for awhile, although most people are still familiar with the big, lush and buttery Chardonnays that are aged in oak barrels.

Let's look at why this is:

Some of the world's most renowned Chardonnay-based table wines come from the Burgundy region in France. Burgundy whites have a reputation for being complex and delicious…and aged in oak barrels, using malolactic fermentation. But Burgundy is Old World, with a cooler climate which makes it more difficult to bring the fruit to full ripening. These cool-weather grapes don't see a lot of sun and are low in sugar and high in acid. French oak helps to round out the wine, making it more complex and balanced. The addition of  lactic acid bacteria (usually Oenococcus oeni or various species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) de-acidifies the wine, creating a much smoother, richer and buttery mouthfeel. Considering the amount of acid the grapes produce, malolactic conversion is almost a necessity in order to produce a palatable wine.

As more and more Americans developed a vigor for vino in the 1980s and early 1990s, they became enamored with the woody vanilla flavors of oaked whites – like those from Burgundy. To meet demand, New World producers began to age their Chardonnay in oak – typically American oak – which by nature tends to impart a stronger woodiness than the tight-grained French barrels. Considering New World Chardonnay grapes are already ripe and lush and packed with sugar (but little acid), the result of barrel-aging is a big wine which tends to overpower the taste of the fruit. The low acid levels leaves very little for the MLF to work with, and thins the structure of the wine. In the end, American-oaked New World Chardonnay is unlike Chardonnay from Bordeaux.

nooakbarrelBy the mid-1990s, people had begun to develop a new appreciation for less bulky whites, preferring instead crisp, fruit-forward wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. This led to an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash, and new buzzwords like steel tanked, un-oaked, unwooded and acero (Spanish for “steel”).

New Zealand, like many of the New World wine regions, produces large amounts of Chardonnay grapes, and they were the first region to embrace production of un-oaked Chard on a grand-scale. The trend took off, and here we are – more than a decade later – and the movement is growing more and more popular.

Big, rich, oaky Chardonnays are unlikely to disappear. But for those who are looking for the crisp acidity and liveliness of the Chardonnay grape – front and center – unwooded Chardonnay is the way to go.

And stay tuned! Next up – Arianna reviews three different unoaked Chardonnays: 2008 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay (from New Zealand, and one of the first mass-market unwooded Chardonnay producers), 2007 Toad Hollow Francine's Selection Unoaked Chardonnay (Mendocino, California), and a 2007 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay (from Monterey, California). Yum!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes

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