I’ve been drinking some California chardonnay lately - believe me it surprises me as much as it does you. It’s not that I wasn’t drinking any chardonnay as Chablis, Macon Villages, St. Veran and Pouilly Fuisse have always been some of my favorite wines. California Chardonnay was another matter with its heavy oak and more than a little residual sugar. The cheaper the California chardonnay the sweeter it seemed to be. For my taste, sweet and oaky does not go very well with food.
So why am a drinking chardonnay again? Here and there there are emerging a few chardonnays that see no oak aging or fermentation. They spend their time before bottling only in stainless steel. Best of all, the California wines in this category are usually fermented to dryness. Often referred to as “unoaked” they are the exception to the rule as the vast majority of California Chardonnay is either aged in oak barrels or “oak alternatives” (oak chips, oak dust and so on) are added to give that sweet, vanilla oak characteristic that has replaced chardonnay varietal character as the defining characteristic of chardonnay for most wine drinkers. Not that there are not many exceptional wines produced from chardonnay aged in oak barrels (no exceptional ones come from wines made with “oak alternatives”), but the fact that most consumers think that the taste of oak is the taste of chardonnay few producers choose the “unoaked” path.
These “unoaked” wines are everything their oaky siblings are not. They are fresh and bright with clean, firm mineral flavors that are lightly laced with touches of white peaches and key limes. With a touch of refreshing tartness to balance their beautiful California fruit, they are perfect food wines. As another plus they tend to be cheaper than their more rotund oaky counterparts.
Two of my favorite “unoaked” California Chardonnays are:
2007 Iron Horse Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay, Sonoma County-Green Valley - Firm and bright with a lovely, lively freshness throughout you can tell as you drink this wine that the Sterling family cut their teeth on French wines. While having a lot in common with a fine Chablis or Pouilly Fuisse, the California personality of this wine shows through in the fresh hints of ripe tropical fruit that rides on a firm backbone of acidity and minerality. What a wonderful thing to do with chardonnay grown in the cool Green Valley.
2006 Elisabeth Spencer, Chardonnay Napa Valley, Special Cuvée - Deeper and more powerful than the Iron Horse, but still crisp and firm. Creamy with bright fresh citrus on the nose with and those characteristics flow through the entire wine. Firm mineral flavors are balanced by round pure apple and pear fruit flavors, which are all lifted by the crisp acidity. Very long on the finish, here is proof positive you don’t have to age chardonnay in oak to get complexity.