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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Other Side of Chardonnay


Alongside Merlot in America, this grape has gone from beloved to berated….chalk up another victim of its own success. While I don’t think Chardonnay can blame an influential movie for falling out of favor with its diehard fans, I do think the old adage ‘too much of a good thing’ can begin to describe its downfall in popularity. If one likened the use of French Oak and malolactic fermentation to ‘seasoning with salt,’ Chardonnay’s American envelope has been pushed to hypertensive levels, causing a flurry of consumers to say ‘enough is enough.’ The ‘less is more’ approach has brought out the balance in Chardonnay, personified by a proliferation of ‘naked’ or ‘virgin’ bottlings that use absolutely no oak at all.

Is this wave of ‘Chardonnay counter culture’ a revolution of sorts? Not really, as crowds of consumers will embarrassingly admit their penchant for the buttered popcorn vogue & will happily gobble up bottlings in that vein from retailers fully stacked shelves. What I think this paradigm shift has caused is an acknowledgement and celebration of the grape’s diversity. I’ve heard some winemakers refer to Chardonnay as a ‘neutral’ grape of sorts, likening it to an empty canvas for them to paint as they see fit. While I’ve been quick to hammer it for lack of varietal character & benign neutrality, the flourish of successfully unoaked versions have demonstrated there is indeed lots to love about Chardonnay. While for my palate, the most profound Chardonnays find a harmony between intensity, concentration, minerality and depth, the unwooded examples merit honorable mention because:

  • Most of which come under screw-cap closures.
  • They are a polar opposite to the over-oaked, mass produced and severely manipulated fare that has given the ‘A.B.C.’ crowd (Anything But Chardonnay) their axe to grind.
  • They offer a wide range of food pairing opportunities and are arguably more flexible at the dinner table than their barrique-infused counterparts.
  • Its summer time and these wines are a terrific alternative to beat the summer heat, thanks to their refreshing, palate cleansing acidity and pure fruit flavors.
  • I have a soft spot for any positive stimulus for change in the wine world.
  • They are easy on the wallet (with the exception of Chuck Wagner’s ‘Silver’ bottling), as they don’t require the expense of pricy French oak barrels that need renewing on a regular basis.

California, New Zealand and Australia are leading the New World pack w/ a wide variety of bottlings that should be readily available at most value-oriented retailers. Here’s a list of my favorites that I’ve enjoyed over the past couple months (most of these wines are likely best suited for near-term drinking and score in the high 80's):

California:

  1. Four Vines ‘Naked’
  2. Travis Unfiltered
  3. Mer Soleil ‘Silver’ Unoaked
  4. Iron Horse Unoaked
  5. Diatom
  6. Melville

New Zealand and Australia:

  1. Yalumba Unwooded Y Series
  2. Razor’s Edge Unwooded
  3. Hugo Unwooded
  4. Saint Clair Unoaked
  5. Trevor Jones Virgin
  6. Kim Crawford Unoaked
  7. Wishing Tree Unoaked
  8. Nepenthe Unwooded

I’ll leave you w/ a note on the wine that inspired this post. Hope this finds you well:

Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay, 2006
Crafted in a similar vein as Dan Kravitz’s ‘Travis Unfiltered’ from the Central Coast, this Australian bargain displays gorgeous, unadorned Chardonnay character sans oak dressing. A heady nose of ripe Chardonnay fruit displays peach skin, nectarine, sliced apple, citrus oils and the slightest hint of melted butter in a transparent, pure fashion. In the mouth, the wine is juicy and lifted, as a round body cuts a broad swath across the palate, finishing w/ great purity and harmony. Just as every fad weaves in and out of fashion, the barrage of oak-less Chardonnays are a welcome addition to the marketplace (especially in the face of summertime heat), making a statement that Chardonnay can do just fine on its own & has a bit more versatility than the ‘A.B.C.’ stereotype suggests, 90 points.

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