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Meet the naked grape

A few California vintners are turning away from oak, making crisp Chardonnays that really feature the fruit.

June 16, 2004|Jordan Mackay | Special to The Times

When it comes to California Chardonnay, there are usually two things you hear from winemakers. The first: "It's very Burgundian." This can be difficult to interpret, especially when the wine, hitting the mouth like a pineapple butterscotch sundae, tastes nothing like a lemony, minerally Burgundy. You wonder, does the winemaker really think it tastes like Burgundy? The other line you hear: "I'm not trying to make Burgundy; I'm only trying to make California Chardonnay." The problem is that nobody seems to know what California Chardonnay is supposed to taste like. And if what it's supposed to taste like is pineapple butterscotch sundae, well, there's a problem.

Over the last decade, people have been fleeing Chardonnay precisely for these reasons. Adherents of the ABC ("Anything But Chardonnay") movement of the '90s would drink anything but the over-manipulated California Chardonnays that were so ubiquitous.

The rise of such imports as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio from Italy, both lighter, crisper, unoaked wines, occurred in part because people were seeking a respite from clunky, heavy California Chardonnay.

That said, the Chardonnay market is very much intact. It's still the No. 1 white grape, in both acreage and U.S. sales. But styles in California are changing, and many wines are moving toward being more drinkable, food-friendly wines that, well, taste like Chardonnay. These days, you even have a chance of finding one that actually goes with seared scallops, sauteed filet of Petrale sole or even an abalone steak. And the way wineries have been accomplishing this is by subtraction, not addition. Primarily what they're reducing is new oak.

The trend is anchored by a small but significant group of completely unoaked Chardonnays that have hit the market over the last few years. Although this has been a popular style of wine in Australia for years (as in Yalumba and Mad Fish "unwooded" Chardonnays), in the U.S., the idea of naked Chardonnay is a radical thing. As Mike Chelini of Napa's Stony Hill says, "it's tough when you have to sell your wine and when there are critics who will ding you if they don't taste some oak and some butter."

But now the few lonely wines that have been resisting oak for years, such as Mendocino's Toad Hollow (which uses no oak at all) and Napa's Stony Hill (which uses only very old, neutral barrels) are being joined by others, with steely names like Inox and Metallico. And wines like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Arcadia Chardonnay, which had been made with new oak, have seen huge reductions of the time they spend in new wood in recent years. These wines emphasize clarity and purity of fruit over everything else. They seek to capture an essence that overindulgence in new oak can only cloud.

Here, one important point must be made: In and of itself, oak is not a bad thing. There are oak barrel-fermented wines whose oak you cannot taste. Just as there are completely unoaked Chardonnays that are simple and boring. When used well, oak adds complexity of flavor and structure. The issues are balanced winemaking and good taste, which, frankly, lots of California Chardonnays have lacked.

Slow oxidation

Oak's primary responsibility in winemaking is as a storage medium, softening a wine through the slow oxidation that occurs through the pores of the wood. Oak flavoring comes from new oak barrels, which lend creaminess and flavors of vanilla, spice and toast. With softer flavors and acidity, the wine will be ready to drink sooner.

Steel tank-fermented wines don't get that slow oxidation and thus retain both their crisp acidity and more of their primary fruit flavors. But there's a big difference between a brand new barrel and a used one.

"In the old ones, the flavor's pretty much gone," says Dan Lee of Morgan winery. Lee's Metallico Chardonnay, which is fermented in steel, "actually spends four to six months in older, neutral barrels," he says, "which soften the wine for early consumption without adding oak flavor."

Thus, using various combinations of both steel tank and neutral barrel fermentation and aging, winemakers are finding that they can craft stylish, individualized Chardonnays that are free of the flavors of new oak.

So how did California come to love the taste of new oak if great wines can be made without it? The answer brings us back to the Burgundy question. As French grapes supplanted varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in California vineyards, winemakers in the '70s and '80s became enamored of French winemaking methods.

In Burgundy, oak aging and malolactic fermentation (a secondary process that converts tart malic acids into creamier lactic ones, giving that flavor of butter) are standard for most Chardonnays.

In the rush to adopt these methods, California winemakers disregarded certain key points, namely that Burgundy and California have completely different climates. The techniques that augmented Chardonnay in cool Burgundy weren't always tasteful in hot, sunny California.

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