Can one drink a naked chardonnay in polite company?
Certainly. Naked, in this context, merely means a chardonnay that hasn’t been “clothed” in oak flavors by being fermented and/or aged in oak barrels.
Therein lies a tale of California chardonnay.
Up through the 1960s, most California wines tended to be unsophisticated — anonymous half-gallon jugs coyly labeled “burgundy,” “blush” or “Chablis.”
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Then came California’s fine-wine revolution, which began in 1966 when pioneer Robert Mondavi established a modern new winery dedicated to quality.
California chardonnay hit the world stage in 1973, when a bottle from Chateau Montelena beat a handful of expensive, chardonnay-based French Burgundies in a blind tasting in Paris.
Over time, then, the aroma and flavor of oak started taking over. Why add oak to chardonnay in the first place? Well, chardonnay by itself can be bland, especially if it’s overplanted or grown in the wrong places.
It’s sometimes called a “tabula rasa,” or “blank slate.” Fermenting and aging in oak barrels can add pleasing aromas and flavors of vanilla and toasty oak that improve the wine.
Unfortunately, by the 1990s many California wineries were overdoing it, adding so much oak that it obliterated the fruit flavors. Chardonnays became so big and powerful they overpowered most foods.
A movement even started called “ABC” — “anything but chardonnay” — as foodies turned to sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and other, subtler wines to go with food.
California winemakers eventually got the message. Today the pendulum has swung back, in complex ways.
Some winemakers forgo oak fermentation and aging altogether, using only stainless steel tanks or concrete vats. These are the “naked” or “unoaked” chards.
For this, you need top quality grapes. Grown well, naked chardonnays’ flavors can range from green apples, pears and citrus in cool climates to tropical fruits in warmer areas.
Balletto Vineyard in California is an example, with its intensely fruity Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay described below.
Other winemakers are sticking with oak but going to incredible lengths to fine-tune it in their chardonnays.
They mix subtle French oak barrels with robust American oak barrels. They use powerful, brand-new oak barrels or older barrels, which impart more subtle flavors.
An example is Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley chardonnay, with 70 percent fermented in French oak barrels, 12 percent of which were new, 30 percent fermented in stainless steel tanks.
The oak is for richness and complexity, the stainless steel for crispness and pure fruit flavors.
Idea: Pick a naked chard and a clothed one, have them served to you blind, and see if you can tell the difference.
▪ 2014 Balletto Vineyards “Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay,” Russian River Valley (made without oak): lean and crisp, with intense floral aromas and green apple and mineral flavors; $20.
▪ 2013 Kendall-Jackson “Grand Reserve” Chardonnay, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties (aged nine months in 86 percent French oak barrels, 30 percent of which were new, with 14 percent aged in American oak): vanilla aromas from the oak, lush tropical fruit flavors, very rich and spicy, full body; $22.
▪ 2013 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay, Napa Valley (70 percent fermented in French oak barrels, 12 percent of which were new, the rest in stainless steel tanks): toasty, nutty aromas, lush and ripe, with flavors of yellow apples and Asian spices; $19.
▪ 2013 Three Sticks “ORIGIN” Chardonnay, Durell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (made without oak): very crisp, with intense aromas and flavors of lemons, limes and apricots, with a mineral-tinged finished; $48.
▪ 2014 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay, Hawk’s Bay/Marlborough, New Zealand (made without oak): crisp and full-bodied, with intense aromas and flavors of apricots and mangos; kiwis and apricots; $17.
▪ 2013 Castello di Amorosa “La Rocca” Chardonnay, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley (made without oak, fermented and aged in egg-shaped concrete vessels): crisp and lean, with aromas and flavors of tropical fruits; $38.
Fred Tasker: email@example.com