Drink Naked

The unoaked revolution

By Robyn James

When ancient Rome first started making wine, their preferred vessels were clay pots. Breakage during shipping became a problem, and they experimented using big wooden barrels and vats. Not only was this a sturdier method, but they discovered that the porous wood imparted some favorable qualities to the wine, and it also allowed it to age gracefully.

It became particularly popular to use oak influence on the noble grape, chardonnay, and by the 1990s winemakers were making the heavy, oaky, buttered-toast, style that in many cases was used to mask inferior fruit. Some wineries, in an effort to save money, would just dump oak chips into cheap chardonnay, stir it up and soak it, then filter them out.

Although it is the most widely planted white grape in the U.S., Europe, Australia and South America, consumers revolted and adopted the battle cry of ABC — “Anything But Chardonnay.” Winemakers listened and the movement began to improve the quality of chardonnay fruit and back off on the oak influence. The always-irreverent Australian winemakers coined the phrase “Drinking Naked” for chardonnay minus oak.

This past decade efforts have been made to produce chardonnay that is balanced between fruit and acidity. Planting in cooler areas and giving the grapes less hang time produce crisper, more refreshing versions of this versatile grape.

All wines go through a primary fermentation that converts the sugars into alcohol, but winemakers have the option of inducing or spontaneously allowing the wine to go through a secondary, malolactic fermentation. Tart tasting, green apple-like, malic acid is naturally present in wine, and this process turns it into lactic acid, the same acid in butter. Thus the wine takes on a richer, creamy, buttery character.

Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand is a tasty example of this process. Their fruit comes from vineyards in Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay, where the canopies of the vines are managed to allow the fruit to ripen slowly. Completely devoid of oak, this chardonnay has gone through malolactic fermentation, and the winery describes their wine as “ripe tropical fruit — pineapple and ripe melon — with hints of butterscotch. Shows great length uncluttered by oak. Secondary malolactic fermentation gives nuttiness and generous mouthfeel.” You can usually find this gem in the market for around $16.

Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s largest producers, makes a delicious chardonnay from the Maconnais region cleverly branded “Steel Chardonnay” that sells for about $17. Like Crawford’s chardonnay, this wine is completely unoaked, aged in steel vats. But, unlike Crawford’s, it does not go through any part of malolactic fermentation. Described by the winery as having “high toned aromas of citrus, mandarin orange, white flower, pear and apple, with flinty minerality. Retains a fresh, crisp character.” A perfect match for summertime fish and shellfish dishes.

The Donati Estate, the only winery located in the Paicines wine-growing region of California, produces a tasty unoaked chardonnay for about $13. Branded “Sisters Forever” by winemaker Briana Heywood, this sustainably farmed wine is a tribute to women.

Winery tasting notes claim that the wine has “tropical aromas of melon, pineapple, banana and apricot. Lush mouthfeel with crisp and marvelous acidity on the finish.”

These wines are prefect warm weather selections, so go ahead — drink naked!

Robyn James is a certified sommelier and proprietor of The Wine Cellar and Tasting Room in Southern Pines. Contact her at robynajames@gmail.com.

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