We were in a restaurant the other day and overhead a conversation among two young couples who were debating what wine to order. One person suggested a chardonnay, but there was lukewarm endorsement from the others. One even said, “Please, anything but chardonnay.”
Chardonnay --- a cross between pinot noir and gouais blanc -- is the grape many people love to hate even though it is the only white grape used in great burgundies and the primary white grape that goes into the best champagnes. Winemakers love it because it is a cash cow and also because there is so much they can do with it.
So, what’s the deal? About one out of every four bottles of white wine sold in the U.S. is chardonnay, and it is the second most widely planted white variety in the world. People are drinking it despite what they say. But for some inexplicable reason, it’s more popular to say one likes sauvignon blanc than the common chardonnay.
We love the texture, richness, and the layered fruit a chardonnay offers. But it can be overdone, much like a steak. Too much winemaker wizardry can smother a good chardonnay.
Depending on where it is made, chardonnay’s flavor profile ranges from tropical fruit – pineapple, mango, grapefruit – to green apple and citrus. But more influential to the flavor is the wine’s exposure to oak barrels, grape clones and the degree of malolactic fermentation – a secondary fermentation that converts malo acids (think apples) to lactic acids (think milk).
Those versions fermented and aged in oak barrels with full-blown malolactic conversion will add a blast of flavors, including any of the following: vanilla, cedar, smoke, caramel, spice, clove, and toast. These flavors are influenced by the particular oak that is used in the fermentation and aging process. Frankly, these additional flavors assault the palate way too much. You’re not sure if you are drinking a wine or a blend of someone’s spice rack.
Malolactic fermentation – which can involve a portion of all of the juice – adds butter flavors and a creamy mouthfeel.
Unoaked chardonnays, on the other hand, are leaner and more subtle because they are fermented in neutral stainless-steel tanks. The acidity gives them a crisper personality and there is often a minerality or flinty character. These versions tend to have a citrus or apple profile. If you want a good example of an unoaked yet complex chardonnay, try a French chablis.
Another value of unoaked chardonnays are their prices. With the cost of a barrel running about $1,000, the per-bottle price of an oaked chardonnay can easily exceed $40. Unoaked chardonnays are often less.
Pairing chardonnay with food also requires consideration of its oak treatment. A buttery, rich and tropical fruit-driven chardonnay is a good match to fish with a beurre blanc sauce. But a sauce without butter is better paired with unoaked chardonnays. The more delicate the fare, the better an unoaked chardonnay performs.
Here are some chardonnays that are either unoaked or lightly oaked:
Chehalem INOX Chardonnay 2018 ($20). Those of you in search of a decently priced, unoaked chardonnay should look no further than this gem from the Willamette Valley. We paired this with several other chardonnays and, not surprisingly, liked it the best because it was made entirely in stainless steel tanks. Pure green apple fruit and citrus flavors with a bit of slate and peach, it is a perfect match to fish or fowl.
Stoller Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2018 ($28). Using a mix of clones, the winemaker has built an unoaked chardonnay with pure fruit flavor. Apple and orange flavors dominate the vibrant palate with a hint of minerality. This is a great match to fish.
Balletto Vineyards Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay 2018 ($20). This well –priced chardonnay from the Russian River Valley is the crisp, delicate chardonnay we seek for a fish dinner of Dover sole. Textured with tropical fruit notes and citrus aromas.
Scott Family Estate Arroyo Seco Chardonnay 2017 ($20). This crisp and clean chardonnay has been aged 10 months in a combination of stainless steel and new and old oak, so there isn’t a smothering of oak flavors. But it’s a good match to summer fare. Ripe pineapple, tropical fruit and lemon notes.
Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay 2018 ($17). Sourced from coastal vineyards in three Cailfornia counties, this unoaked and cold-fermented chardonnay has crisp apple flavors with a touch of lemon and pineapple. It is quite a contrast to the delicious but oaked 2017 Grand Reserve chardonnay ($22) we tasted alongside of the Avant.
Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($38). We liked this lightly oaked chardonnay for its balanced acidity, youthful zing and citrus, peach flavors.
Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay 2016 ($55). We include this chardonnay – entirely barrel fermented and aged in French oak for 12 months – because it is unfiltered and balances the creamy texture with prominent acidity. Each barrel was hand-stirred, which protects the wine from oxidation and encourages complexity. The barrels were then blended and bottled unfiltered. The wine is exquisite with floral aromas, hint of spice, and ripe tropical fruit and peach flavors. Don’t be put off with its hazy appearance – that’s the result of a pure, unfiltered chardonnay.
Here are some chardonnays with more oak flavors:
Ramey Wine Cellars Fort Ross-Seaview Chardonnay 2016 ($42). David Ramey eschews skin contact in making his chardonnay and adds some oxidized juice to create a unique and delicious chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast appellation. The wine is rich, textured aromatic and long in the finish. Ramey achieves complexity but keeps the oak influence in check.
Frank Family Carneros Chardonnay 2017 ($38). If you like your chardonnay oaky, this is a great wine. Rich, creamy texture with ripe apple flavors and a dash of vanilla.
Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($34). This supple and fresh chardonnay has apricot and citrus aromas mingled with peach and pear notes with a dash of mineral. Very nice.
Riverbench Chardonnay Estate Santa Maria Valley 2016 ($26). If you yearn for those full-blown explosive California chardonnays, check out this bottling. Generous tropical fruit elements featuring pineapple and mango dominate with a very appealing honey note. Its deep yellow color in the glass gives the consumer a hint of this very generously endowed chardonnay.