We're seeing more "new-wave" Chardonnays these days, and that's definitely a good thing.
What's new wave? Pure Chardonnay produced without oak, barrel fermentation or, oftentimes, malolactic fermentation.
This style of Chardonnay has been largely ignored by the market lately, the missing link, if you will. (Two big plusses of making wine this way are you avoid the cost of French oak barrels and the wine is ready for market much sooner.)
For the longest time, the Burgundian model—which emphasizes barrel-fermented Chardonnay in new French oak, with full malolactic fermentation to soften the crisper malic acids—has become the signature style for California Chardonnay.
But many of us have longed for the new-wave version, a straight, unadulterated Chablis-style Chardonnay, where the grape stars on its own, with a minimal supporting cast. In the mid-1990s, Sanford winery produced such a wine, with a tight, crisp beam of lively fruit and vibrant acidity.
While I thought this wine was outstanding, some Chardonnay drinkers didn't understand it, winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso told me at the time. One reason, of course, was that the wine Sanford produced was the complete opposite of the style it built its reputation on—barrel-fermented wines that were rich, exotic and loaded with tropical fruit and pretty oak.
But there has always been a contingent of wine drinkers who like the new-wave model, and it's gaining a little more momentum, as consumers are tiring of the Burgundian model and becoming more open to trying different styles of wine. Some very attractive new-wave Chardonnays are in the market right now.
Four Vines' Naked Chardonnay, an intense, juicy, zesty wine from Santa Barbara, is a winner (and my favorite name so far).
I've also liked Melville's Inox Santa Rita Hills and Brewer Clifton Santa Rita Hills, both made in a similar style, as well as Rosa's 2005 Santa Barbara County from Richard Sanford and the Oro de Plata bottling from Keller Estate in Sonoma.
As these wines are making their way back into the market, some wineries are wrestling with what to call them. Some labels say "unoaked" or "non-oaked" or simply "no oak." But somehow that seems to imply that something is missing, or that the winery is taking a shortcut to save money rather than producing a unique style of wine that has merit.
I like the expression "Pure Chardonnay," but I certainly wouldn't object to "Naked." If you use the name "Naked" on the front label, that's bound to draw attention to the cause. What do you think?