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Naked Chardonnay's Time Has Come

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 8, 2007 12:57pm ET

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?

Tom Gutting
Houston, —  January 8, 2007 4:18pm ET
Gary Farrell also makes a heck of a No Oak Chardonnay. I believe it was new in 2004. I like the label of "pure" or "naked," though. No more pancake syrup -- just pure Chardonnay.
John Wilen
Texas —  January 8, 2007 5:27pm ET
"Virgin" chardonnay

"The great evil of wine is that it first seizes the feet, it is a crafty wrestler." --Titus Maccius, 190 BC
Laurie Woolever
New York —  January 8, 2007 5:45pm ET
Chaddsford Winery in Pennsylvania makes a "Naked Chardonnay." I haven't tried it, but the PR stunt they employed to promote it -- photos of a "naked" man running amok in the vineyard -- was a great attention-getter. http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Features/0,1197,3382,00.html
Michael Haley
Eugene, OR —  January 8, 2007 6:15pm ET
Chehalem up here in the Willamette Valley has been doing the unoaked thing since the 2003 vintage. Their INOX Chardonnay, as they call it, is a winner.
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  January 8, 2007 6:28pm ET
I agree that oakless Chardonnay can be a wonderful alternative.How about Stainless Chardonnay or Steel Chardonnay?Neil
La Quinta, CA —  January 8, 2007 6:57pm ET
Mer Soleil does an incredible un-oaked chard., called "Silver". Parker just rated it 90 points for what its worth.....I do enjoy that style, and like the name "naked". Dustin
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 8, 2007 7:15pm ET
Ah, now take that pure Chard and pair it with Thai coconut chicken soup and a dollop of steamed white rice and WOW!!! I guarantee you'll hear angels sing and you'll start to weep. It's such a beautiful thing....
Hitesh Patel
Ansonia, CT —  January 8, 2007 8:35pm ET
I agree, NAKED is GREAT! I've long been enjoying the tremendous values of Unoaked Chards from both New Zealand and some lesser known producers from the Adelaide Hills of Australia. It is both refreshing in mind and palate to see Cali winemaker's "stripping" the oak!
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  January 8, 2007 9:04pm ET
James, I couldn't agree with you more. I'm all for terrific, full-bodied Chards like the ones Peter Michael produces, but I've long been a fan of Chablis-styled Chardonnays: the combination of crisp acidity with ripe, California fruit makes for wonderful wines. My favorite practitioner of this style has got to be Greg Brewer: in addition to the Melville Inox and his Brewer-Clifton Chards, his new Diatom label (with fruit from the Huber and Clos Pepe vineyards) offers up a fascinating alternative for those looking to try something new in a Chardonnay.
August Sievers
Chicago,IL —  January 8, 2007 9:44pm ET
St. Supery calls it Oak Free.After all we all want to be free.
Michael Mock
West Des Moines, IA —  January 8, 2007 11:38pm ET
I am a fan of several NZ and Aussie unoaked chards, but why not stick to the real deal--NZ sauv blanc and SA chenin blanc!! Crisp, rich fruit flavors, great with food, thirst-quenching, and affordable ... who needs the unoaked chard? Well, except maybe to keep the chard crowd from disocvering the joys of being oak-free :-)
Patrick Birch
Redondo Beach, CA —  January 9, 2007 12:19am ET
I was leaning towards an Oregon Pinot tonight with dinner but since it was 85 in Los Angeles today, and motivated by the blog post, I decided to pull the Melville INOX from the fridge. With Salmon, brown rice and corn, it was delicious. Bright, complex fruit with a finish that went on an on. The most Sav. Blanc Chard. I've ever had. My wife loves big Calif. Chard's and she wanted no part of this "lemon aide". Fine by me, I finished the bottle. No malo, no oak, NO PROBLEM.
Wes Hagen
Lompoc, CA —  January 9, 2007 12:46pm ET
Chardonnay is a difficult grape, as it is both a noble white wine varietal and a 'winemaker's grape' in the sense that a winemaker can choose to posit a lot of style in the cellar.As most Chardonnay is grown in the wrong place, in locales where it is too hot and the classic structure of acidity (and the minerals lifted by that acidity) becomes lost.In those special places where the climate is truly cool and suited for Chardonnay, it seems a shame to try to make the wines stylized with the use of French oak.Lower alcohol and lower oak in Chardonnay SEEM to be a good idea, but as a winemaker who's been making commercial 'Chablis-style' Chardonnay for seven vintages, I realize there are limitations in the market.Rich, buttery, oaky Chardonnays seem to get the high scores--I have to market these wines to the geeks--who are so damn sick of the in-vogue high alcohol, high oak whites, that they've relegated Chardonnay to the position of 'red headed step child' of the wine world.As far as the nomenclature, I think these wines are still so niche-market that the title we give them is still unimportant.
Blaine Morris
Marin County, CA —  January 9, 2007 12:48pm ET
Jim, great thoughts. I'm all for un-oaked chard! Much more food friendly, and MUCH easier on the system. I too liked the Melville Inox. One of my current favorites is the 05 Marimar Torres Acero. Very clean.
Alan Snitow
NJ/NYC —  January 9, 2007 3:03pm ET
Every trend has an anti-trend, an eventual consumer backlash against the status quo - and against those who ride it too far for too long. I think more people will come around to a fresh style of chardonnay. But, while I love his wines I do have to disagree on one thing with Wes - I absolutely think how these wines are packaged, named, and discussed will have a direct impact on how rapidly that experimentation and adoption takes place.
David A Zajac
January 9, 2007 3:54pm ET
Ditto for no oak! I basically wrote off the entire California chardonnay scene years ago, but was brought back to life by Greg Brewer and the wines he is producing, fantastic stuff!
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 9, 2007 5:10pm ET
The time certainly has come for US producers to turn out great unoaked Chards. The Aussies and Kiwis have done it for years with great ones like the Trevor Jones Virgin Chard, Chapel Hill Unwooded, Jackson Estate Unoaked, etc., etc. Four Vines has kind of stood alone for a while with theirs, and it used to be an unbelievable value (I think it was selling for $10!).

I second Totv's comments on the Mer Soleil Silver as I think it might be the best of the US crop at the moment.

Regarding the name "Naked", I wonder if Four Vines or any other's are going to get a letter from Naked Mountain Vineyards and Winery in Virginia. They have been around about 25 years and used to have the best t-shirts and hats that said "Drink Naked" on them (with the shirt having a spoof of the surgeons general warning, something about drinking naked leading to something..). In this day and age when wineries get "cease and desist" or "pay and keep going" letters all the time regarding wine and winery names and logo's, I am amazed Four Vines hasn't received one.
Mark Maher
January 9, 2007 5:12pm ET
love the chehalem inox with oysters,but don't forget about madfish from western australia
Lenny Rede Wine Dept
Seattle, Wa —  January 11, 2007 2:22am ET
I am a big fan of chardonnay, there I said it. In all styles I can find something I enjoy, But in my opinion, nothing beats unoaked-no-malo-chard. There is something almost pure and honest in these wines, they are by definition a great example of the winemaker "getting out of the way of nature". I love Christian's Naked Chardonnay and I use it regularly in my wine classes. I present this wine so that people can actually taste what the Chardonnay ¿grape¿ actually tastes like. These wines are a pleasure to pair and lend themselves to greater variety of foods. Yes, I agree that this is a backlash against the over the top buttery oaky chardonnay of yesterday. Viva la Revoluci¿n.Now all we need is for some courageous souls to start making lower alcohol Cabernet.But to quote, ¿DRINK NAKED OFTEN!¿
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  January 13, 2007 9:00pm ET
The first "unwooded" Chardonnay I had was from Kalyra in Solvang. I loved it and since have had a tough time finding others. I'm glad to see that more are turning to making it. If that is indeed the trend, I'd like to support it by at least a few cases a year.
Tim Long
WI —  January 16, 2007 9:53am ET
Thanks for the post, James. Chardonnay is such a gorgeous wine when encouraged to strut its stuff... in the buff. Chardonnay for the seafood, not the dessert.
Michael Stacey
CT —  January 24, 2007 5:47pm ET
Jim,I have an opportunity to buy some really good Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from 2005. Is it a really good vintage in your opioion?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2007 5:51pm ET
Michael, yes 2005 should be excellent for Pinot (see my Jan. 23 blog), though it depends on the wines your buying.

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