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Senior Tim Fish joined the Wine Spectator staff in 2001. His tasting beat includes Oregon, Washington, California Zinfandel and Rhône-style reds, and U.S. sparkling wines.
Tim Fish

California Chardonnay, Hold the Oak

Williams Selyem Chardonnay Russian River Valley Unoaked 2009

Tim Fish
Posted: April 15, 2011

Chardonnay is not usually the first white wine I reach for. Even when I’m eating fish or chicken in a rich and creamy sauce, I often prefer a wine that offers a cleansing contrast to the dish.

That’s why I’m intrigued by some of the unoaked Chardonnays released in recent vintages by California winemakers. These are wines aged in stainless steel, not the standard French oak barrels. Some of the initial unoaked Chardonnays were rather dull, frankly, but when the winemakers knows what they’re doing, the wines are fresh and exciting.

Case in point is Williams Selyem’s 2009 Unoaked Chardonnay from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. It’s bright and crisp, with complex white peach and apple fruit and lush, lingering flavors. I rated it 90 points, non-blind, and it sells for $37.

Winemaker Bob Cabral blended the wine from some classic older Chardonnay vineyards like Allen and Olivet Lane and allowed the fruit to shine. Some unoaked Chardonnays go through at least partial malolactic fermentation—a second fermentation that adds softness, texture and complexity—but Cabral skipped it to retain the vibrant core of fruit.

WineSpectator.com members: Read other reviews of unoaked California Chardonnay.

Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  April 15, 2011 11:17am ET
I remember Bob Cabral from his Alderbrook days. Very talented winemaker! I enjoy a good Chardonnay from time-to-time without the oak. The crispness, citrus and minerals are usually magnified with the absence of oak and the core fruit makes it a nice chilled seafood match. I am on a mission now to find others. Nice article, Tim, thank you!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  April 15, 2011 1:50pm ET
a lot of profit in a $37 unoaked chard...those barrels add up! I'd rather drink 4 Vines Naked...its has a similar flavor profile and its $13
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 15, 2011 4:00pm ET
Daniel, yes that's when I first met Bob, at Alderbrook. Andrew, the 4 Vines Naked Chardonnay is good I agree. I've never compared the two side by side though. Thanks for commenting.
Michael Salcido
Orange County, CA —  April 18, 2011 6:52pm ET
Interesting article. My wife and I had tried a Daniel Gehrs 2009 Chardonnay last summer and both enjoyed it and were surprised when we were told it was oak free.

Being a big fan of Four Vines reds will take Mr. Walter's suggestion on their Chardonnay.


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