The Great Chardonnay Debate: In Favor of Oak

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Here is a typical scene when I eat at a Los Angeles restaurant:

I settle into my seat and scan the wine list, smiling when I see they have Chardonnay. Then, I read the description, and my smile quickly turns to a frown.

“A fresh, light white done in an unoaked style, with apples and lemon zest on the nose and palate.”

It seems that every restaurant we go to prefers this style of Chardonnay. Same thing when we go wine tasting up North. Everyone is doing stainless, or light oak treatments—opting for a leaner, crisper, and lighter-bodied wine.

I’ve read (and tasted) that the pendulum in California is swinging back towards leaner wines, after some of their lusher wines became artless and sloppy with high alcohol and sugar. Chardonnay has been a casualty in this battle of balance v. oomph.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, full-bodied, oaked Chardonnay was all the rage here—so much to the point that it was a major style of wine worldwide (a bit like what Australia did with Shiraz). The flavor was rich, buttery and heavenly–like a good chunk of burrata.

OakBarrelHowever, top producers spawned cheaper imitators, who mass produced stuff that tasted horrible. People drank a lot of it, and thus lost the taste for that style, and oaky Chardonnay began to lose its reputation.

So wine aficionados began vilifying oak, and praising the pure expression of the grape.

But here’s the thing: is the pure expression of a food always the best?

I can boil an onion, and the result is the pure expression of the onion; or I can caramelize it in olive oil for 20 minutes and get something fabulous.

Much it is the same way with Chardonnay, where I can keep the acid high (though it is a naturally lower-acid grape, which helps with the luxurious feel of it), and put it in stainless steel to make it pure…or I can treat it with its natural partner, oak, and further it along with some nice malolactic fermentation. I once read that Chardonnay took to manipulation like no other grape, and I couldn’t agree more. Chardonnay, oak, and malo were made for each other.

We are in a moment where every winemaker interviewed says their wine is made “in the vineyard.”  Manipulation is considered a bad thing, and it’s a pity, for manipulation such as was used with Chardonnay or Shiraz 20 years ago yielded something fabulous.

I will end by linking to this great article, Removing the Manipulation Stigma from Winemaking.  Its author argues that we need to get over fear of the word, because great winemakers need to be able to craft their ingredients (grapes), just like great chefs need to be able to craft their foods.  I couldn’t agree more.

-Carol

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7 thoughts on “The Great Chardonnay Debate: In Favor of Oak

  1. Omg, I was I were a wine conneseur like you seem to be. I still don’t know what to look for in wines. I know that I like sweet wines like moscatos.

  2. I feel like Chardonnay has the same “stigma” as Merlot… but you make some really good points about how it had become over played and over produced. I’ll have to pick up a bottle again and give it a try… any suggestions?

  3. Great post!

    Chardonnay is Mr Wino’s favourite white grape – because it is so versatile. The winemaker can make any number of styles from it.

    Here in Australia the trend is for elegant, cool climate, leaner Chardonnay. I like that style. But I also like a bit of oak and a bit of malo. Those huge buttery styles are out of vogue but there are still some producers – my favourite is La Curio.

    Our Aphelion Chardonnay was somewhere in the middle. Cool climate grapes. 3rd use oak, partial malo and plenty of lees stirring. It was outstanding!

    May there long be a variety of Chardonnay styles on the market.

    Cheers,

    Louise@WillungaWino.com

    1. Are you a winemaker as well as a blogger?
      I agree, there should be a variety of styles, and I hope I can always find the buttery ones I love. And I hear Australia has great chardonnay–we don’t get a lot of Australian wines in my nearby shops, but I will look for it sometime.

      1. Mr Wino is the winemaker, I’m the helper and quality control aka taster 😉 Yes keep an eye out for Tassie, Yarra, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, or Mornington Chardonnay, great

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