Chardonnay, hold the oak

Try one of our picks for the truer flavors of crisp apple, pear, citrus, tropical fruit, and minerals
Sara Schneider

A glass of West Coast Chardonnay conjures a taste memory of butterscotch, vanilla, and toast. Ironically, those flavors have nothing to do with Chardonnay and everything to do with what's been done to it.

"Chardonnay is the winemaker's grape," says Alan Phillips, winemaker and general manager for Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery and Lincourt Vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

Now, though, more and more makers are starting to do less to it ― trading in some (or all) of that buttered toast for truer flavors of fresh, crisp apple, pear, citrus, tropical fruit, and minerals.

Buttering up our Chard has precedent. In Burgundy, France, where white wine is always Chardonnay and the weather's cold, grapes struggle to ripen and produce fairly tart, acidic juice.

To soften it, the wine's fermented in oak barrels, put through a second, "malolactic" fermentation ("ML" in cellar jargon) to bring on the butter, and then aged in barrels too.

But in the warmer regions of the West, where wine tends to have lower acid levels, those steps can obscure natural fruit flavors. Many winemakers now opt for less oak and ML.

Even in our coldest places, a few winemakers are choosing the stainless steel tank route, to "retain the purity of that Chardonnay character," as Phillips puts it. At Foley Estates in Santa Barbara's chilly Santa Rita Hills, he's doing it both ways. Choose your style.

Food for new Chards

A heavily oaked Chardonnay tastes better with an after-dinner toothpick than with any part of the meal.

A crisp, fruity, unoaked version, on the other hand, is one great food wine. Chris Blanchard, wine director for Redd restaurant in the Napa Valley and Bay 13 in Portland, recommends pairing it with dishes that are lean and bright, like the wine: oysters (the partner of choice in France, with Chard in the form of traditional steely Chablis), ceviche, tuna sandwiches, crab or shrimp salad with citrus, even Caesar salad.

Our American steel picks

These great Chardonnays have never seen the inside of a barrel.

Chehalem "Inox" Chardonnay 2006 (Willamette Valley; $19). A nose full of minerals and stone fruit, followed by tropical notes (mango) lurking with crisp, tart citrus on the palate.

Domaine Chandon Unoaked Chardonnay 2006 (Sonoma County; $20). Tangy lemon-lime, grapefruit, and tropical flavors with a subtle earthy edge.


Foley "Steel" Chardonnay 2005
(Sta. Rita Hills; $18). Citrus and minerals are magnified without oak, for a tart but creamy effect.

Hendry Unoaked Chardonnay 2006 (Napa Valley; $19). Intense, pleasantly bitter lemon zest and minerals softened by a floral quality.

Iron Horse Unoaked Chardonnay 2005 (Green Valley, Sonoma County; $26). Apple, pear, and aromatic stone fruit give way to a gamut of citrus.

Kenneth Volk "Jaybird" Chardonnay 2005 (Santa Maria Valley; $22). Rich for a Chard sans oak, but there's good minerality on the nose, bright lemon, and lots of pineapple.