No-oak Is On the Move

According to the Sacramento Bee’s wine expert, Mike Dunne, the practice of avoiding fermentation and aging in oak barrels for chardonnays is on the rise. To determine the effect of this trend, Dunne tried two chardonnays, both from St. Supry Vineyards & Winery in the Napa Valley. The first was St. Supry’s 2005 Napa Valley Chardonnay and the second was St. Supry’s 2004 Napa Valley Chardonnay. Both wines had identical labels, but were otherwise entirely different, in large part due to the lack of utilization of oak barrels.

The 2004 is right out of the mold for chardonnay as it customarily is being made in the Napa Valley — dense, creamy, weighty and sweet with oak. Sure, it’s a veritable basket of ripe Summer fruit, everything from melons to figs, but the butter, butterscotch and sweet vanillin flavors from malolactic fermentation and from fermenting and aging the wine in oak barrels are what take over the palate.

In contrast, the 2005 is a leaner, more delicate take on chardonnay with a subtle but intriguing fruitiness that shifts quietly from pear to apple to lemon, with an alluring hint of the herb lemon verbena in the finish.

Here’s the thing: In contrast to the 2004, the 2005 was made entirely without malolactic fermentation and without any exposure to oak, either during fermentation or aging.

Dunne characterizes the trend as small, but growing, and considers St. Supry’s abandonment of oak for its chardonnay to be a gamble in light of “consumers’ clear preference for oak in chardonnay.” Other California wineries, including Sierra Vista, Three Thieves, Bocage and Morgan are picking up the trend, which Dunne finds “encouraging, providing consumers with an alternative in chardonnay that, while lighter and more understated than what they usually find in the varietal, nonetheless is refreshingly limber and zesty compared with so many lethargic and dull interpretations.”


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Reader Comments

Hallelujah — and about time! I hope this trend gives wine drinkers more options when it comes to chardonnay. Maybe someday the term “Reserve” on a bottle of California chard won’t automaticallly mean “Astonishingly, breathtakingly over-oaked.” Maybe someday,

Mark - it never hurts to dream, right?

I’d been boycotting California Chards for just this reason, so it’s definitely nice to know a change is in the air…

In the meantime, look east, friends. Nothing wrong with a nice Meursault ’till California catches up.

Dunne certainly always has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the wine business out here. So, hopefully it will happen sooner rather than later.

Melville makes a no-oak Chardonnay. It is wildly popular in Japan because it goes well with sushi, or so I am told.

Thanks for the recommendation, wineguy. I am glad to hear that there are so many options out there.