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Oaked and/or unoaked Chardonnay: a symposium

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I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara on Friday July 22 to host a panel on unoaked and oaked Chardonnay at the second annual Chardonnay Symposium, which will be on July 23, at Bien Nacido Vineyard, with lunch to follow at Au Bon Climat/Qupe’s little facility, tucked away in a corner of the vineyard.

I wrote, above, “unoaked and oaked,” but I could have written “unoaked versus oaked.” I think that’s how the organizers would have preferred it, because a little controversy is always good for attracting paying customers. But I couldn’t feel it in my heart to pitch this as a contest. It’s not. It’s simply two different approaches to making Chardonnay.

Why there is even an increasingly important category of unoaked Chardonnay isn’t hard to understand. There are two reasons. First, the category did well coming out of Australia. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, it addresses the loud complaint of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd that too much Chardonnay is overoaked, sweet plonk that’s virtually undrinkable at any price. Even though I’m a confessed lover of oaky Chardonnay, I’ll agree that there’s an awful lot of terrible stuff out there, simple wines that taste oak-like even though they may never actually have seen the inside of a proper oak barrel.

So the unoaked movement has allowed Americans to taste the true flavor of Chardonnay. Of course, just because a Chardonnay is unoaked doesn’t make it interesting or good. If you don’t put oak on top of a simple Chardonnay wine, all you end up with is a simple unoaked Chardonnay. The best unoaked Chardonnay I’ve had is from Diatom, Greg Brewer’s little project (he’s on my panel), but Greg reserves the right to put a little oak on Diatom if he wants to. If he gets radically good fruit in any given vintage, he’ll let it shine with unoaked Zen purity. And given the vineyards he has access to–Clos Pepe, Babcock, Huber–it’s more likely than not he’ll find good fruit.

For Chardonnay to succeed on its own, without oak, the wine needs complexity and acidity. A touch of minerality doesn’t hurt, and of course the finish must be dry, even if the center is fat and honeyed. The first time I ever tasted an unoaked Australian Chardonnay, I was amazed at how much vanilla there was. I had thought vanilla came from oak, but apparently there’s something in Chardonnay that gives it too.

Our panel is two hours in length, a long time for which to keep an audience amused. I’m just finishing the final touches on its structure. We have six panelists (excluding me), and I think I’ll have each winemaker bring two wines. Tasting twelve wines will help fill in the time by letting us compare and contrast more. But I also want to get into other issues. There are technical questions to be discussed, and also issues involving marketing and pricing. Why do winemakers make unoaked Chardonnay anyway? Is it because they perceive a niche for it, or because it’s cheaper? Does unoaked given them a higher profit margin? Do winemakers feel a tension between appealing to the marketplace, as opposed to making the best wine they can?

Anyhow, this should be an interesting panel, and I hope to see you on the day.

  1. Steve,

    A couple of questions, maybe more for the panel than for you….but what exactly does “unoaked” mean? Does it simply mean no new oak or no oak at all? If no new oak, how old do barrels have to be to qualify as old? —- And what about the “unoaked” moniker itself? Describing a wine as what it is not has always seemed odd to me…..why not “stainless steel Chardonnay” (perhaps because it isn’t all in stainless). What different vessels are available and what does each impart to the wine? Finally, what do you gain from aging a Chardonnay in stainless (or other non-barrel alternatives) prior to bottling or is it best to bottle it shortly after fermentation and ml (should one choose ml).

    Thanks….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. TomHill says:

    More questions, Steve, beyond Adam’s good ones.
    1. There’s a lot (well….some) interest in fermenting in concrete, eggs or otherwise, and aging
    in such. What’s the panel’s take on that technique?
    2. There’s increasing interest in use of skin contact in making white wines, particularly of wines w/ a Friulian bent. I think Tracey/Jared/Donkey&Goat do some of that w/ their Chards, but not sure. Not heard of anyone else using skin contact w/ Chard. What’s the panel’s take on that technique?
    3. And along those lines, there’s interest in Calif (not a lot I’d admit) in making full-scale orange wines, along the lines of Gravner/Radikon and others from Friuli/Slovenia/Georgia; wines made in an oxidative style. To my knowledge, no one in Calif has yet imported any Georgian amphorae. What’s the panel’s take on an orange Calif Chard?
    Hmmmmm..maybe you’re going to have to add another hour to the discussion!!!
    Tom
    Tom

  3. TomHill, we’re going to be talking about these eggs. Will report later. Your other questions are good. You should come to the symposium!

  4. Adam, as you know, lots of producers do call it “stainless steel” as opposed to “unoaked” or “no oak.” Great questions, fodder for our conversation. Thanks.

  5. Has anyone noticed that the “Unoaked vs. Oaked” debate has tended to segregate Chardonnay into two very distinct camps? Like a two-party political system, ideologies and opinions (that it to say, techniques, for the purpose of this metaphor) are lost when forced into awkward polar extremes.

    Chardonnay is a grape that can manifest itself in so many different ways; one that can sing right off the vine, but which lacks (in my opinion) a great deal or “varietal character”, thus, is more of a blank canvas for great winemaking. We talk oak vs. no oak, but what about French vs. American? Neutral vs. new (vs. levels of toast, age/usage)? How about the use of malolactic fermentation? Bâttonage? Cool climate grapes vs. warm climate?

    No more “two-party Chardonnay”, I say!

  6. In 2010 I produced my second production of Chardonnay, both no oak stainless steel fermented. Why? Because I will never forget tasting a flight of stainless steel fermented French White Burgundies at the Telluride Wine Festival in 2004. The purity, freshness of varietal character and the winemakers technique of tilting the tanks on their side, made a magical moment impact on me.

    Toby Hill

    Phillips Hill Estates

  7. Another question: Do they oak them for their own palate or for some perceived market preference? Same for unoaked.

    Is oak the last “adjustment” of choice? Are winemakers using it to mask defects?

    I spoke with a friend recently who was in Australia and he said he watched as a man dumped a bag of sawdust into the wine. A new twist on fining?

  8. Steve, don’t forget whole cluster pressing vs destemming vs crushing into the press. Thirty years ago it was quite common to crush to tank for a 12 or more hour enzyme cold soak prior to pressing (usually heavy handed)whites. We prefer the complexities of destemming directly to press then going dirty to new/old sessile oak barrels for fermentation with battonage and no racking until bottling. We find that there is a positive gain from clean, ripe solids in Chardonnay.

    I believe it was Mike Richmond (Acacia), in the 80s at the Monterey Wine Festival, who said ‘If Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of wines then the tart Chardonnay is the queen….if one can call a queen a tart.’

  9. TomHill says:

    “…. we’re going to be talking about these eggs. Will report later. Your other questions are good. You should come to the symposium!”

    Steve,
    I was sorely tempted by that event, but just get back on Thurs from Calif & do have a day job to do. Next year, maybe.
    I’m particularly interested in #2 and #3. We’re having a get-together up in Napa on Monday focused on Calif Friulian-style wines and these are both pointed questions I plan to ask those folks.
    Tom

  10. Tom,

    On the Gravner question…..do you ever wonder if it is the quality and character of the fruit more than any particular fermentation vessel? He encourages botrytis, etc…so the starting point seems very different.

    Somehow we all (me too, see my comments) want to move right away to winemaking rather than start with the grapes.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  11. I must agree with what Joe said about the “two camps”. I have always looked at Chardonnay as the most “craftable” of varieties. What I mean by that is a winemaker can do so many different combinations with Chardonnay they are hard to keep track of. I look forward to your comments, Steve. Oaked v. Unoaked is enough to fill up two hours. Plenty of other related topics could follow this.

  12. Steve, your post is timely and much appreciated, however you’ve left out two significant components: The weather & integrity. Frost and rain (which affected bloom) significantly decreased the California Chardonnay crop this year. Yields are down, sales are up, and markets are tight. Reasonable growers make reasonable allowances for reasonable winemakers. Sadly this is not the case, related to the story I’ve outlined below.

    Last night I received this thesis statement from a winemaker attempting to negotiate a price per ton for 2011 Thomson Vineyard Chardonnay. I share it with you and your readers so that you can get a handle on the math and learn a little bit about bottle pricing.

    “That said, our Chardonnay bottle price is $19, about market average for an unoaked, no ML, “naked” Chardonnay bottling from a prestigious appellation, i.e. adding $5 [33%] over the $14 average price for this varietal-style and accounting for the Napa Carneros appellation. At $2,000 per ton, the price we paid last year was appropriately in-line with our bottle price. At $2,400 to $2,900, a 20% to 45% increase, we would have to raise our bottle prices to $24 to $29, inconsistent with market prices for unoaked Napa Carneros Chardonnay and not something my customers would accept. Additionally, I am unaware of many / any markets – other than oil and precious metals perhaps – that have the ability to raise their prices to customers by 20% to 45%, year over year.

    That said and put simply, I propose that we raise the pricing by 10% this year to $2,200, which would be an increase over the $2,115 Napa Chardonnay 2010 CA Grape Crush Report average price / ton figure.”

    Last year’s $2,000 per ton referenced by the winemaker was a courtesy price extended to him for contracting with Thomson Vineyards for a whole block option in a shaky economy with long Chardonnay supplies.

    Furthermore, his reserve Chardonnay bottle price is in fact $29.

    I sold the same whole block, plus more, this morning for $2,900 per ton to a prestigious, and one of the few remaining, family owned wineries in the Napa Valley – no ML, limited oak, which Parker calls “…one of the best non-malolactic, barrel-fermented Chardonnays in California …”

    Cheers w/glass of Carneros Chardonnay in hand!

  13. I hear the early adopters are investigating picking Chardonnay at 22 Brix, processing it with a 1970′s Healdsburg crusher/stemmer with a nice big centrifugal must pump, soaking the must in a tank with pectic enzymes overnight, pressing it with a COQ press with extra weights hanging on the door, fermenting it nice and warm with #522, and aging it in large redwood tanks. Anybody else heard about these experiments?

  14. Morton–

    You might just be ahead of your time.

    Or not.

    Charlie

  15. I agree with Adam’s comment and IMHO most judgments regarding oak barrels are misplaced and lack objectivity.
    Exactly in the same way as it happens with cheeses, meats, distilled spirits, etc., oak barrels’ primary function is to mature/age wine without spoiling it: i.e., to allow for a controlled/low-risk oxidative process that will render a more complex drink.
    The second goal, which is primarily sought in the higher latitude cooler/colder climates, is to improve wine density, texture and color (i.e., structure) through the integration with the oak barrel’s tannins and other phenolic compounds.
    The added flavor should be seen as a (desired or not) by-product that can be (easily) overcome via the barrel making process: toast type, wood seasoning, etc.
    Furthermore, oak barrels have been used (as aging vessels) since immemorial times; and there has been, supposedly, time enough to figure out whether they’re safe or not.

  16. Chardonnay fermented on skins: I remember La Crema Vinera, antecedent of La Crema – I think Rod Bergland was the winemaker – made a chardonnay fermented on the skins, pretty much produced like a red wine, in the early ’80s. It was awful, as I recall. Oxidized, astringent, undrinkable. Maybe his methodology was flawed, but I remember my reaction was ‘Why would you try to do this?’
    Chardonnay and barrels: Also in this era, a lot of us, now old fogies, considered good California Chardonnay to be the red wine of whites, wines with intense, deep flavors – from the fruit – enhanced by complexities from winemaker interventions – barrel influence, m/l, lees contact. High ripeness and residual sugar were not then part of the equation, though balance certainly was. Simpler chardonnays – this not meant as a pejorative – emphasizing terroir and minerality, were the specialties of Macon and Chablis. (Is barrel influence still an issue in Chablis?)

    Not that we have this level of chardonnay vineyard anywhere in California, but would anyone advocate for an ‘unoaked’ Montrachet? Corton Charlemagne or Meursault Perriers? Don’t think so.
    Let’s continue to produce profound chardonnays, from our best sites, best fruit, using all available wine making techniques, including the best oak barrels, to make ‘the red wine of white wines.’

    Less profound wines are our daily bread, affordable, accessible, easy to drink. ‘Unoaked chardonnay’ may be part of that equation, but let’s not dumb down our greatest white wine.

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