This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Feb. 18, 2008 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20080218.php.
Does Chardonnay need oak?
Oak in Chardonnay is like mustard on a hamburger: In proportion, it's a delight; overdone, it's a disaster. If the hamburger is good enough to enjoy on its own without a condiment, that's fine, but it takes a very good burger to carry this off.
As it is with hamburgers, so it is with wine. Well, except maybe for the mustard.
I haven't always felt this forgiving about oak, particularly in white wines. During the 1990s in particular, way too many producers went crazy for oak, much as many producers today go crazy for abusively high levels of alcohol. Indeed, some similar reasoning may well have been in play: Like high-alcohol wines today, oaky wines played well to some segments of the market, and frankly, to some of the critics.
But as I wrote after a broad tasting of recent California reds a few years ago, "times and customs change, and it seems to me that - with a few notable exceptions - a certain order has returned to the wine universe as the pendulum swings back toward the center."
By and large - with some horrifying exceptions, of course - even many of the California and Australia Chardonnays that used to be among the worst oak-offenders have regained their balance.
As I've pointed out in the past, while the excessive use of oak may widely be considered a New World sin, oak in moderation has been a constant presence in the most traditional Old World wines. From Bordeaux to White Burgundy, many of Europe's greatest wine treasures wouldn't be the same without a discreet kiss of oak. Indeed, from Italy's Riservas to the oak-nurtured Crianzas of Rioja, many European classics require oak, by custom and by law.
In short, the problem with oak has never been its use but its abuse. As the Boston-area wine retailer Richard Eccleston memorably observed many years ago, "Oak should be a spice, not a sauce."
Still, there's a ready market - and not just among oak-phobes - for an all-fruit Chardonnay made in stainless steel without a hint of wood. I've been lukewarm to some examples from Down Under, but was most impressed with an unoaked Chard (named "Inox" after the brand name of its steel fermenters) from Santa Barbara's Melville Vineyards.
Today's tasting report also comes from Santa Barbara, from one of my favorite producers of the region, Daniel Gehrs. It's an impressive unoaked Chardonnay, richly textured and loaded with luscious tropical fruit without a molecule of oak.
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Daniel Gehrs 2005 "Unoaked" Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
Transparent straw color. A luscious, subtle mix of tropical fruits - fresh figs and dates and a hint of pineapple on the nose; crisp white fruit on the palate, well shaped by an appropriate amount of acidity to provide structure and balance. I normally like a subtle touch of oak to add texture to Chardonnay, but this fresh fruit is really too good to need any tinkering. (Feb. 12, 2008)
FOOD MATCH: Clean, fresh fruit and good acidic structure make it a natural with veal ossobuco in bianco.
VALUE: The winery's announced $19 price is high, as street prices typically range from $10 to $15, at which point it is a very good value. It's an absolute no-brainer at California Wine Club's current $8.75 sale price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Fresh and delicious, it would be awfully hard to keep hands off right now. Its aging profile is hard to predict; it's not a traditional "cellar keeper" but should at least hold up for a couple of years under good storage conditions.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
The winery also offers online sales, but pricing is high.
Compare prices and locate vendors for Daniel Gehrs Unoaked Santa Barbara County Chardonnay on Wine-Searcher.com:
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