Oaked and/or Unoaked Chardonnay: a Symposium by Steve Heimoff

We just had to share Steve Heimoff’s great blog post about his upcoming trip to The Chardonnay Symposium in Santa Maria. We can’t wait!

Posted by Steve on Jul 12, 2011

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.

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