The purity of unoaked chardonnay
Chardonnay is the world’s most beloved wine. While technically a cool climate grape, chardonnay can be, and is, grown everywhere, taking on the personality of the terroir where it is grown. Amongst all the international grape varietals, chardonnay can be a relatively neutral grape in flavor, acidity and body, which is one of the reasons winemakers use the toolbox to add their own signature to the wine. One of the main styles of chardonnay made in New World wine regions are those which go through full malolactic fermentation and aged in a percentage of new oak. These full-bodied, creamy, buttery wines have a full nose of vanilla and oak and are balanced against the ripe fruit of the warm climate. For consumers who prefer more fruit-driven wines however, New World producers in Australia, New Zealand and California have been been releasing chardonnay wines with the term “un-oaked” prominently on the labels to distinguish them from what has become somewhat of a convention. These are not “new” wines, they’re just hot.
The home of the classic un-oaked chardonnays originate in the Burgundy region of France, Chablis to the north and the Macon to the south. In Chablis, the wines are generally fermented and aged in stainless steel or neutral, old vats which allow the purity of fruit and minerality of the wines to shine through. Due to global warming, these wines, while still very crisp, have become more approachable and balanced wines. In the Macon, about 125 miles south, the climate is warmer, sunnier and drier, which results in slightly fruitier, fuller-bodied wines than Chablis. Wines labelled “Macon” or even “Macon-Villages” in the $8-15 range are almost always fermented and aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel to preserve the fruity esters, and released young.
The majority of Chablis and Macon wines in the $8-15 range are fresh, fruit-driven wines for everyday drinking and are an excellent value. These wines, with their bright acidity, clean flavors, moderate alcohol and light to medium body are excellent as aperitif and for pairing with food. But Americans already appreciate this. About 2/3 rd’s of Burgundy wines exported to the US are white wines and over half of this is from the Macon. Chablis represents about 15% and it’s share is growing as more consumers distinguish the authentic Chablis from the random generically-labelled chablis wines some US producers still make – the labelling permitted under grandfathering clauses in international wine agreements.