April 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Making Unoaked Chardonnay

How five successful wineries craft a popular new style

by Jordan Mackay

  • Unoaked Chardonnay does not need to be just a weak alcohol-acid-water solution. More and more, winemakers are using their best grapes as opposed to pedestrian fruit.
  • Good wine obviously starts with good grapes, but never more so than with a wine that is going to experience minimal manipulation and oak. Ripe grapes are naturally a big part of the equation.
  • Most producers use a fairly simple combination of a structure-providing clone with some more aromatic counterparts.
The history of New World Chardonnay over the last two decades or so has been convoluted. Starting in the early to mid-1990s, the backlash against the garish "buttery, oaky" style led to the guerrilla ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement among the wine trade and media, a negative response to the grape in general (as the name clearly expresses). This utter rejection of Chardonnay could be thought to have helped spark the fascination with Sauvignon Blanc, particularly the racy New Zealand version. "Steel-tank fermented" was the slogan often repeated by winemakers, sommeliers and retailers to sell Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, as the image of steely tang invoked by that phrase contrasted decisively with the association drinkers were making between oak barrels and unctuous Chardonnay.

It's no surprise, then, that the next progression in wine marketing and making saw the arrival of the "unwooded" Chardonnay. The provenance of this style seems to be Down Under (if we conveniently forget Chablis and Champagne), but the power in the name is unmistakable. Just as "buttery, oaky" became a catchphrase to describe something unpleasant, its opposites--"steel-tank fermented" and now "unwooded"--connoted something desirable. These wines lurched into the throne of fashionability.

As many people have since discovered, though, the absence of oak does not automatically lead to good Chardonnay. Just as a barrel-fermented Chardonnay can be free of the tastes of toast and diacetyl, a steel-tank fermented Chardonnay can be boring, weak and listless. For a while, I sensed wine writers were promoting unwooded Chards because these wines were simply a refreshing break from their cloying predecessors. Now that there are plenty of unwooded Chardonnays on the market, though, I've heard many a writer admit, "A little oak in itself is not a bad thing." But unoaked Chardonnay does not need to be just a weak alcohol-acid-water solution. More and more, winemakers are using their best grapes as opposed to pedestrian fruit and showing, I hope, that unwooded Chardonnay from the U.S. can be a wine of interest. In that spirit, I interviewed several winemakers producing high-quality unwooded Chardonnay in various styles and volumes to see how they are doing it.
Hendry Unoaked Chardonnay
Hendry's unoaked Napa Chardonnay is blended from Wente clone and Dijon 95 and 96 clones, to achieve intense fruit with floral and spice elements.

Good wine obviously starts with good grapes, but never more so than with a wine that is going to experience minimal manipulation and oak. Ripe grapes are naturally a big part of the equation. Todd Williams of Toad Hollow in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, was one of the early proponents of unoaked Chardonnay (first vintage: 1993) in California, and his is still one of the benchmarks. Ninety percent of his vineyards, he says, are in Mendocino in the Redwood and Ukiah areas, with the balance in Sonoma County. And though he concedes that these are warm places, he knows that the diurnal variation there leaves his grapes plenty of acid to work with. "These are old vineyards, and we've been working with them for years," Williams says. "We pick at about 23 or 24° Brix and get an alcohol around 13.75%, but due to the balance of fruit vs. acidity, you don't taste any heat."

In terms of clones, most producers I talked to use a fairly simple combination of a structure-providing clone with some more aromatic counterparts. George Hendry, whose vineyards lie between Carneros and Stag's Leap in southwestern Napa Valley, makes his unoaked Chardonnay from a blend of Wente clone and Dijon 95 and Dijon 96. "Chardonnay, like Pinot," Hendry says, "is very crop-sensitive--less is more, so you need to keep crops relatively low." Wente is naturally a low-cropper, he adds. "You never have to do crop thinning on the Wente, as it has small, light clusters and you get colliure and hens and chicks, which give concentration." The Dijon clones are typically harvested at about 3-3.5 tons per acre, and add floral and spice elements to the Wente clone's intense fruit component. "Without barrel, you need the spice from the Dijon," he adds.
Chehalem Unoaked Chardonnay
Oregon's Chehalem made its first 1,000 cases of Inox unoaked Chardonnay in 2002. It did so well, the 2006 vintage tripled to 3,000 and the amount is limited only by availability of quality grapes.

Marimar Torres in Sonoma's Green Valley region makes "Acero" unoaked Chardonnay using the Rued and See clones at 40% and 60%, respectively. The Rued clone, a massal selection (massal selection indicates cuttings are used from the best performing vines, rather than a selection of specific clones) related to the Wente clone provides, according to Torres, some structure and floral notes. "The See clone is usually the source of elegance and finesse."

Greg Brewer of Melville and Brewer-Clifton in the Santa Rita Hills AVA makes three unoaked Chardonnays from the Santa Rita Hills: Inox, under the Melville label (Clone 76), and two single-vineyard wines under his own Diatom label, Clos Pepe (Wente) and Huber (probably Wente, 25 years old, own-rooted). He takes ripeness further than anyone, as his Chardonnays come in just over 15% for Inox and 15.7-16.8% alcohol for Diatom--levels he, himself, admits have been "scandal-provoking." Aware that he receives criticism for these wines, Brewer points out that in the past, many wineries threw their plainest fruit into their unoaked Chardonnay. In contrast he uses the best fruit he can grow, from unique vineyard sites. "For me, if you feel your fruit is great, it should be able to stand alone," he says, "because you can understand that fastidious farming is critical when you pick so ripe."

In a way, Brewer's unoaked Chardonnays are Expressionist studies in balance, where the conventional is contorted and exaggerated in a search for new expression. "Clos Pepe and Huber vineyards are so screaming in acidity," he says, "that in some ways I have to go that ripe. But I do love the tension between the weight of 16% alcohol and the high acidity."
Diatom Unoaked Chardonnay
Greg Brewer's unoaked Chardonnay offerings under his own Diatom label include this one from Huber vineyard and another from Clos Pepe.

Whole cluster pressing is the rule among the unoaked Chardonnay producers I interviewed. Uniform settling takes about a day to 36 hours. Some chill the juice down. Brewer gets it extremely cold, to about 34°F. Mike Eyres, winemaker at Chehalem in Oregon, gets the juice for Chehalem's Inox Chardonnay to 50°F, George Hendry, to 40°F.

All the producers I talked to inoculate, using a wide variety of yeasts. Hendry ferments with Prise de Mousse, which is known to be a strong fermenter, tolerant of high alcohol and high SO2, because his vineyard "can have sluggish fermentations that do not complete." The must ferments at about 59°F, burning about 1° Brix per day for 24 days.

Todd Williams says that he started off using Prise de Mousse, but has since moved to a German yeast (he ­couldn't recall the name), which he likes for its promotion of flavors and aromas. For Chehalem, Eyres uses VL1 from Laffort, a strain that is known for promoting finesse and elegance and a slower fermentation. It also has the ability to release turpines, which promote high-toned, floral aromatics. His fermentation lasts from one to two months.

Brewer is a big fan of Montrachet yeast. "I know it's an old yeast," he says, "but I just dig it. It's cheap, it's been around forever, it's known for being stinky and getting foamy." By fermenting at only 40°F, however, Montrachet's more "squirrely" attributes are kept somewhat at bay. "There's ample food, but I give it a little more nutrients just because it's working in such a hostile environment. You see how slow the fermentation goes over the holidays." Brewer's Chardonnays generally reach dryness sometime in mid- to late January.

After fermentation, the big questions are purely stylistic: how much time to rest the wine on the lees and whether or not to put it through malolactic fermentation. These standard Chardonnay questions take on new importance, though, when the wine is being made without oak.
Toad Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay
Todd Williams, at Toad Hollow in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, was an early proponent of oak-free Chardonnay, producing his first vintage in 1993. This release has 13.9% alcohol, but fruit and acidity are well balanced

In Chehalem's Inox Chardonnay, malolactic is suppressed, and the wine is left on the lees for another 6-8 weeks. "The flavors don't change over that time," Eyres says, "but we feel that it gains some mid-palate richness." The wine is then racked and bottled. "It's basically ready to go off the bottling line," Eyres explains. "Last year's sold out in six months." Chehalem made 1,000 cases of Inox in 2002, the first vintage, and has increased that number to 3,000 in '06. Sourcing quality Chardonnay is the biggest limiting factor on the wine's volume.

Toad Hollow's Chardonnay, in contrast, undergoes full malolactic fermentation and remains on the lees for a full eight months, where the wine picks up mid-palate density and the high acids soften a touch. In 2006, Williams says, "we produced 48,000 cases in the same fashion with which we made the first 3,000 in 1993." Williams has always said that these Chardonnays age wonderfully, and told me that right now he is enjoying the 1996s and 1997s.

Torres' Chardonnay receives similar treatment. After lengthy debate, she decided that malolactic fermentation would be part of the style. There is no extended lees contact for Acero ("steel" in Spanish), however, and the wine was bottled in two stages. The first bottling sold so well that Torres made a second run with the rest of the wine. The wine sold well enough that 2006 production was increased threefold from the 1,000 cases of 2005.

After the Hendry Chardonnay's 3-4 week fermentation, "we rack it out of the tank and take it off the gross lees," Hendry says. "We get it in tank and then we sulfite it so the second fermentation doesn't start. We're trying to make a wine that tastes as much like Chardonnay as it possibly can. You don't want oxygen flavors and you don't want lees flavors. It's less is more--you just keep your hands off of it."

To finish off the last few Brix and get dry, Greg Brewer usually lets his musts warm up to about 60°F at the end of their fermentations. "Once I determine the wine is dry, I'll give it a pretty generous hit of SO2, which I don't normally use, but I don't want any malo at all," Brewer says. "Then I chill the room back down to 40°F and leave it until March, meaning a total of five months on the lees, but only two once fermentation is finished. Before bottling in May, I add a little bentonite, rack it and give it a little sterile filtration."

Since I tried to find a representational mix of wines from Napa, Green Valley, Mendocino, Santa Rita Hills and the Willamette Valley, the wines discussed above are, naturally, discreet, without taking into account winemaking differences. One thing they have in common, though, is that they all sell well, suggesting that the unwooded Chardonnay trend has hardly run its course.

(Jordan Mackay lives in San Francisco, where he is wine and spirits editor for the metropolitan magazine 7x7. He is a contributing writer to Wine & Spirits, and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times. Contact him at edit@winesandvines.com.)
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