Magazine article Sunset

Hold the Oak

Magazine article Sunset

Hold the Oak

Article excerpt

Look for lighter, crisper Chardonnays in the market

A GLASS OF West Coast Chardonnay conjures a taste memory of butterscotch, vanilla, and toast. Ironically, those flavors have nothing to do with Chardonnay and everything to do with what's been done to it. "Chardonnay is the winemaker's grape," says Alan Phillips, winemaker and general manager for Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery and Lincourt Vineyards in Santa Barbara County.

Now, though, more and more makers are starting to do less to it-trading in some (or all) of that buttered toast for truer flavors of fresh, crisp apple, pear, citrus, tropical fruit, and minerals.

Buttering up our Chard has precedent. In Burgundy, France, where white wine is always Chardonnay and the weather's cold, grapes struggle to ripen and produce fairly tart, acidic juice. To soften it, the wine's fermented in oak barrels, put through a second, "malolactic" fermentation ("ML" in cellar jargon) to bring on the butter, and then aged in barrels too.

But in the warmer regions of the West, where wine tends to have lower acid levels, those steps can obscure natural fruit flavors. Many winemakers now opt for less oak and ML.

Even in our coldest places, a few winemakers are choosing the stainless steel tank route, to "retain the purity of that Chardonnay character," as Phillips puts it. At Foley Estates in Santa Barbara's chilly Santa Rita Hills, he's doing it both ways. Choose your style.

Food for new Chards

A heavily oaked Chardonnay tastes better with an after-dinner toothpick than with any part of the meal. …

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