There is nothing controversial about the use of oak barrels in the production of fine table wine. Maturation in wood, from as little as a few months to as much as a few years, softens tannic red wines and enhances complexity. White wines experience similar benefits that make the use of oak barrels an enticing proposition for any winemaker.
This is most evident in the production of Chardonnay, which is often barrel-fermented and barrel-aged. Aromas of vanilla, brown spice, toast, and pungent herbs have long been associated with Chardonnay, and those characteristics are the result, by and large, of time spent in an oak barrel.
The notable exception has been Chablis, the white wine made from Chardonnay grown in Burgundy's northernmost — and coolest — sub-region. Chablis, except for a few scattered contrarians, is oak free. The wines of Chablis are prized for their freshness and minerality, absent the nuances from wood maturation that distinguish other white Burgundies.
Over the years there have been other "oak-free" Chardonnays, though mostly a concession to the cost of an oak barrel. So the evolution of un-oaked Chardonnay in the New World revolved around price. Un-oaked Chardonnay tended to be cheaper wine.
I discovered this to my chagrin while judging the un-oaked category at the Chardonnay Challenge in New Zealand a number of years ago. The un-oaked Chardonnays were a huge disappointment, for they were generally lifeless and lacking in character. As a Chablis enthusiast, I was puzzled.
It finally dawned on me that the un-oaked wines being offered for evaluation at the Chardonnay Challenge clearly had not had the benefit of the superb terroir of the Chablis region. In fact, they were largely mediocre wines made from mediocre grapes grown on mediocre ground.
At that point I wrote off "un-oaked" Chardonnay as a fad that was destined to fail because the quality simply wasn't there. What the "oak-free" Chardonnay movement needed was a courageous example of un-oaked Chardonnay made from exceptional grapes sourced from top-notch vineyards.
Courage would be necessary, lest the temptation to use the barrel on glorious chardonnay grapes might prove too much for the mere mortal winemaker to overcome.
The first truly outstanding New World "oak-free" Chardonnay I remember was Morgan's Metallico, and I believe the debut vintage was 2000.
The winemakers at Morgan used exceptional grapes from Monterey County's Arroyo Seco, in the vaunted Santa Lucia Highlands.
The Metallico Chardonnay was so called because it was fermented in stainless steel tanks and only spent a brief time in wood, neutral three-year-old barrels.
The time in barrel was used to give the wine some air and to stir the lees, which are dead yeast cells (yeast is used to make the alcoholic fermentation) that can impart toasty notes similar to those that come from extended barrel aging.
Morgan's Metallico has been a huge success, and consistently earns praise from prominent wine journalists. The current vintage of Morgan Metallico is 2007 and it retails for $22. Wine enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with Metallico should know that this area of Monterey County yields some of the most complex Chardonnays produced in California.
Still, for the longest time I clamored for Chablis when I was in the mood for Chardonnay purity and Burgundian quality at a good price.
I've noticed recently, however, that other top wineries are following the Morgan lead and making oak-free Chardonnay from exceptional vineyard sources. The Napa Valley's St. Supery winery claimed a gold medal at the 2009 San Diego International Wine Competition with its 2008 Oakfree Chardonnay, which is sourced from Napa Valley Vineyards and carries a suggested retail price of $25.
This absolutely delicious Chardonnay offers aromas of green apple, pear and brioche, is well balanced and I'm guessing will develop additional complexity with a bit of cellar age, though there's certainly no harm in drinking it now.
Still, neither of these wines makes me think Chablis. That's not a bad thing. They are luscious in their own right, and both have obviously been kissed by the California sun.
I had to go to Oregon's Willamette Valley to find an example of oak-free New World Chardonnay that satisfied the Chablis craving within me.
Chehalem's 2008 Inox is made from estate vineyards that were planted a few years back to the Dijon clone of Chardonnay, which is well-suited for cool-climate Chardonnay production. From the first sip I knew this was the Holy Grail of un-oaked New World Chardonnay.
It has everything I'm looking for in a bottle of good Chablis: bracing acidity, intense minerality, depth of fruit (layers of pear and pineapple) and exceptional length in the mouth. It retails for $19.
Don't get me wrong. I love an outstanding wood-aged Chardonnay. I love white Burgundies from the Cotes de Beaune (all aged in barrel). But sometimes I just want a white wine that gives me the richness and palate weight of Chardonnay without the taste of the barrel.
I want crisp and clean and fresh, but not Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino or Gruner Veltliner. I want Chardonnay, pure and simple. Thank you Morgan, St. Supery and Chehalem — for the first time I feel as though I have great options at affordable prices.