Uncorked: Chardonnay puts some clothes back on
by Pat Kettles
Special to The Star
Jun 13, 2012 | 1992 views |  0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The ubiquitous chardonnay remains America’s best-selling wine, but selecting a chardonnay is not as straightforward as it once was.

Last summer was the season for naked, unoaked, au natural, bare chardonnay.

With all these references to unclothedness, perhaps it is timely that Dr. Ruth, 84-year-old sex therapist and TV personality, is launching her own wine brand, Vin d’Amour. The brand includes a low-alcohol chardonnay.

Dr. Ruth says her low-alcohol wines are just enough to awaken the senses, along with a host of other claims more appropriate for airing on daytime television talk shows.

I like my chardonnay clothed. I have been on this soap box before, but I return to the subject because Woodbridge is releasing a new lightly oaked chardonnay.

Yup! Right there on the label under “Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi” are the words, “Lightly Oaked Chardonnay.”

This brings up a number of questions. Now that we are inundated with naked chardonnays, are we about to put some of their clothes back on?

Will there ever be a time when winemakers indicate wines are heavily oaked?

Will the Food and Drug Administration require winemakers to include an oak exposure scale on wine labels?

Let’s clear the air once more. Oak is a good thing in winemaking. Many wines would be unpalatable were it not for time spent in oak.

Oak aging, whether light or heavy, gives a varietal like chardonnay a textural richness. It rounds out harsh edges and contributes to a chardonnay’s butteryness, adding a hint of vanillin to the blend. It makes a wine more multi-dimensional.

Oak is not essential to winemaking. Some naked chardonnays are quite palatable. More often, I find them better with a meal than as an aperitif.

Unoaked chardonnay is aged in stainless steel in temperature-controlled tanks, and generally results in a crisper style of chardonnay.

To muddy the water a bit here, unoaked chardonnay can also be put through a secondary malolactic fermentation, which gives even an unoaked wine a creamy mouth-feel.

So is Woodbridge’s lightly oaked chardonnay an attempt to bring chardonnay back to a middle ground? Perhaps, but lightly oaked wines are not a new thing.

California winemakers have been ratcheting back oak usage in chardonnay production for a number of years. In the case of Woodbridge’s lightly oaked chardonnay, 20 percent of the blend sees time in oak.

New oak barrels give chardonnay its smoky, creamy vanillin flavors. As a barrel is used, its ability to impart flavors decreases, until it becomes totally neutral. Most top chardonnay producers age their wines in a combination of new and neutral oak barrels.

There is no right or wrong here. It is a matter of taste.

One needs to determine one’s chardonnay preference by tasting an array of styles.

To that end, I staged a blind tasting with four moderately priced chardonnays, both oaked and unoaked, with my significant other and a house guest who has professional wine experience.

Included in the lineup were the four following wines:

• Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve 2010 California Chardonnay. $12.99 at Winn Dixie.

• Kendall-Jackson Avant 2009 California Chardonnay. $13.75 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things. (I found no Woodbridge lightly oaked chardonnay locally, but this wine fit the lightly oaked bill, being both fermented and aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak barrels.)

• Simply Naked 2010 Unoaked Chardonnay. $7.49 at Winn Dixie. Sees no time in oak.

• Clos LaChance Chardonnay. $11.75 at Tyson’s. Totally unoaked.

And the winner is …

KJ Vintners Reserve, the most heavily oaked of the group. It is both aged and fermented in new oak barrels. Not much nose initially, but boy did it deliver on taste. Full of fruit, rich mouth-feel, delicious. Ranked No. 1 by all three tasters.

The other three wines were less enthusiastically received. KJ’s Avant took second, described by tasters as being crisp and clean.

Simply Naked took third, with Clos LaChance coming in last — described by our visiting professional as “bodiless” and “generic.”

Email Pat Kettles at pkettles@annistonstar.com
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Uncorked: Chardonnay puts some clothes back on by Pat Kettles
Special to The Star

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