For the most part, people say they don’t like Chardonnay — it suffers from what I call “varietal hexing.”
Why? Because they dislike the oak flavours often associated with it. Fair enough, but it’s important to point out that not all Chardonnay gets aged in oak (but rather in stainless steel or concrete), and the wineries that do this are using it a lot less than you might think. Oak can be used for structure — not just flavour — and just a kiss of it can create a seductive and discreet aura.
Gone are the days of the ‘ABC’ (‘Anything But Chardonnay’) clubs. Believe it or not these groups do exist — and in my view, they don’t know what they’re missing!
The best example of a Chardonnay that has no oak intervention are the brilliant wines from the Chablis region of France. Here’s a Chablis 101 lesson:
- Chablis is a wine district in the Burgundy region of France (South of Paris, and a little east).
- All Chablis are made from 100 per cent Chardonnay.
- Chablis does not spend time aging in oak. Well, some do, but the entry-level (ergo affordable) ones do not.
Chablis has four quality levels. As the quality goes up, so too does the complexity, depth, price and reward. You should equate the amount you spend on a Chablis to the importance of the occasion. For example:
- Petite Chablis – best for weekly drinking
- Chablis – best for monthly drinking
- Premier Cru Chablis – best for anniversaries and birthdays
- Grand Cru Chablis – best for New Year’s Eve or first-born children (there are only seven Grand Crus, so I recommend saving them!)
Chablis may not be affordable for everyone, so I’m ecstatic that Chardonnay has really taken a turn, globally speaking. Historically (in the New World), Chardonnay often had the body of a weight lifter, but today, it has the physique of a yoga instructor. There are brilliant examples of un-oaked variations made almost everywhere — in parts of Australia and South America, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and even California.
So, why else should we love un-oaked Chardonnay? Because it’s a wine that is accessible, versatile and gratifying. It can be lean, crisp and refreshing with mineral notes, citrus tones or stone fruit flavours, and it’s also highly food-friendly. An un-oaked Chardonnay often shares many traits with wines you probably already love, like the stone fruits enjoyed in Pinot Gris, or the citrus tones of Sauvignon Blanc.
And keep in mind that oak costs money, so when winemakers decide to make Chardonnay with no oak, the value gets passed right to the consumer.
How is it possible to know which Chardonnays don’t have oak aging, you ask? Some wines will indicate on the label (either front or back), but as I always say, the best way to find out is to ask your Sommelier or resident wine consultant. Here are a few examples of what you might find on a label for an un-oaked Chardonnay:
- Spain: “acero” (the Spanish word for ‘steel’)
- France: “sans chene” (without wood)
- California: “naked” (like you’re surprised)
Below are three great wines to help you break the hex of Chardonnay:
1. Xanadu Winery Next of Kin Chardonnay, $16-$18
The Margaret River region of Western Australia is a precious honeypot of amazing Chardonnay. This wine is all about pleasure — silky textures with a truckload of Asian pear, pineapple, white peach and a suggestion of nougat as well as crunchy acidity and hints of lemon through the finish. Like riding a roller coaster naked. Available in private wine stores.
2. William Fèvre Petit Chablis, $26.99
This is a textbook example of why the wines of Chablis are so amazing. Brilliant citrus blossoms bathed in exotic wet river stones. Cooling and purposeful with gooseberry, apricot, grapefruit and sage. Show up anywhere with a bottle of this in tote, and everyone will be happy. Ladies, this wine is your little black dress and Men, your perfectly weathered blue jeans. Available at BCLDB.
3. Joie “Un-oaked” 2013 Chardonnay, $22.90
This wine never stops impressing me. An expressive mouthful of red apple flesh, shy grapefruit and a sexy belly of minerals. This Chardonnay brings Old World rationale with New World expectations — like being at a country fair in the 1920s and finding Pharrell Williams performing ‘Happy’. Available at Winery Direct, or private wine stores (prices vary).