Has the move away from new oak in Chardonnay gone too far?

Blake Gray recently opined that “austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay.” He based this on a tasting in which he and I both participated. We, and a handful of other experts, blind tasted 25 Napa Carneros Chardonnay from respected producers. We were underwhelmed.

Certainly, they were all well made. But few of them sang to us or made us long to drink a glass. We had the general sense something was missing. I gave eight scores of 90 or better. My top score that day, 92, went to just one winery.

Let me be clear, the wines were good. And most California regions would love to have a grouping of scores like ours for their Chardonnay. We simply expected more from Carneros, due to the combination of vineyard quality, winemaking talent, no holds barred investment and past performance.

Many things may have lead to these results. I don’t believe site or vintage were a factor though. It seemed to be more about winemaking decisions and techniques. As a case in point, one well-known vineyard was represented by seven wines, each made by a different winery. My scores for those wines were 92, 90, 90, 89, 88, 87, 87. The vineyard clearly produced fruit capable of making very good wine, but only half of the producers achieved that.

Most of the wines we tasted had a few things in common. They were lean with fairly high acidity and very little perceptible oak treatment. Gray highlights the latter as being at the core of our findings.

The wines showed a rejection of past excesses in malolactic fermentation which had led to overly buttery Chardonnay. And the fruit was less ripe than has often been the case—more green apple and lemon, not so much ripe yellow apple or peach. Oak-derived flavors were few and far between. Nor did many exhibit the softer and more nuanced expression that can come from gently oxidative aging in wood (as opposed to inert, reductive stainless steel).

Of course, this is not unique to Carneros. Many regions have reined in the oak— and needed to. But that works better in some regions than others. There are places where the fruit just doesn’t get ripe enough to hold up to oak. But, in general, Chardonnay needs some time in non-neutral barrels to reach its potential as a wine. That’s true in much of Burgundy and it’s true in California.

Dialing back from the gaudy wines of old with oak drenched in butter and sugar is great. But going too far, while the lesser of two evils, is not ideal either. Deliciousness lies in the middle.

The 2015 Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch I reviewed yesterday is a great example. The fruit was well-ripened, neither under nor over. Malolactic fermentation was inhibited to preserve juiciness. High-quality, well-selected, new French oak was used to add character and allow the wine to develop.

Copyright Fred Swan 2017. All rights reserved.


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  1. Larry Stein

    What’s your take on Chablis? It’s my favorite region for Chardonnay and the last thing I want to see in a bottle of Chablis is new oak.

    • fredswan@norcalwine.com

      Yes, that ties into my comment about some regions not being right for new oak. The wine itself doesn’t have the personality—more about tart fruit and mineral than flesh and fruit power—to marry with new oak.

      With producers like Raveneau and Dauvissat though, there’s plenty of old oak which contributes to the softening, development, etc. And there’s the barest hint of new oak as they replace barrels that are falling apart.

      Even in Chablis there are trends and changes. Twenty years ago, it was very common to use quite a bit of new oak in Chablis.

      • Larry Stein

        When I visited Chablis 3 years ago, I went to Duplessis. Lilian uses old, neutral barrels on all but one premier cru and on Clos for the same purpose as Raveneau and Dauvissat.

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