Revealing unoaked Chardonnay: Undressed and nowhere to go

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By Celia Strong

How many of us have gotten tired of drinking the same old wine, day after day, glass after glass?  Well, in case you haven’t noticed, the wine industry knows that we have and has made a habit, for years, of bringing out new and different wines for us to try. One of the best “new” wines came out years ago: Chardonnays with no oak treatment in their making.
Chardonnay is probably the best known, long time available grape there is.  Pretty much every country that makes wine does a Chardonnay.  Of course, some are better and some aren’t, some cost a lot more than others, and, because of the adaptability of this variety, there is a huge range of styles of Chardonnay wines. The Chardonnay grape itself is really very neutral, with many of the flavors commonly associated with it being derived from such influences as “terroir” and oak.  It is vinified, made into wine, in styles that range from lean, crisp and minerally to tropical fruit bombs with lots of oak from barrel aging.   Over the years, we have each found the style that we prefer, and drunk lots and lots of it.  Then, as we are prone to do, we got tired of it and moved on to other grape varieties in our search for different flavors and textures in our next favorite wine.  I’m not sure if you remember this one, but there was an expression 10 years ago or more “Anything But Chardonnay.”  (“ABC” for short.)  Well, there are only so many new grapes out there, and, in time, the wine industry did bring us back to Chardonnay.  How? They changed how they made Chard. Instead of as much oak as they could get on it, they went in the opposite direction.  No oak at all.  And words like “unoaked” and “no oak” and a few cuter ones started showing up on wine labels.
Chardonnay grapes can be fermented and aged in any container.  The choice of what kind of container is made by the winemaker and determines the style of the finished wine.  The wines fermented and/or aged in oak barrels are known for their wood, vanilla, buttery, baking spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove) and other flavors leeched from the wood itself.  The newer the wood barrel is and the longer the grape juice or the wine rests in the barrel the more pronounced the flavors become.  The wines made in stainless steel tanks are more fruit forward, meaning they have more numerous and distinctive fruit aromas and flavors. Through the 1990’s, as the love for big, oaky Chardonnay wines grew, particularly in the United States, they almost became the only white wine many of us bought and drank.  Then, slowly, one by one, we wanted something drier and cleaner feeling in our mouths and Pinot Grigio became famous and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs were discovered.
But, Chardonnay vines were planted around the world. And, let’s face it, it is a great variety.  Well, thanks to New Zealand, who had more than their share of Chardonnay vines, and their winemakers who  realized their customers did not want big oak flavors, but the fresh fruit flavors of the grape and a bit of acidity in their wines.  Even though New Zealand was not the first to make Chardonnay wines without any oak, they were the first to make them at affordable prices.  It was that affordable price that let us all try our first no oak Chards and decide they were good.  And, now, here we are with no oak Chardonnays from all over and we get to choose which ones we like best.
All of this  brings us to our wine for this week.  Summers Winery is located in Calistoga, California.  In 1987, Jim Summers bought a 28 acre vineyard in Knights Valley.  At the time, this area was mostly planted with Merlot grapes and some Muscat Canelli.  Summers Ranch’s first Merlot wine came out in 1992.  In 1996, the winery expanded their vineyard holdings to include 25 acres in Napa Valley where they grow Zinfandel, Charbono and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Jim Summers and his wife, Beth, have been able to make wines from small growing areas, including their signature wine Charbono — a lesser known red variety with red pulp inside.  In the last seven years, Summers Estate Wines has replanted most of their 50 acres.  This was done with the help of their winemaker, Ignacio Blancas. This has led to the Summers wines having a distinctive taste based on their “terroir.”
And, now, finally, we’re at Summers’ no oak Chardonnay.  Did I tell you that besides “unoaked” and “no oak” names for these wines there were other, cute names. Well, Summers’ is called “La Nude.” The grapes for this wine come from Monterey County, specifically the Arroyo Secco region.  This is a unique area where the cooling effect of the nearby Pacific Ocean allows the grapes to slowly ripen on the vines.  This makes for wonderfully balanced wines with intense fruit flavors.  (Other well known wineries, including Morgan and Mer Soleil, also make unoaked Chardonnay wines.)  Summers La Nude is fermented in stainless steel and left to sit on its lies, in the same tanks, for seven months.   The fruit flavors include orange and nectarine, honeydew, star fruit, and the acidity is milder because of the extended sur lie aging.  And, you can have this wine for $15.99.  Enjoy.