In the 20 or so years that I have worked in the restaurant biz, trends in wine-making have come and gone and come back again. One of the most interesting and most commonly changing trends is the use of Oak in chardonnay. What’s really interesting about this trend is how it seems to divide people – like maybe you’re a fan of Gucci or maybe you’re a Louis Vuitton kinda gal. Whatever the case and whatever your preference, there is a chardonnay for you. Winemakers are making virtually every style of Chardonnay these days for any palate and any taste and the good news is that at Gaslight, we have them all.
So what happened?
Back in the day the very best chardonnays from Burgundy were always oaked. The best quality received new oak and the lesser quality wines were aged in older barrels. As oak barrels age, they lose their flavor – those spice and vanilla notes that we love or hate so much. The main benefit of aging in oak and the practice of doing so comes not so much from the fact that it flavors the wine, but that oak is a porous substance that allows the wine to mellow out by slow and gradual exposure to oxygen. That’s the same concept as decanting a young wine so that it can “breathe” and allow the aromas to open up. The compounds in wine that make wine smell and taste good are released when they oxidize.
Along came California centuries later. After the famous tasting of 76, winemakers jumped on the chardonnay train and started to make wine that imitated French counterparts in hopes of putting their winery on the map. Domestic wine quickly became fashionable in this country and consumers starting drinking oaky chardonnays by the gallon at dinner. When more and more jumped on the bandwagon, the idea of oak became exaggerated and some (not all) winemakers went overboard. Sooner or later, people started loving those vanilla and spice flavors so much that some chardonnays started tasting like licking a two-by-four. The French kept doing what they’d been doing so well for centuries ignoring this American trend. In the meantime however, in our country brands like Kendall Jackson and Toasted Head were born and those producers took their money to the bank. We loved their wines – and why wouldn’t we? They tasted delicious. Still do!
Well… time passed and suddenly consumers and critics alike got bored (pun intended) with drinking wine that tasted like a trip to home depot so some producers started making completely un-oaked chardonnays. (Guess what… Kendall Jackson and Toasted head starting backing off the oak too!) The crisp clean style appealed to many and the naked chardonnay was born in the new world. Chardonnay suddenly tasted like citrus and green apple instead of movie theater popcorn doused in a caramel.
Nowadays, California wine producers are starting to think about balance all over again really considering the Burgundian model. Does that wine really need oak? Will the spice flavor profile enhance the delicate fruit profile or overpower the clean aromas? Should I add some more chili flakes to my tofu stir fry? Whatever you’re into, there is a chardonnay for you. Below are the ones we offer ranked from no oak to oakapalooza – French wines mixed into the spectrum as well. Stop in to sip and swirl with us soon and let us be your chardonnay Sherpa. Ask for me… Greg. See you soon!
La Fruitiere, Loire Valley
Christian Moreau “Vaillons”
La Chablisienne “Chablis Grand Cru”
Olivier LeFlaive Chassagne Montrachet
Oliver LeFlaive Meursault
Thevenet St. Veran
Stag’s Leap Napa Valley
Cheveau Pouilly Fuisse
LeFlaive Les Setilles
Patz and Hall Sonoma