There was a discussion on Wine Lover's Page last month about Chardonnay and oak. The question, which went out in Robin Garr's 30 Second Wine Advisor, was, "Does Chardonnay Need Oak?" Click here to read it.
My response was that Chardonnay doesn't need oak, although some of my wine drinking friends would vehemently disagree. After all, Chardonnay and oak just go so well together and for some of my friends, the oakier and the toastier, the better. Tell one of these people that Chardonnay is unoaked and they are unlikely to raise the glass to their lips.
But chardonnay without oak can and does work. It's worked in Chablis for, oh, hundreds of years although the bottles of white wine from this region in France do not mention the grape variety 'Chardonnay' as it is the only grape that is allowed. Nor is the use of oak, or the lack of it, mentioned anywhere on the label. Chablis is Chablis and that's it. These are the original minerally wines, the edgy whites with moderate to high acidity that used to be described as steely, chalky or flinty before the more generic 'mineral' buzzword came along. The use of oak is now entirely dependent on producer and their staunchingly traditional or more modern views.
Here in New Zealand we are making good unoaked Chardonnay but those I've tasted are a world apart from Chablis.
I thought about what makes good unoaked new world Chardonnay and this is what I've come up with. First of all ripe clean fruit to start with. After fermentation the wine needs to spend some time on yeast lees with stirring to add complexity and structure and perhaps malolactic (but not always) to add creaminess. It needs to taste fresh and fruity with a savoury undercurrent with perhaps some spiciness and toastiness coming from the spent lees. Most of all, the finished product needs to be in balance - not too acidic, not too sweet, with a richness to the texture from the fruit and the alcohol.
I draw my conclusions from some of the tasty unoaked chardonnays that New Zealand wineries have been making the last few years. This week I made another discovery, the Mystery Creek Gisborne Chardonnay 2006.
This light pale gold coloured, bright clear wine is light to medium bodied and fruity. It's lightly creamy and just a little buttery with loads of fresh, ripe, fleshy peach fruit. Toasty lees add savouriness and spiciness and there's a bright zesty flourish to the finish. In fact, when you taste it, you think it could possibly be very lightly oaked, but very well integrated oak at that. But it declares its unoaked state in very small print on the back label and you realise the toastiness comes from the yeasts. It has 13.5% alcohol by volume according to the back label and is closed with a screwcap.
I thought what a great food wine for the
Woodbox Restaurant at the Mystery Creek Vineyard just south of Hamilton. This wine is weighty enough to stand up to a wide range of luncheon foods, yet its bright freshness means it's pleasing to sip on before the food arrives.
At home we matched it to Peach Soup and then to peach stuffed chicken breasts - just perfect.
The Peach Soup is a chilled soup, perfect for now while peaches are in season. It's a soup to make in advance and bring out as the first course for a summer dinner party to impress. And when served with the Mystery Creek Unoaked Chardonnay 2006, it works a treat. Add a splash to the soup to enhance the complimentary flavours of food and wine. And the fact that the wine is unoaked, is not mentioned on the front label, will have oak's presence or not, remaining a mystery to your oak-living chardonnay guests.
Want the recipe? I posted it on my blog in February last year.
Mystery Creek Gisborne Chardonnay 2006 is not a wine to keep around for a couple of days once open. It's best to enjoy on the first day - which is what most people do anyway.
It's available from Mystery Creek Wines and from their website Mystery Creek sell it online for $19.95 a bottle - check out www.mysterycreekwines.com for $19.95 a bottle. It may be cheaper elsewhere - I've seen it advertised for as little as $11 a bottle on case buys on another website, but when they describe they wine as being matured in a combination of oak, I'm not sure they are actually talking about the same wine.
© Sue Courtney
3 Mar 2008