Chardonnay Cycles and a Grammar Gripe

Like many things in life, wine is cyclical.

If you drink it long enough (I’m speaking in moderation over a good number of years, not multiple hours in a single setting), you’ll see styles come and go.

It’s sort of like fashion that way.

Chardonnay is a good example of a variety that has gone through big changes over the years.

When I was first getting into wine in the late 1980s, what became known as the “California style” was just beginning to hit its stride. These were wines that underwent malolactic fermentation and were aged in new oak barrels, producing a rich, creamy, buttery elixir that coated the palate and lingered.

A handful of such bottlings garnered extremely complimentary reviews from influential critics, and within a few vintages, it seemed like every California winery had embraced the style.

There was nothing subtle or even remotely fruitful about these wines, and their “sameness” ultimately hindered brand loyalty. In order to stand out, some wineries made their Chardonnays even more buttery and more oaky.

Then, one year, a funny thing happened: The market was hit with an influx of value-priced Chardonnay from Australia. Consumers tried it because of the price, and a lot of them liked it.

This was surprising to some because Australian Chardonnay didn’t taste anything like California Chardonnay.

Not even close.

Australian Chardonnay tasted…fruity. It also was more refreshing, and paired nicely with a wide array of dishes and cuisines.

Many Aussie vintners got in the habit of including the word “Unwooded” on their Chardonnay labels.

Well, American vintners—particularly the large corporate ones—are nothing if not savvy about the marketplace. When fruity, food-friendly Aussie Chardonnay began taking market share from buttery, oaky California Chardonnay, numerous California vintners began toning down the oak. Some abandoned it completely.

Now, we’re seeing more and more California wineries making Chardonnay in the Aussie style, and labeling it with provocative verbiage such as “naked” or “virgin.”

The most common word, though, is “unoaked.” See that on a label, and you can expect to experience a fruit-forward, food-friendly wine, rather than a rich, buttery, oaky, best-consumed-sans-food beverage.

Both styles have their followers, and both styles can be quite enjoyable when the wine is well made and its various elements are in good balance.

I do have one gripe, however. It comes from me, the writer/editor—not from me, the wine lover.

The word “unoaked”—and I’m not sure it even is an “official” word—implies that oak was utilized at some stage of the winemaking process, and then suddenly, somehow, taken away. And that’s not what happens at all.

A better, more grammatically correct term would be “non-oaked,” indicating that the wine never was exposed to oak.

Of course, language also is cyclical and ever evolving. And these days, bad grammar does seem to be in vogue.

Posted in In the Cellar
Members-only Wine sampler specials delivered straight to your inbox via our Cyber Circle newsletter.

%d bloggers like this: