Out of the Barrel and Into the Future

Out of the Barrel and Into the Future

To oak or not to oak?

As a passionate and curious wine club in the beautiful sunshine state, the team at Vinely like to have their finger on the pulse of upcoming wine trends.

Chardonnay has been in the spotlight lately, coming up in discussions of Californian wines everywhere. The varying terroir and diverse locations of California allow the Chardonnay grape to produce an array of different aromas and tastes. Of course, a certain aspect of this process also falls onto the winemaker as well.

Robert Parker’s ‘oak bombs’ have long been a staple in the Californian world of Chardonnay – but it appears that people are starting to stray from this trend, opting instead for more linear versions of this creamy white.

If you’re not a fan of a butter bomb, we’re here to tell you that things are beginning to change in California, and Vinely can help keep you one step ahead.

Chardonnay is a particularly popular drop in Californian wine regions because of its ability not just to survive, but thrive across a broad range of vineyards. When you combine malleability with the fluidity of the terroir, the result is a culmination of both past and present – creamy oaked aromas and crisp, fruity flavors. One thing is for sure – the possible tastes that you can achieve with Chardonnay can cater to every palate, making it popular with Vinely and the rest of California.

While warmer growing regions like Napa have been favored in the past, the colder climates of Mendocino and Sonoma Coast are now creeping in to bring a crisper, citrusy flavor that contrasts nicely with a conventional tasting profile of butter and vanilla. The climate and terroir are not the only things to consider when thinking about the end result, however.

The real answer lies in the bottom of an oak barrel.

While Robert Parker’s ‘oak bombs’ had their time and place, Vinely wine club is beginning to notice the benefits of steering away from barrels. An unoaked Chardonnay presents the opportunity for nuances that can be brought out by the terroir without being tarnished by the effects of aging. As an alternative, unoaked Chardonnay can be aged in concrete or stainless-steel barrels and tanks, so that the vessel does not interfere with the inherent characteristics of this varietal.

This means no cedar notes – or vanilla for that matter. Instead, you will experience a much more complex tasting profile with a flinty edge.

California wines are moving away from this movement so that they can focus more on the natural characteristics of the Chardonnay grape. This isn’t to say that you can’t experience great complexity with oaked Chardonnay – however, you’ve got to achieve the right balance to do so.

So, do you oak California chardonnay, or do you leave it out of the barrel? Wine trends are fluid and continually evolving, which always leaves room for growth and development. When most people think of Chardonnay, the word ‘buttery’ is one of the first words that comes to mind, and this is all due to the aging process in oak barrels. California is a progressive state, however, and there’s always something new on the horizon.

A similar step in the process for oak-aged Chardonnay is malolactic fermentation. Both of these methods produce flavors of coconut, butter, vanilla, and toast. The future of California chardonnay looks more like this: stone fruit, green fruit and even tropical fruit with notes of citrus and melon produced by white peach, apple, pear, and even banana. Keeping it out of the barrel or experimenting with different types of barrels seems to be the way forward to play with lighter, more complex tasting profiles.

Frog’s Tooth Vineyards, located in Murphys, California, currently has a 2017 chardonnay on the rack that you may want to check out as a Vinely member. We are immediately drawn to the innovative mix of citrus and buttery flavors with this one, which is no easy feat. You’ll experience hints of kiwi and lemon which are rounded off with a coconut butter feel on the palette. While it’s more earthy than fruity, the heavy mouthfeel indicates a drier drop that emulates the sweetness of the fruit without being too sugary. Having been aged for two years now is the perfect time to enjoy this Chardonnay. 

Winemaker John Fones of Cellars 33, one of our favorite urban wineries here in San Francisco, has taken his Chardonnay even a step further, aging his 2018 vintage in a concrete egg that was imported all the way from France. The last time we tasted it at our Meet the Maker event, john mentioned that he hasn’t yet decided where he will take it, but expect a taste that is a bit more complex then what you’d expect.

The versatility and adaptability of the Chardonnay grape make it easily one of the most popular varietals on wine lists in both California and around the world. In fact, Chardonnay is considered second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in California in terms of relevance and importance. With over 93,000 acres of farmland currently planted with chardonnay grapes, it’s safe to say that Chardonnay is the most widely grown varietal in the sunshine state.

Vinely is your local wine club that can connect you with local Californian wineries. We’re always on the lookout for growing trends amongst Californian wines, and we believe in keeping it local. Our monthly wine subscription brings lesser-known wines right to your doorstep – and don’t forget that when you visit one of the Vinely club wineries, tasting is always complimentary if you’re a Vinely member!

Rachel Sikkema

Rachel Sikkema is Vinely’s storyteller. She loves writing about all things wine and telling the story of local wineries and winemakers. When she's not testing out exciting new labels to write about, she's busy running around after her two young daughters.