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Unoaked Chardonnay: A tasting primer

Hello folks! This week and next I'm featuring single varietals that allow us to compare how the terroir of different regions influences the final product in the bottle. This week I have chosen unoaked versions of Chardonnay from Italy, France and Napa Valley.

The reason I went with unoaked versions is to reveal the nuances of the Chardonnay grape when it is planted in very different regions, with very unique terroirs.

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First up is the proudly unoaked Chardonnay Oak Zero from the famed Italian cooperatives of the Cavit Vineyards. This wine comes from the far north of Italy, in a region that was once part of Austria and is now known as Alto-Adige.

This region is a large valley that is protected from cold northerly winds by the Dolomite mountain range. Volcanoes, glaciers, and rain have revealed many different soils, making it a unique treasure among wine growing regions around the world.

Because of the different soils, Alto-Adige can grow numerous different non-native varietals. Among those is Chardonnay. The Chardonnays grown here are crisp, light, and flavorful, and more and more, they are organic and biodynamic.

Cavit's Oak Zero Chardonnay has a wonderful nose of ripe green apples, lemon, and melon. On the palate, the Oak Zero Chardonnay reveals a slight acidity, along with flavors of crisp green apples, pears and lemon zest. This is a great wine to pair with light hors d'oeuvres, salads and light meals from chicken to seafood, to vegetarian.

Price range: $7-$10

Next, we take a scenic train ride north to the Burgundy region of France—more specifically, to the white wine producing region of Chablis. The soils of Chablis are what give this rarely oaked, 100% Chardonnay wine its unique flavor. The chalky, marl stone clays of an ancient sea bed are what give Chablis its one-of-a-kind minerality, acidity and slight hint of salinity.

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The wine I chose to highlight the typical characteristics of Chablis wines is Maison Cyril Gautheron. On the nose, this wine displays an abundance of chalky minerality, along with light notes of yellow apple and honeysuckle. On the palate, flavors of soft yellow apple and baked pears, are complemented by a crisp, lasting acidity and a hint of salinity from the ancient sea bed soils the grapes are grown in.

This expression of Chardonnay has long been the "go to" wine in many cooking recipes. 

So remember, the next time you come across a recipe that calls for a "dry white wine," the writer is usually referring to Chablis. The flavors will not overpower the food, and the acidity helps break down complex proteins.

Enjoy this wine with everything from soft creamy cheeses and crackers to seafood, pastas with light cream sauces, to chicken dishes—just about anything light that is begging for a slightly acidic wine with soft fruit flavors.

A few things to remember about Chablis: it is always 100% Chardonnay; it CAN be, but rarely ever is oaked, (usual only Chablis bearing the Grand Crû, and occasionally the Premier Crû classifications, see any oak aging); and when a recipe calls for "a dry, white wine", it's usually Chablis they are referring to.

Price range: $12-$16

Lastly we take a trip across "the Pond" and the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" to the valley of cool fog filled mornings and warm sunny afternoons—The World Famous Wine Growing Region of Napa Valley

Here the soils are rich:

"Thanks to over 150 million years of volcanic, tectonic and erosion from rain and flooding, Napa Valley has samples of half the World’s soil orders, 33 soil series, and more than 100 soil variations." - Napa Vintners

The valley floor tends to have very deep: rich alluvial fans that are extremely fertile, while the slopes of the valley's hills tend to be more rocky. 

Our last Chardonnay comes from the vineyards of Hendry Ranch.

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Located in the southwestern hills of Napa Valley, just northwest of the town of Napa, sits the 203 acre property of Hendry Ranch. 

One hundred fourteen of those acres are planted to vineyards that produce some of the best estate grapes in Napa. The soils are rich and there is a significant marine influence on the area, (cool foggy mornings and warm sunny afternoons). This gives the Hendry Chardonnay a chance to show how delicious Chardonnay can taste without the influence of oak aging. On the nose the wine is reservedly soft. Hints of ripe apple, honeydew melon and white flowers are barely detectable. 

On the palate the flavor of ripe apples gently reveal themselves. The wine has a crispness to it due to the medium acidity obtained from the rocky soils. Unlike the chalkiness of Chablis, this unoaked Chardonnay has more of a wet stone flavor and a sharp bite on the finish. That is to say, this wine does not stick around to see what you think of it. It's there while it's on your palate, and gone once you've swallowed. 

Pair this wine with medium bodied cheeses and charcuterie. It's a great picnic wine that will serve well to wash down cheeses, light sandwiches, and even go with fruits.

Price range: $19-$23