To Oak or Not To Oak… A Chardonnay Wine Review


Montes modern facility in Chile

“I love this warmth and richness.”

“I hate this heavy oak.”

Or how about…

“I love this snappy grapefruit.”

“I hate how this acid turns my mouth inside out.”

Both these examples of diametrically opposed taste buds are classic examples of why we can’t all enjoy the same white wines. Oak is oak, acid is acid, and never the twain shall meet. And these are not made up comments: they are actual conversations between me and my husband while tasting white wine.

“A-Ha!” you say. Does this indicate irreparable marital discord? I don’t think so. I hope not.

But what it comes down to is this: white wines represent a very wide array of styles and winemaking techniques, from super-dry, flinty and acidic wines such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Gruner Veltliner, to oaky, soft, even flabby Chardonnays (classic California style). In my vast (or pretty vast) experience of conducting and participating in wine tastings, people’s palates go either one way or the other: they either love New Zealand whites or they hate them, and they either love oak-y Chards or hate them.

But let’s make a big wine wish: What if we could find a white that would bridge the gap; that would be like the Nobel Peace Prize of the wine world and unite the warring factions?

Last night, I thought I may have found it. We opened a bottle of Chilean Chardonnay before dinner, to sip with roasted almonds and cheese. It’s from Vina Montes, which is one of the most established and highly awarded wineries in Chile. Aurelio Montes was the first to produce super-premium Chilean reds, and his Alpha line regularly makes Top 10 lists all around the world.

We tasted the Montes Classic Series Chardonnay 2008, which is their entry-level bottling and sells for $10 -$12. Right off the cork (or screw cap in this case), the nose was fruity and refreshing, with tropical fruits and bright highlights. The palate followed suit, with bright banana and pineapple up front followed by a little richness, a little vanilla, and a nice snap on the finish. I said, “Oh, this is good.” And my partner said, “Oh, this is good.” Eureka!

The Montes website makes this feat easy to understand. Their winemaking practices have been de-emphasizing oak influence over the last several vintages, which explains the great balance in this Chard. Only 60% of the juice is fermented in oak barrels, with the remaining 40% in stainless steel. Then only 50% of the fermented juicv goes through malolactic fermentation, which is a secondary fermentation that converts the wine’s malic acid (similar to the acid in green apples), to lactic acid (similar to the acid in milk). This secondary process is largely responsible for giving some Chardonnay it’s “buttery” character, but it robs it of the snappy acid that many of us like on the finish. It also robs it of its age-ability, since acid is a natural preservative and is the reason why French Chardonnays (i.e. Chablis and White Burgundy) can age for years longer than their California counterparts.

Now, before California Chard lovers start yelling at me, I have to point out that there are many well-balanced, not-too-buttery Chards out there, and more every day. I’ve seen a shift in the California wine industry: more and more are producing lightly oaked or totally unoaked Chardonnays, and stating it proudly on the label to differentiate their wine from the others. But it’s always been a good bet that any white from the Southern Hemisphere, be it Australia, Argentina or Chile, will be light on the oak and heavy on the tropical fruit.

If this sounds like your style, give Montes or another South American Chard a try. I think you’ll appreciate the style, and the value. Cheers!

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