It’s interesting, if you offer white Burgundy to most American wine drinkers they will be delighted to taste this French masterpiece. But offer chardonnay to the same American wine drinkers, you will most likely receive a different reaction. What makes this interesting is white Burgundy — considered one of the most revered wines in the world — is made exclusively with the chardonnay grape.
During the 1980s chardonnay went from a rare planting to one of the most planted grapes in U.S. vineyards. Americans are partly to blame for the countless confusing chardonnay styles and price points. During this growth in popularity Americans loved chardonnays in rich, creamy, high-alcohol and full-bodied styles.
In other words, we wanted an oak influence for our chardonnay. This oak influence comes with a price tag when using oak barrels for the outcome of the style. (Wine barrels can cost up to $1,000 each and can only be used to impart oak nuances in wine one or twice.)
So, as the demand for chardonnay increased some winemakers sought out cost-cutting shortcuts to create the impression of an oaked wine. The techniques are numerous in the winemaking process — oak chips, artificially adding acidity and oak staves are the most used. Are these still quality wines? Of course, but they are not equal to French Burgundy.
Many wines made with these techniques will have very high alcohol content, an almost buttery popcorn taste and an abnormally high, searing acidity. The use of those pricey oak barrels creates more complexity that cannot be duplicated with shortcuts, but it comes at a much higher price.
Unoaked chardonnay, in contrast, is lighter bodied, lower in alcohol and offers a fruit forward profile at a much lower price.
- 2016 J. Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay, California (about $16 retail)
- 2017 Columbia Crest Grand Estate Unoaked Chardonnay, Washington (about $14 retail)
- 2016 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $40 retail)
- 2017 Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, California (about $20 retail)