November 2011

Going Oakless

by Randy Caparoso

Tim Whitlock, Senior VP of Operations for Oceanaire Seafood. Photo taken at their Miami restaurant.

The concept of “unoaked,” or at least subtly oak-influenced, Chardonnay is nothing new, but in the past it’s been relegated to a peripheral market: If you were a wine store or restaurant, you would offer one or two examples for the sake of variety, and then watch more traditionally vinified (i.e., richly oaked) Chardonnays outsell them by a 1,000 to 1.

But things are changing, and with significant rapidity. Jim English, the wine buyer of Vintage Grape Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, tells us that not only has the Oyster Bay Marlborough Chardonnay been one of their top sellers over the past two years, it is just one of the products representing a new wave of wine-drinking customers who “want something lighter with less oak—people are coming in asking for unoaked Chardonnay,” something seldom seen just four or five years ago.

As a wine, the currently released Oyster Bay 2010 Marlborough Chardonnay ($14) is a bonafide dandy: straw gold tinged, gushing peaches, apple and pineapple, and a silken fine, crisply balanced medium body that pushes up the pert fruit while finishing completely dry, with a neat, little lemon drop finish. It is not 100% unoaked—the Oyster Bay formula calls for 50/50 fermentation in French barrique and stainless steel tanks, both with lees stirring to soften mouthfeel—but in the final analysis, the actual taste of oak is practically nil. The barrel regimen is essentially a means of adding texture to the inherently bright, clean fruit of New Zealand–grown Chardonnay.

Jani Feiereisel, owner/manager of 545 North Bar and Grill, outside of Chicago.

According to English, “The customers are loving the Oyster Bay because it is like a French style—the oak is there, but only as a backdrop to the fruit. But at the same time, it is not an in-your-face fruitiness like you get in Australia and most of California. It’s a cool-climate style, with more acidity and lemony apple than the tropical fruitiness you get in warmer climate Chardonnay.”

To be fair, the Oyster Bay Chardonnay differs from the French unoaked Chardonnays of the Chablis appellation, which are defined by a flowing minerality that eschews fruitiness the way New World unoaked Chardonnays eschew the taste of wood. Instead, the Oyster Bay version makes a virtue of varietal character—as well it should, since it’s grown in Marlborough, not Chablis.

The recent commitment of some prestige California Chardonnay producers to the 100% unoaked style is significant. Over the past half-dozen years Mer Soleil has steadily grown its unoaked Chardonnay program: the Mer Soleil 2010 Santa Lucia Highlands Silver Chardonnay ($24) is bone dry yet lavishly fruited with honeyed apple, lemon and pineapple. Moreover, it comes packaged like a reserve bottling, in a stunning, silver-colored ceramic bottle.

For the on-premise industry, the new taste for minimal- or zero-oak-style Chardonnay has been positive because it finally complements what the restaurant business is all about: enhance the dining experience on a sensory level. Tim Whitlock, Senior VP of Operations for the immensely popular Oceanaire Seafood Room restaurants, carries about 300 selections on his bottle list and more than 30 wines by the glass; but just about his most reliable, and biggest-selling, selection is the Oyster Bay Chardonnay.

Jim English, wine buyer for Vintage Grape Wine & Spirits in New York City.

Whitlock tells us, “Being a seafood restaurant, it’s fantastic to have a wine that tastes so good with seafood, especially the oysters and shellfish on our raw bar. It has a clean line and flavor profile that makes it great for the food and for guests, and also for our staff. You gotta love a wine that over-delivers on its price [Oceanaire sells Oyster Bay Chardonnay for $9 per glass and $41 per bottle] and always gets you a second or third order, either by the glass or bottle.”

Oyster Bay Chardonnay has been on the glass list at 545 North Bar & Grill, in Libertyville just north of Chicago, for going on three years. According to owner/manager Jani Feiereisel, “it would be foolish to take it off the list because it sells so well.” At $8 per glass and $32 per bottle, the Oyster Bay is a value item at 545 North, but according to Feiereisel, “it took off when people started asking for a Chardonnay that isn’t too heavy or buttery or oaky. Now they come in asking for it by name, which is why it’s become a permanent part of our restaurant.”

If this is any indication, subtly oaked Chardonnay, displaying elegant varietal fruit character is undoubtedly here to stay.

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