Updated: Apr 11, 2019
For the first grape-focused post in what I expect to be a long series, I’m going to look at a grape that is known throughout the world and is one of those most commonly-planted grapes in Michigan. In order to avoid confusion with some presentations of this grape, though, I’m going to look at a specific style that is commonly found in the Traverse Wine Coast area. That style and grape varietal is unoaked Chardonnay.
I, like many others, am not a fan of the Chardonnays typically found in the wine section of a typical grocery store. Those are often heavily-oaked wines made mostly from Chardonnay grown in California. The Chardonnay grape is very versatile in where it can be grown, but exhibits wildly different profiles based on the location it’s grown and how it is treated during the winemaking process. Oak barrels or oak chips can impart strong flavors of vanilla while malolactic fermentation (a fermentation in which a bacteria turns certain acids in the wine into a different, softer acid) can leave Chardonnay tasting buttery or nutty. Both of these processes will smooth out the wine and contribute to a little more body. While some people do enjoy this version of Chardonnay, many others shun it and have written off the grape entirely due to the familiar California profile.
Many wineries in Michigan, especially those in the Traverse Wine Coast, are happy to provide an alternative version that can please anyone that’s not a fan of those heavily oaked, buttery California Chardonnays. This alternative is the unoaked Chardonnay, which is made in a similar style to the famous wines of Chablis in the Burgundy region of France. These wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, and often find their way to the bottle after only 6 months. These wines are also usually prevented from undergoing malolactic fermentation, allowing them to maintain bright acidity and fresh flavors, possibly including tropical fruits, green apple, pineapple, or Meyer lemon. Depending on where it is grown and how ripe the grape is when it is picked, the combination of these flavors can differ. The wine is often quite bright but still easy to drink, offering a great option for a warm day.
Unoaked Chardonnay is a great wine to pair with plenty of foods due to its acidity and fresh fruit flavors. The acidity helps to cut through the fat found in proteins like fish, chicken, and shellfish. Despite the wines usually being dry or semi-dry, the fruit flavors present in the wine can provide a sensation of sweetness to pair well with salt and other milder seasonings on these dishes. One of my favorite simple pairings is to put a good unoaked Chardonnay alongside a caesar salad with pan-roasted chicken
Due to Chardonnay’s ability to grow well in many areas along the Lake Michigan coast and the fact that this style sees no oak barrels, the cost to produce unoaked Chardonnay is generally less than plenty of other commonly-known varietals including all red wines. Many of the unoaked Chardonnays in Michigan end up in the price point between about $15 and $20. If you try this wine and enjoy it, this price point makes it easier to buy a few to take home for enjoying with a meal or on a sunny summer afternoon (and it gets even better if you join your favorite winery’s wine club and get a discount!).
If you purchase unoaked Chardonnays when you’re out on a tasting adventure, my suggestion would be to enjoy them within a year of bringing them home and to do your best to store them in a cooler place. While well-produced versions won’t fall apart after more than a year in the bottle, some of the fresh fruit flavors will start to subside. I really enjoy that bright acidity and crisp fruit, so these don’t last long in my house.
I’ve had quite a few great unoaked chardonnays from Northern Michigan, but if you’re looking for a showcase of what unoaked chardonnay can be, these three are great wines to try:
As the first vineyard to produce an unoaked chardonnay, Bowers Harbor has great experience and produces a great product year after year. This wine is dry and bright, with plenty of fresh fruit flavors. Like most in this category, the price makes this a great value.
This wine is another great example of the freshness of which a Chardonnay is capable. This easy-drinking wine maintains plenty of acidity, but won’t blow your socks off either. The fresh apple, pear, and citrus flavors make it the perfect sipper for a warm summer afternoon.
This unoaked chardonnay is made in the sur lie style, which leaves the wine sitting on the spent yeast in the stainless steel tanks. This wine ends up with bright and fresh flavors but also has more body and complexity than the other two wines mentioned because of the time spent on the lees. Definitely a must-try!