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For years your Cork Reporter has been a card-carrying member of the ABC — “anything but chardonnay” — club. To me, most California chardonnay tastes like a liquefied oak barrel in a glass. And though I do like white burgundy (made from 100 percent chardonnay), I’d rather use the cost of a good bottle of white burgundy to pay off the bulk of my law school loans. But I’m happy to say that there is a new choice: unoaked chardonnay. This is exactly what the name implies — wine made from chardonnay grapes that is fermented and aged in stainless-steel tanks, not oak barrels. In general, such wines show the fresh, fruity nature of chardonnay so often masked by in-your-face wood flavors. This usually leads to crisp, food-friendly wines. And because they cost less to produce, most unoaked chardonnays are modestly priced. I recently assembled 10 widely available examples of unoaked chard. Most hail from the New World (the United States and Australia), with a couple from Europe. Tasting with me was Bill Fuller, one of the founding fathers of winemaking in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and a man who has made more than a few chardonnays himself. After sampling the wines blindly, we generally agreed on the quality of most of the wines. Surprisingly, our picks had almost no correlation to the wine’s price or place of origin. Our three favorite wines, which stood head and shoulders above the rest, all hail from the Southern Hemisphere. The 2004 Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay ($14) from south Australia reminded Bill of early California chardonnay — before winemakers began putting chardonnay in new oak barrels for years (or worse, literally dumping in oak chips to get that oaky flavor on the cheap). The wine is bright in both appearance and flavor. Attractive minerality and acidity balances its copious fruit, leading to a clean, mouth-freshening finish. Similar in style, but with even more fruit and zippy acidity, is the 2004 Babich Hawke’s Bay Unwooded Chardonnay ($12). Wonderful aromas of lemon blossoms give way to a flavor core of peach and citrus in this refreshing New Zealand wine. Also hailing from New Zealand was our favorite wine and the best value — the 2005 Villa Maria Private Bin Unoaked Chardonnay at $10 a bottle. The wine displays a complex nose of sage, violets, and citrus fruits. On the palate, the Villa Maria shows more weight than the Trevor Jones or Babich, but still retains crisp acidity and prominent green-apple and lime flavors. And it’s a steal at the price. Also worth the money is the somewhat unusual 2005 Unwooded Chardonnay from West Cape Howe in Western Australia ($13). The wine shows typical flavors of pineapple and grapefruit on the palate but also has some interesting aromas, including citrus preserves and loads of spices. The slight sweetness left in the wine is well balanced by the vibrant acidity present. Not quite as good is the 2004 CH from Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon ($17). Hints of butterscotch, peach, and lime on the nose lead to smooth flavors of candied orange and a lingering finish. Smack in the middle of our preferences is what we call our “wine of innocuousness.” The 2005 Unoaked Chardonnay from Hendry ($20) in Napa Valley, with its aromas of melon and lemon, has no obvious flaws but also doesn’t inspire any raves. If someone handed me this well-balanced wine at a cocktail party I would be perfectly contented. But I probably won’t spend $20 for it again. On the other hand, the $10 price tag of the 2004 chardonnay from Feudo Arancio in Sicily might make it worth buying. Although not especially fresh-tasting, the wine has aromas of dill and lemon peel and a clean finish. But be warned: It is somewhat rustic and better if paired with food. Our least-favorite selections surprised me a bit. The Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand’s Kim Crawford winery (2004, $14) is produced by one of the originators of the style. The wine’s main flaws are a series of flavors that never really come together to form a whole and a rather gamey aroma. The 2005 Pouilly-Fuiss� from Domaine Roger Luquet ($17) in the Burgundy region of France lacks the fruit flavors and aromas, as well as the zestiness and freshness, generally seen in unoaked chardonnays. In fact, it lacks pretty much everything. The 2004 Yalumba Unwooded Chardonnay ($9) from south Australia was criticized not for what it lacked but for something it had. Though the wine has a crisp, clean finish and displays lots of fruit and some complexity, part of that complexity is an off-putting chemical taste that Bill aptly described as “rubber hose.” So if you prefer wines that taste more like wine and less like buttery wood, give some of these new-style chardonnays a try, and graduate from the ABCs.
Phillip Dub� is an attorney and freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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