Chardonnay, when unoaked, has a place at the summer table

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 3:48 PM

When the humidity sucks the air from our lungs and our clothes stick to us like Velcro, our tendency is to reach for light, refreshing wines. Rosés and crisp whites such as sauvignon blanc, Portugal's vinho verde or assyrtiko from Greece fit the bill nicely. We find ourselves avoiding bigger wines, those with bold fruit, low acidity and copious oak. In other words, ixnay on the chardonnay.

But we would be wrong to turn our backs on chardonnay altogether. True, chardonnay has more heft than most other white wines, but sometimes we need a wine with a little more structure to pair with bolder-flavored foods. And not all chardonnay is made in the low-acid, barrel-fermented style. Unoaked chardonnay (which marketers call "naked") has become a fad in recent years wherever the grape is grown, from Australia and New Zealand to California, New York and Virginia.

Unoaked chardonnay is not new. The French have been making chardonnay without barrels for centuries, especially in the northern and southern reaches of the grape's homeland, Burgundy. In Chablis to the north and the Maconnais to the south, unoaked chardonnay is the norm.

So what's wrong with using barrels to ferment and age chardonnay? Nothing. But barrels add tannin and wood flavors to the wine that make it bigger and heavier, fine for richer foods but inappropriate for summer heat.

Chardonnays from Chablis and the Maconnais have another advantage: They are lower in alcohol - typically 12 to 13 percent - than those from warmer climes such as California and Australia, which are usually 14 percent or higher. In winter, that may not matter, but in summer it makes for a more refreshing wine.

This week, I will focus on the mainstay chardonnays from the Maconnais, which are labeled Macon or Macon-Villages. We'll save the more serious Chablis for next week.

The Maconnais lies at the southern end of Burgundy, just north of Beaujolais. But more important, it is where France makes its leisurely transition from the rainy north to the sunny, Mediterranean-influenced south. The wines reflect this shift; they are neither as demanding nor austere as the great chardonnays of the Cote d'Or, such as Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet. Yet their structure and minerality make them undeniably Burgundian. Best yet, they are affordable.

The Maconnais has five appellations: Macon, Macon-Villages, Saint Veran, Viré Clessé and Pouilly Fuissé. The latter three tend to be higher in quality and price, while basic Macon is often simple table wine. The most interest and the best values can be found in Macon-Villages. These wines are usually labeled as Macon with the name of the particular village. So you might see a Macon-Uchizy or even a Macon-Chardonnay, from the commune that supposedly gave the grape its name. Each village has its own terroir.

Older-style wines may have a hint of oxidation that gives them an exotic tropical flavor that reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum. The 2008 Macon-Lugny from Maison Louis Latour, a major Burgundy wine shipper, is a prime example and a steal at $13. Many domaines now limit the wine's exposure to air, yielding a slight citrusy nature and emphasizing the wine's minerality. The 2008 Macon Solutré Pouilly from Domaine de la Chapelle ($20) is a nice example of this modern style; focused and powerful, the wine continues to evolve in the glass and tastes even better the day after opening.

Macon-Villages chardonnay can be delicious by itself, but the wine's acidity and minerality make it an excellent foil for a variety of foods, especially grilled chicken and fish. The key is to be receptive to a style of chardonnay that may be unfamiliar if you are accustomed to New World wines.

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