For the most part, Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels, the wood providing a level of interest and complexity that usually doesn’t exist in unoaked Chardonnays. The danger, of course, is that the oak can take over the wine with overpowering notes of butterscotch, vanilla, and other flavors that the wood can impart, especially new American oak.
But there is a trend these days toward more subtle oak treatment. This includes the use of French barrels, which are less imposing on a wine; barrels that have been used in a vintage or two before and are therefore more neutral; and aging only part of the wine in wood.
Despite the importance of oak in making first-class Chardonnay, more wineries in recent years have been offering unoaked versions of the wine, taking after Chablis, the northernmost appellation of Burgundy, where unoaked, mineral-driven wines are the norm. It’s that minerality, from the limestone soils with lots of fossilized oyster shells, that gives Chablis its unique character.
While there are loads of unoaked Chardonnays out there beyond Chablis, many are just fruity one-note wines that fall flat. One that rises above the ordinary is the 2017 Albamar Chardonnay from the cool-climate Casablanca Valley in Chile.
Not only does this wine have lots of component parts, it’s a great bargain at about $12. The fruit notes evoke green apple, grapefruit, and orange peel, but that’s only the beginning. Hints of white flowers, herbs, and even a little green olive provide punctuation marks. With a backbone of refreshing acidity, it all combines to offer complexity that is unusual in unoaked Chardonnays, especially at this price.
Without oak in the mix, it’s also a versatile food partner for many simple fish, chicken, and vegetable dishes and can be enjoyed on its own. This one is hard to beat for the price and is a good example of the kind of wine value that Chile offers.