Share This Page

Unoaked wines draw unadulterated praise

Ready for the naked truth?

American consumers increasingly drink table wines "naked" -- as in a completely un-oaked style, with pure fruit standing front and center in all its natural glory.

Eric Miller, winemaker at Pennsylvania's Chaddsford Winery, helped launch the wave with a blend of adventuresome winemaking and savvy marketing.

"I was fascinated that lean, mean, green New Zealand sauvignon blancs were doing so well in America," says Miller in reference to the famously unoaked, dry white wines from Down Under. "It gave me hope that my other favorite chardonnay style -- the lean, mean, green and minerally Chablis-types -- would be accepted, too."

When first considering the "naked" project several years ago, Miller, along with veteran Chaddsford cellar master, Jim Osborn, already enjoyed a national reputation for producing terrific, single vineyard chardonnays with deftly applied oak traits. Fermenting and aging the wines in oak barrels creates rich and fruity, yet creamy wines with complex buttery and earthy nuances.

While securing grapes to make these wines, Miller developed 25 years' worth of nuanced knowledge of the intricacies of Pennsylvania's terroir and its "Burgundy-like, lean fruit." This inspired Miller's confidence to "strip away" the oak aging and roll out a then new model of "lean, mean, green" chardonnay.

Then, as now, most American wine drinkers liked their chardonnays with more than a dollop of oak aromas and flavors. So, introducing a new line of unoaked wines meant taking a big risk for a relatively small, family-owned, regional winery.

But Miller's spouse and business manager, Lee, embraced the play and quickly gave the green light -- with one caveat. She insisted on using her special idea to introduce and market the new wine.

In short order at a photo shoot in the vineyard, winemaker Miller crouched literally "stripped naked" but for a few strategically placed vines. A laughing Miller

then uttered the tag line, "How do you think I make Naked chardonnay?"

(See "The Naked Winemaker" at www.chaddsfordlive.com/authorPage.cfm?authorID•124)

Promoting the new wine's fresh, fruity and well-balanced flavors with humor and wit resonated with buyers. Now, Miller's team continually seeks to improve the "naked" chardonnay with successive vintages.

To capture essential fruitiness, they first give the yeast plenty of oxygen during cold fermentation in stainless-steel tanks.

"We smell the fermenting wine once or twice a day and give it a good splash to assure healthy yeast activity," Miller says.

To ensure crisp balance and pleasing tartness, they also block malolactic secondary fermentation -- a natural process where tart malic acids convert into softer lactic acids.

From a business viewpoint, making "naked" wine actually costs less because Miller buys fewer oak barrels at more than $1,000 a crack. So, the style provides the proverbial "win-win" for appreciative consumers and the winery.

In recent years, wine industry leaders have responded ambitiously to the advantages going "naked." For example, the nationally distributed Simply Naked "Unoaked" brand provides a California twist on the style. Winemaker Ryan Flock led a team turning out 250,000 cases in the initial year alone.

Like Miller, Flock knows plenty about aging wine in barrels. He started at Rosenblum Cellars, the famous red zinfandel producer where oak plays a key supporting role.

"We worked with over 25 barrel suppliers and spent over $1.5 million annually on barrels," Flock says. "Each barrel gives its own flavor profile. So ,oak can be a good thing, but it can hide a wine, too."

He welcomes the challenge of working now completely without oak barrels.

"Going naked makes me stay on my toes all the time," says Flock, who makes red and white wines.

Flock uses fruit primarily from California's Central Coast where an extended season through November ripens grapes consistently. But working "naked" requires being selective. Flock uses only grape lots that fully reflect each variety's fruity essence without vegetal traits.

If you're curious to drink "naked," start with:

2008 Chaddsford Winery "Naked" Chardonnay, Pa. (Luxury 15777; $15.99): Crisp apple, tropical fruit and flinty notes open to rich acidity balancing a fruity, yet zesty dry finish. Recommended.

2009 Simply Naked "Unoaked" Merlot, Calif. (3353; on sale: $8.99): Intense black cherry and tasty plum notes balance with soft tannins and a fruity finish. Recommended.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.