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Unoaked wines draw unadulterated praise

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011

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•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.

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