Chardonnay Skips Oak, Not Flavor

Four Vines Naked Unoaked Chardonnay, 2015
Santa Barbara County, Calif., $13.99

Four Vines Naked Chardonnay is aptly named.

The wine’s crisp, bright fruit flavors are up front, unclothed by the taste of oak, resulting in a refreshing summer drink reminiscent of a light French Burgundy rather than a creamy California Chardonnay.

Four Vines Naked is made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes grown in Santa Barbara County at the southern end of California’s Central Coast. Santa Barbara County has a long growing season that allows the fruit to develop with a balance of rich flavors and to produce relatively low-alcohol wines. Naked Chardonnay is 13.5 percent alcohol.

(This wine should not be confused with Naked Grape, a line of less-expensive, but drinkable wines.)

For Naked Chardonnay, the winemakers eschew oak, instead allowing the juices to ferment on the lees (yeast deposits) for six months in stainless steel tanks, which gives the finished wine aromas of guava and apricot and the juicy flavors of peaches and Granny Smith apples, along with a hint of creme brulee, producer Derek Benham says in the tasting notes.

Benham is the founder of Purple Wine Co., which focuses on quality wines in the $10-to-$15 range. The company bought Four Vines in 2010, expanded production and increased the brand’s market.

Based in the Sonoma County in the small town of Graton, Purple Wine has guiding business principles of sustainability and stewardship, saying on its website that the company runs one of the most eco-friendly, water-efficient, solar-enabled wineries in the industry.

As with Four Vines, a number of winemakers in Burgundy also keep oak away from their Chardonnay and produce some of the finest light wines in the world, including Chablis, Maconnais and Bourgogne Blanc, often referred to as “vins de soif” (wines to quench thirst), authors Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack say on the “Wine Folly” website.

The use of oak barrels and oak flavoring in wine has been around for at least a couple of thousand years. Winemakers more than likely started shipping wine in oak barrels during the early days of the Roman Empire. Other woods had been used prior to that, but the Romans discovered that oak affected the wine and could improve its flavors, according to Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible.

Former Boston chef, surfer, punk rocker and winemaker Christian Tietje started Four Vines in 1994 in his garage in Berkeley, Calif., making award-winning old-vine Zinfandel and Naked Chardonnay. The reputation of the wines spread, and it wasn’t long before Tietje and his partners built the company into a nationwide brand and an attractive buy for Purple Wine.

While growing up in New England, Tietje spent his summers in a Maine fishing village and developed a passion for seafood. He built a reputation for preparing seafood dishes in the Boston restaurants where he worked, and now, he’s making award-winning white wines particularly suited for the fare. Through his Sea Monster label, Tietje makes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a white blend called, Octopussy, after the James Bond film.

Although Tietje has moved on to other projects, Four Vines has retained the fun irreverence of the company’s founder. The label encourages customers to eat oysters and drink Naked.

The wine also goes well with chicken or grilled shrimp. It’s nice just to have on its own, too.

Four Vines Naked Chardonnay is widely available throughout New England. The full price is $13.99, but it’s regularly on sale. I often find it priced at $11.99, and have seen it as low as $9.98.

Check out Four Vines Naked Chardonnay. It will remind you of a lovely white Burgundy, but at half the price.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at

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