An "Unoaked" Chardonnay Hits the Spot at Grotto

It was difficult to find a seat Monday night at the bar at Grotto, the popular Houston mainstay.

Between a couple of very friendly ladies dressed in bright blouses and a queue of middle-aged traveling businessmen who seemed eager to share a cocktail with them, two Houston food and wine professionals considered themselves lucky to find a bar stool at 6 p.m.

The bar's by-the-glass selection doesn't offer much variety for the diehard wine lover. The wines are listed by grape -- Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. -- with no mention of appellation or producer.

But once the wine list arrived, it revealed that the Grotto wine cellar has something for everyone.

Italian and Californian in focus, it ranges from the usual suspects to the undisputed classics, with nice breadth in between.

The nicest surprise was that it includes a number of affordable and quaffable labels under or around $30.

At $27, the 2012 Ruffino "Unoaked" Chardonnay -- by one of Tuscany's commercial behemoths -- might not be the first choice of an Italian wine fanatic or a wine nerd. But it was just right for an aperitif before dinner.

In the post-Sideways era, many domestic and international winemakers reacted to the "oaky, buttery Chardonnay" backlash by creating "unoaked" wines.

By "unaoked," they mean that the wine has been vinified and aged in stainless steel vats as opposed to oak casks. Those wooden vessels can impart oaky and sometimes toasty flavors to the wine. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is inert. Its neutral character imparts nothing and takes nothing away.

Wines made in this style tend to be fresher and "cleaner," as professional tasters might say. But the best thing about "unoaked" Chardonnay -- at least in the eyes of a wine writer who found himself at the bar at Grotto on Monday evening for a quick business meeting -- is that it is safe. Even without any prior taste of the wine, you generally can count on "unoaked" Chardonnay to be an earnest thirst-quencher.

And at $27, the party of two also scored a bargain: the tab for four glasses of wine -- each drank two, leaving roughly two glasses in the bottle -- was roughly the same as it would have been for four glasses by-the-glass. (For the record, you nearly always get better value when you order by the bottle.)

Now, about those talkative ladies dressed in bright blouses...

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