Chardonnay, particularly from California, gets a bad rap. This crowd-pleasing white wine is often characterized as being super oaky and buttery — sometimes just what you’re looking for but often not super refreshing or refined. But this isn’t the grapes’ fault! These flavors are actually the result of the wine being aged in oak barrels, and, contrary to what some might believe, not all Chards taste this way.
We’re talking about the different between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay. Oaked versions are aged in oak barrels and therefore tend to be super smoky or oaky (as previously described and the name suggests!). Unoaked Chardonnay, however, is fermented in stainless steel, concrete or glass-lined concrete vats. This technique was made popular by our friends in the Chablis region of France who have been producing unoaked Chardonnay for centuries. Their wines became so popular that many winemakers began throwing labels on any unoaked white wine, even if it had nothing to do with Chardonnay – France was not happy about that though, so it didn’t last long.
So if it doesn’t taste oaky, what does it taste like? Because the wine doesn’t come into contact with any wood and pick up oak flavors, the wine displays the uncontaminated flavors of the Chardonnay grapes. The grapes in their truest form usually taste of lemon, green apple and occasionally pineapple. And, because unoaked wines are made in an environment with less oxygen, they turn out extremely fresh and acidic.
Not only is the flavor more pure in unoaked Chardonnay, but so is the price. Think about how much it costs you to ship a heavy package. Now imagine shipping costs for new hefty wooden barrels to be sent around the world every year – it adds up quick and it ain’t cheap. Eliminating this cost for the winemakers means a cheaper wine for you, the consumer. Because new wood barrels aren’t needed each year, neither is the need to transport them, unoaked wine is more sustainable.
This isn’t to say oak is bad because it’s not. Many people like an oaky Chardonnay. But if you’re one of those who doesn’t overly love the taste, hopefully, we’ve given you some good facts for you to get back into the Chardonnay game with confidence.