Oaked vs. Non-Oaked Chardonnay

April 9, 2013

whites

Calling all Chardy lovers! 

While I am still working on building my blog posts about wines, wineries and festivals, I would be completely remiss not to dedicate a post to:

• the most popular white wine in the U.S.
• the most widely planted white wine grape in the world
• one of the primary grapes used to make famous sparking wines such as Champagne

Chardonnay really gets around!

And as we’ve discussed in other posts, many other countries such as France label their wines by region. If you’ve ever seen a:

• Chablis 
• Pouilly-Fuissé
• Mâcon-Villages

then you have been looking at French Chardonnay. 🙂 As a matter of fact, Chardonnay is believed to have originated in the Burgundy region of France which is where those three areas are located. White Burgundies are considered to be the “original chardonnay”.

I have probably been the hardest on Chardonnay more than any other wine only because I’ve tasted several dozen Chardonnays throughout the years and I’ve not liked about 90% of them. It took a little research, some wine geekery and interrogating a few wine pourers to figure out WHY and what the other 10% had in common. Whenever I try to explain to someone about how I can’t drink most American Chardonnay, but I appreciate a cold glass of Chablis or Pouilly-Fuissé, Terri makes fun of me and accuses me of only liking to say the word “Pouilly-Fuissé”. LOL Pouilly-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé Pouilly-Fuissé. 🙂

So what’s the diff? As it turns out, I don’t like buttery, perfumey or oaked Chardonnay and prefer to drink Chard that is crispy with more fruit and minerality.  French Chardonnay is rarely created with excessive oak aging which is why I like Pouilly-Fuissé as opposed to a Napa Chardonnay (yea so I said “Pouilly-Fuissé” again. tee hee).

This simple discovery, especially in regards to French vs. American Chardonnay, is the sole purpose of this post. I want to share with you what I have learned in the event you want to play with Chardonnay OR much like myself, you’ve found you’ve had Chardonnay that you loved AND hated and wondered why there was a drastic difference in taste. Now that I know what I like, it makes ordering Chardonnay so much easier.

The skinny:
While wines can vary in flavor depending on whether or not they’re grown in warm or cold climates and what type of soil it grows in, there are two main styles of Chardonnay:

1) Buttery, rich,toasty and/or creamy
2) Crispy, lighter and acidic with some minerality

Which one is better? Neither! It’s just a matter of personal preference.

Deciding between the two styles is your most important decision when ordering a glass or purchasing a bottle. Once you’ve established your personal style, ordering and purchasing becomes a lot easier. 

These two very dramatically different styles are attributed to two different types of vinification (wine processing). 

Oak aging with larger amounts of Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) =
rich, intense flavor with buttery creaminess. Sometimes even hints of vanilla.

Neutral oak aging/Steel Tank or Cement Aging with minimal Malolactic Fermentation MLF =
crispy, green apple and lemon/pear like wine with mineral notes.

So how does one determine what a bottle tastes like just by reading the label?
Like this:

1) The majority of American Chardonnay (and Australia) goes through oak aging and more MLF. The creamy, buttery style of Chardonnay originated in the U.S. so know right off the top that if it’s an American Chardonnay – this is what you’re purchasing a lot of the time.

While the levels of MLF and the length of time a wine has been aged in oak can vary, American Chardonnay will almost always have a hint of these because it is what the American public demands most of the time. It is what U.S. Chardonnay is known for.

This is considered a “New World” style of making Chardonnay wine.

* If you’re looking for a more tropical flavored Chardonnay, try an Australian bottle.

2) If it is French or from any other European nation such as Italy or Spain, it is going to have been made with un-oaked methods such as steel or cement tanks OR using a more neutral oak barrel that doesn’t impart much flavor into the wine. That means little to zero vanilla and toastiness.

They also only use MLF just enough to soften the acids in the wine to convert the sugars and that’s the extent of it. So there’s not a whole lot of butter  going on either. (The buttery flavor in Chardonnay comes from the extra MLF and not the oak.)

This is referred to as an “Old World” style of making Chardonnay wine.

Even though certain wineries in Europe DO oak age their Chardonnay for a bit of toastiness, it’s not going to be near the extent of an American or Australian version. It will be more subtle in order to stay true to the refreshing, crispy nature of Chardonnay.

steel

Although Americans go bonkers over the intensely flavored, buttery style of Chardonnay, the taste of steel-tank aged Chardonnay has been gaining momentum over the past 20 years. More and more American wineries are creating an un-oaked Chardonnay as well as wineries in Australia. While these are still the minority in the U.S., they can be found if you look for them in your local wine shop.

Looking for more clues on the front and back label:
If the bottle doesn’t clearly say “steel tank” or “cement” aged on the back, then look for these other keywords:

• Inox
• No oak
• ‘Sans chêne’ (France)
• ‘Acero’ (Spain)

So as it turns out, this is why I have not liked the majority of Chardonnay I have tried in previous years. I have been burning through bottles of strong, buttery, oaky American Chard for years never understanding why I couldn’t love it. Who knew?! Apparently when it comes to whites I am steel tank kinda’ girl – hence my obsession with dry Riesling. 😉 

I have created another one of my little cheat sheets for you to download as a PDF if you want to bring it with you to your next Chardonnay shopping excursion. Just click the image below and print that baby out!

Cheers!

wine

Fun Fact: Steel tanked white wines are generally less expensive than oak aged wines because of the ridiculous cost of oak barrles (up to $1000+ per barrel which have to be replaced every 3-5 years or so). Wineries save a ton of money on using steel tanks instead. So not only do you get a cheaper bottle of wine but you also get the purest expression of the grape. 🙂 

 

 

Chardonnay3

 

Tasty Vino
Welcome to TastyVino.com! I'm your hostess for all things wine and everything that pairs with it! Share your appetite with me here as I drink tons of wine, eat food, post photos and vacation around the world! Cheers!

You May Also Like

8 Comments

  • Sammy Soriano
    October 31, 2014 3:16 am

    Great article, very clear description. We will shortly present in the European market first Chardonnay oaked with OAK MASTER corks.

  • Samuel Long
    November 12, 2014 4:24 am

    I would contend that the reputation of French chardonnay is derived more from Meursault and Puligny Montrachet, which are oaky and buttery. .

  • LINDA ASHTON
    June 6, 2016 3:57 pm

    This has been my problem settling for other dry white wines that I have not been over enthusiastic with because I didn’t like the chardonnays I’d been drinking. Despite somebody advising the difference between oaked and unoaked, it’s never been clear to me from the description on the bottles. Many thanks for your article.

  • Gregg91
    November 3, 2016 7:31 am

    I see your site is similar to my blog. Do you allow
    guest posting? I can write interesting and unique posts for you.
    Let me know if you are interested.

    • Tasty Vino
      November 3, 2016 6:37 pm

      Hello! Thank you for asking! At this time, we only allow guest contributions for the recipe section entitled “Foodie Friends.” But otherwise, not for the rest of the blog unless you happen to be a certified Advanced Sommelier, Master Sommelier or a wine maker. Have a great day!

  • PK Chua
    December 13, 2016 5:23 am

    Thanks for this article. In your opinion how would you differentiate a chad from Pouilly Fussie and Chablis?

    • Tasty Vino
      January 12, 2017 1:10 am

      That’s a great question. I’ve never really thought about it before but I would say that Chablis is probably the truest, purest expression of the Chardy grape whereas Pouilly Fuisse has slightly more similarities to oaked Chardonnay. Even though they are both from the same region, I think the weather difference (because they are still 3 hours apart from one another) actually makes a difference, and most importantly, Puilley Fuisse *usually* has SOME oak influence whereas Chablis is full blown, steel tanked aged so it maintains that hardcore minerality and stoney taste to it. Thanks for asking such a great question! Now I’m craving Chablis! LOL

  • Clement Butt
    January 7, 2017 8:41 pm

    Love your website! Great post! My palate completely agrees with yours. Less oak or no oak, more balance, it’s old world all the way. Love my burgundies! @zolawines #zolaburgundy

Leave a Reply