Chardonnay wines the world over are often linked to ageing on oak, which of course many of them have gone through. However, let us not forget that there also are a lot of unoaked, top class Chardonnays. Some winemakers now use stainless steel vessels during fermentation to bring out the true nature of the grapes. The result of this stainless steel fermentation process is called an unwooded or unoaked wine. The very famous Chablis from Burgundy is a prime example of this type of Chardonnay.
Anyway, the most common variety of unoaked wine marketed today is the white Chardonnay. An unoaked Chardonnay is said to be more easily matched with foods than the traditional oaked variety. I will come back to this later.
There are a number of reasons why some winemakers are now producing wine without the oak flavour. One of the main reasons is consumer demand for a lighter, fruitier white wine without all of the sometimes overwhelming flavours created by oak barrels. The grapes used for white wines are especially delicate, with very complex aromas that are often lost when the wine is stored in oak. Stainless steel containers, on the other hand, do not pass on any additional flavour elements. Therefore, unoaked wine is said to emphasize the natural flavours of the grapes, along with elements of the soil in which they grew.
A bit of history
Unoaked chardonnay was popularized by Chablis, a region about 80 miles Northwest of Dijon, in Burgundy, France. Since the wines from Chablis traditionally are made with stainless steel, concrete or neutral oak, they do not have the
butter-cream style. Chablis universilized this style and soon everyone around the world started using this method. Unoaked Chardonnay tastes only of the varietal characteristics of Chardonnay which are green apple, lemon and sometimes pineapple with a long exciting finish.
Chardonnays not made or aged in barrels are usually fermented and held in vats made from stainless steel, concrete, glass-lined concrete, etc. Obviously, there is no interaction of wood and wine (unless the winemaker drops some oak planks or chips into the vat). And, oxygen transfer is minimized if not for all intents and purposes eliminated. The result tends to be a purer (in the sense of less adulterated), often sharper and sometimes less complex expression of Chardonnay, especially since the wine is often lighter-weight to begin with.
The acid in Chablis is so high that it requires a malolactic fermentation (MLF).
How does MLF work?
Sometimes wine producers put Chardonnay through MLF, which happens in a tank after the first fermentation and where a certain kind of bacteria alters the acids in the wine from the harsher malic acid (same acids found in green apples) to oilier lactic acid (a bacteria that is more common in sour cream). What is important to note is that not all unoaked Chardonnays go through MLF whereas most oaked Chardonnays do. In this way the acid level in the wine is considerably lowered.
Differences oaked/unoaked Chardonnay
Oaking is of course the biggest difference. Keep in mind that an oak influence can come from oak barrels or barrel alternatives (things like oak chips or staves) that are exposed to a wine while it is fermenting and/or ageing.
The most obvious influence of oak is that it passes on flavours and aromas to a wine. Toast, vanilla, cedar, spice and smoky notes are common oak influences (although there are many other nuances too). Barrels are also credited with giving wine a richer texture, adding to the belief that oak adds complexity. Read more about oaked Chardonnays here.
Unoaked chardonnay performs much like other major white wine grape varieties when they, too, are made unoaked as, unlike chardonnay, they nearly always are. They are pure, clean expressions of the grape’s “fruit.”
Chardonnay unoaked may sport some or many of these wines’ same fruit characters , depending on where it is grown and given other possible manipulations of it by the winemaker, such as stirring up the spent yeast cells after fermentation or putting the unoaked Chardonnay through ancillary fermentations to soften its acidity.
In the end, you might find aromas and flavours of green or yellow apple, citrus, honeydew melon, pineapple and several other light yellow, tropical fruits, such as mango or passion fruit.
In the shop
At the wine shop, you’ll know you’re in unwooded or unoaked chardonnay territory when you see those same words on the label. Sometimes wineries will use “metallic” names (such as “Silver”) to allude to the stainless steel fermenting vats used for unoaked chardonnay production and ageing. You just might see the name “Naked” or “Virgin” too.
Most Chardonnays from northern Italy and Burgundy’s Macon and Chablis are, by tradition, unoaked. If wood is used at all, the wine is fermented or aged in what is called “neutral cooperage,” oak barrels used in years previous and leeched of any wood character they otherwise could donate to the wine that they house.
Unoaked Chardonnay is Cheaper to Produce
If you are a winemaker producing unoaked Chardonnay you can take out the cost of paying for and shipping new oak barrels all over the world, year in and year out. Thus, a lot of unoaked wines tend to enter into the marketplace at a much more affordable price point (and more sustainable).
Pairing unoaked Chardonnay with food requires an acquaintance with its oaked sibling. “Normal” wooded chardonnays, especially those with a slight residual sugar (an exceedingly common element in many New World Chardonnays), pair well with dishes having some sweetness themselves, a chicken breast with a tropical fruit salad, for instance, or rich, buttered lobster or crab. Lean, fresh, high acid unoaked Chardonnay won’t be delicious with the same kinds of foods.
Unoaked Chardonnays pair better with food partners that are high in salt, low in sweetness and with moderate fat or oil. Plainly prepared fish and shellfish are obvious candidates.
There are oaked Chardonnays and there are unoaked Chardonnays, each type having its variety of distinctive tastes. Whether oaked or unoaked, a large quantity of top class wines is produced and available worldwide.
Unoaked Chardonnays age without adding any “wood” flavours to the original product and therefore tend to have the pure, clean, fresh result of the fruit they come from.
I have meanwhile reviewed and rated lots of Chardonnays from all over the world. To access a list of reviews, just click the three images on the right hand side (for mobile users just under this text) under the heading World best Chardonnays for delivery to and chose your area.
Feel free to share your experiences with unoaked (or oaked) Chardonnay or leave a comment and I will get back to you within 24 hours.