While Chardonnay is an incredibly popular white wine, its exact flavor and body texture vary wildly based on many factors, the most prominent of which is the type of barrel they are aged in.
Chardonnay aged in oak barrels has a smoother, almost buttery texture and sweet taste while wine aged in non-oak barrels is lighter and crisper with a fruitier flavor.
This is due to the natural chemicals that exist in oak wood which soak into aging wine and change the taste and body of wines, including Chardonnay. This article will discuss what Chardonnay is and the difference between oaked Chardonnay and unoaked Chardonnay.
How is Chardonnay Made?
Chardonnay wine comes from the Chardonnay grape, which originates from the famous wine country of Burgundy, France. Chardonnay grapes are famous for their adaptability and durability in the face of extreme climate conditions and wildly different soil types, requiring little maintenance or care to flourish in most grape-growing regions.
Chardonnay grapes are also known for growing quickly and creating high-yield crops, so long as they are not grown too close together. This combination of being easy to cultivate and rewarding to grow is why Chardonnay is so popular both with wine lovers and vintners, who have dubbed Chardonnay the “winemaker’s grape”.
Depending on a number of factors including when they are harvested and if it is fermented twice, Chardonnay can range from dry to sweet and light to full bodied. This makes Chardonnay a naturally diverse wine even without the use of oak barrels which can change the wine’s natural flavors and textures.
Aside from this, however, once harvested Chardonnay grapes were generally processed in the same way as other wines. They are crushed into juice, fermented to create alcohol, aged to balance their flavors, and bottled for consumer enjoyment.
How Does Oaking Wine Work?
To understand the differences between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay it is important to understand why oak wood effects the qualities of wine.
Oak wood alters the taste and texture of wine by adding a natural chemical known as tannin to the drink while allowing it to oxygenate. Starting with tannins, these natural polymers create a sense of heaviness and smoothness in wine, as well as having a drying effect in the mouth. This creates a more noticeable body in oaked wine as compared to unoaked vintages.
Oxygenation is the process of allowing oxygen to pass into and out of an otherwise confined space. The porous surface of oak wood allows evaporated liquids and trapped oxygen to escape the barrel, while ironically trapping and concentrating the natural chemicals that create the flavor and aroma of wine.
Exposure to oak wood also impacts the flavor of wine by adding sweeter, earthier flavors such as vanilla, caramel, and coconut. Oak wood is also known to add bolder notes of smoke and spice, however, so oaked wine should not be considered mellower than other vintages by default.
There are many ways to expose aging wine to oak wood, the most common being to age the wine in barrels made of oak wood. This gives the benefits of tannins, added flavors, and oxygenation, although some vintners will just add oak woodchips or planks to wine. Free floating oak wood changes the body and flavor of wine, but does not cause oxygenation.
The type of oak wood used also has an effect on the resulting quality of the oaked wine, with younger, fresher oak wood being more chemical rich and porous than old oak. American oak species are also more potent than European species, meaning that American oaked wine has more oak qualities than European oaked wine.
What do both Chardonnays Taste Like?
Chardonnay aged without oak barrels, chips, or staves has perhaps the most unique combination of qualities among white wines. Chardonnay retains the dryness of traditional white wine with a refreshingly fruity aroma and flavor. At the same time this is tinged with an acidic, astringent taste that helps bring out the wines other qualities.
Where Chardonnay really stands out from other white wines, however, is in its naturally rich and full bodied texture. Chardonnay lacks the crisp, bubbly lightness of other white wines, instead leaving a remarkably smooth sensation in the mouth.
On the whole unoaked Chardonnay balances the dry, fruity of more traditional white wines with a richer, smoother body.
In contrast to unoaked Chardonnay, the tannins and other flavor altering chemicals released from oak wood during aging create an overall sweet flavor in the wine. This is because the oak adds notes of vanilla, caramel, and other sweet dessert foods to the wine, along with a slight hint of smoke for a bit of spice.
Oaked Chardonnay does retain some of the fullness and smoothness that Chardonnay is known for, but oak exposure drastically increases the potency of this texture. Oaked Chardonnay is described as almost buttery or creamy, having more weight but also an incredibly smooth texture similar to dairy.
These qualities give oaked Chardonnay an almost dessert like quality where they are noticeably sweeter, creamier, and richer than other wines.
What does each Chardonnay Pair With?
While both oaked and unoaked Chardonnay are still the same drink at their core, the wildly different flavor palates of both wines mean they pair with different foods.
For example, unoaked Chardonnay is an incredibly versatile food that pairs well with rich flavors, especially meats. If you do plan on drinking unoaked Chardonnay aim for strong seafood such as oysters or shellfish, and for grilled meats like chicken. Chardonnay also pairs well with pasta that comes in a rich sauce, red or white.
As for cheese selections unoaked Chardonnay goes best with more wild, natural flavors. Look for cheeses made from roaming and grazing cattle, instead of more confined herds. Alpine cheeses like emmental and challerhocker work quite well in this regard, but so do most strong, natural cheeses.
In regard to food pairings, oaked Chardonnay is perhaps as far from its unoaked cousin as possible. The sweet, creamy, and altogether mellow flavors of oaked Chardonnay are extremely pleasant on the palate but are easily overpowered by strong foods. Care must be taken when selecting food pairings for oaked Chardonnay.
Look for less flavorful meals like mollusks or scallops, prepared as plainly and simply as possible. If you feel the need to pair cheese with you Chardonnay aim for mild cheeses Cream Havarti or Bel Pease. What option that will always pair wonderfully with oaked Chardonnay, however, is a rich and decadent dessert, the sweeter the better.
Due to their natural differences in flavor and texture, oaked and unoaked Chardonnay pair well with different foods. Unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with bold, rich flavors such as during a meal, while the sweetness of oaked Chardonnay better compliments mild snacks and desserts.
Perhaps one of the most prominent and potent ways to change the flavor and texture of a wine is through oak-aging it, and Chardonnay is no exception.
Unoaked Chardonnay is a dry white wine brimming with tropical, fruity flavors like pineapple or pear, but with a remarkably rich and full bodied texture. Oaked Chardonnay, on the other hand, is much sweeter with heavy notes of vanilla and caramel, topped off with mild hints of smoky spice and a body so rich and full it’s often compared to butter or cream.