No oaked Chardonnay Please…

Altering the flavours of the wine

It’s very typical for people to have an aversion to the words ‘oaked’ or ‘oaky’ when deciding on a wine, this might be due to a bad, cheap bottle with ‘oaked’ written on the label that has turned them off the style for good. Perhaps it could be a preference for purity and freshness in their wines which is most often achieved through the use of fermentation vessels other than oak.

Speaking of those other fermentation vessels (the cask, tank or pot which the wine is fermented in), here is a small overview of them all:

  • Oak – Porous, insulating material, impart tannin and flavour compounds, including vanillin (responsible for a vanilla not in the wine), expensive, flexible for smaller wineries
  • Clay Pots – Porous, the oldest vessel for ageing, impart no flavour, used mostly for natural and orange wine production
  • Concrete – Porous, slowly heats up and cools down for the wine to have a slow fermentation, imparts no flavour, although egg shape allows for better circulation of lees
  • Stainless Steel – Neutral (imparting no flavour), can be temperature controlled, expensive

A Note on Oxidation

Porous materials such as oak will allow slight oxidation to take place, however, the desired result is not usually stewed fruit and bruised apple notes that you might associate with an oxidised wine (this is considered a fault). Instead, the aim of this micro-oxidation is to slowly soften harsh tannins and to achieve the desired colour…Picture the beautiful golden hue in white Burgundy wine.

If a winemaker wanted to ferment a wine in a porous vessel without any oxidation then they can be lined. For example, concrete vessels are often lined with glass tiles or epoxy resin and in Alsace, France, large, old oak casks naturally form tartrate crystals inside to create a neutral cask.

Back to that Oaky Chardonnay…

Oak can come in many forms which will all effect the wine in a different way depending on the combination used. These include:

  • The origin of the oak – American, French, Slavonian, Georgian? They all impart different notes, think coconut from American oak and vanilla and butterscotch from the French style…mmm…
  • The size – the larger the barrel, the less contact the wood and oxygen share with the wine, impacting it less
  • The age – has the barrel been used more than 3 times for fermentation or is it brand new? New barrels will influence the wine the most, after the 3rd time you’ll get the benefit of oxidation but not much from the flavour compounds…
  • The length the wine has spent in the vessel – 12 months or maybe 18…? The longer you leave it in barrel the more intense the oak influence
  • The toast of the oak barrel – has it been lightly toasted to impart for delicate notes into the wine or heavily toasted to give a really deep, smoky note?

Usually when I hear about a dislike for these ‘oaked’ wines, Chardonnay is often the culprit…

This is because Chardonnay is a relatively neutral grape and takes well to oak vessels. Those buttery, vanilla spice and toasted hazelnut notes overshadow the rather shy fruit notes in this particular grape variety, making it the perfect canvas for oak to step in and show off it’s magic.

Aromatic varieties such as Reisling and Sauvingnon Blanc use oak less frequently since all of the flavour the wine needs is packed into each little berry and needs to be maintained as best as possible to create a powerful wine. If you’re a Marlborough, Sauvingon Blanc drinker then you’ll know what I mean…Still, It’s not to say that winemakers can’t experiment with oak vessels for these grape varieties. One of the more famous Marlborough, Sauvingon Blanc’s, Te KoKo is fermented in French oak barrels to add another layer of complexity with vanilla and caramel to those tropical, herbaceous notes.

If you’ve been put off in the past by a bad oaked Chardonnay or any other oaked wine, then give them a second chance…look to Burgundy, California and Chile for some great examples and note that you might need to spend more than £20 if you want to be totally converted. Oak doesn’t come cheap remember, and that reflects on the price of the wine too!

One thought

  1. I’m with you on this, especially as I sit here with a pre lunch glass of Santenay, Premier Cru Beaurepaire 2013, just lightly oaked. I have experienced a tasting session once where a group of ladies on a cruise said they discliked Chardonnay, 20min later the sommelier gave them a blind Chardonnay, they loved it without knowing what it was …….. a basic Cote de Beaune Chardonnay ….. zero oak. I just love Chablis and roughly 30% of my collection is from there. I’m currently writing a series of blog posts about The English Wine Revolution conflated with The Burgundy Revolution from the 80s and 90s where everyone was shovelling oak chips into wines! Now, we have some brilliant Chardonnays in England which I am exploring. Hope you will enjoy and comment on my wine posts as Vinthropology does.


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