Wine Talk

Snooth User: jamessulis

Unoaked vs Oaked Chardonnay

Posted by jamessulis, Jul 17, 2015.

In defense of Oaked and Buttery Chardonnays I must say that "I like it".  I know the trend is for the unoaked stainless steel ferment to be on the rise and people are saying that they prefer it over the "Other kind". That may be the trend but the Oaked and Buttery varieties are still my favorites although the unoaked brands are ok also.

So in finality, I like both the new and the old style Chardonnays. I am not one to disown the old wonderfully oaked/ buttery aftertaste.. I can definitely enjoy both to a large degree but will not throw away some of my old be they may, buttery habits.

The formal judged Chardonnays of years ago were prized for their Oaky Buttery flavors.

I am interested to see the follow up posts on this aspect of Chardonnays.


The Great Pacific Northwest


Reply by Exquisitelyoaked, Jul 17, 2015.

I must say that I find "trends" in wine as to what a person "should" enjoy quite ridiculous (Unless we are speaking on white zinfandel, but I suppose making such a statement, would somewhat render me  a hypocrite :)

I recently stumbled upon Meiomi Chardonnay paired with a very nice salad (avocados, shrimp, olives) that tasted like heaven! I had just begun to love the more "popular" unoaked Chards, and was pleasantly surprised! My palette was exceptionally pleased and I will be seeking out more of these oaked wines in the near future!

Horray to Oak! No apologies necessary. 

I am new here so my apologies ahead of time if links are not allowed:

Reply by outthere, Jul 17, 2015.

I think the big issue with oaked Chardonnay is that people drink them too young and don't give the oak time to integrate. Great Chablis of France are oaked and if they can overcome the premox issue are very tasty with some bottle age on them. IMHO, over-oaked white wines overpower the grape and don't show the wines true potential.

Reply by GregT, Jul 18, 2015.

What happened with Chardonnay is a longer story but Kendall Jackson popularized a style with a lot of oak and some residual sugar. That became the model for many and it's still popular today.

Chablis existed long before and as OT points out, it sees some oak.

The issue isn't "oaked" vs "non-oaked" because there's more to it than just that. The buttery taste doesn't necessarily always come from oak.

The fact is that Chardonnay by itself is a relatively insipid grape and the way to make it interesting is to manipulate it in some way. You stir the lees, you prevent malolactic fermentation, you put it in new, no old, oak containers or maybe only steel containers, you pick early or late, etc. You make all kinds of choices that will determine the character of the final wine.

There are all kinds of Chardonnay and IMO, the more choices, the better. All of them have their place, even late harvest.

Well, except perhaps that Meiomi , , ,

Reply by dmcker, Jul 18, 2015.

"The fact is that Chardonnay by itself is a relatively insipid grape..."

Perhaps 'malleable' is a better word, with an underlying structure that can lend itself to greatness when handled suitably? If we get into comparisons between grapes that might or might not be 'insipid' vs. 'distinctive', the hammer of judgment regarding drinkable/enjoyable/good won't necessarily fall on the 'distinctive' side.

Hamhandling of the wrong, harsh American oak plus retaining way more sugar than should be in any chardonnay other than a doux sparkler really can lead to gagworthy messes. The fight over oaked vs. unoaked pretty much popularized a couple decades ago in Chablis between a newguard trying to make a name for themselves, and more traditionalist winemakers who usually but not always had a deft touch with the Limousin. That brouhaha got picked up over in the States and taken out of context and then taken up by the usual bloggers and half-baked sommeliers and trend-watching hangers-on who didn't know much other than how to create enough mysterious fog to mask things and give the impression that something real might exist behind the trend (although one good result of it was the resulting, appropriate demonization of KJ and its ilk!). It lead, as usual, to all sorts of overblown excesses whereby some of the worst, most 'insipid' chardonnay I've had has been unoaked mediocrities over the past decade or two from California and fellow travelers (i's not like the solution to the good-chard puzzle is just wood, anyway). One other aspect of that popular trend was 'ABC' which I've always thought was a load of utter bull. All the while, of course, the Cote d'Or south in Burgundy ignored it all and continued to make the usual lipsmackingly excellent, ooh-and-ah-worthy balanced, wooded chards. Only problem there being the ridiculous upswing in prices over the past decade, which can't properly be blamed on the Chinese.

Now things come circle and people start to wonder whether they might have gone overboard in the unwooded direction. Duh.

Time to lift a glass of chard that has just the right amount of oak...

Reply by jamessulis, Jul 18, 2015.

Hail hail, DMCKR,

"Time to lift a glass of chard that has just the right amount of oak" possibly with a grilled piece of chicken.

Reply by GregT, Jul 18, 2015.

Nice rant D!

The other thing to keep in mind is that it truly is possible to make very good Chardonnay in many parts of the world. It's a bit like Cabernet in that respect - if handled right, it can make enjoyable and even relatively complex wines in many places, including Chile, South Africa, Austria/Hungary, New York, Michigan, Spain, Argentina, and I'm going to see about Mexico in the near future.

The problem is that it can't make great or even good wine in EVERY part of those regions.

And I'm 100 pct with you on the trendies. But isn't it always the same? If a little bit more or less is good, a lot more or less must be even better?

Reply by Really Big Al, Jul 18, 2015.

This topic is helping me learn more about Chardonnay.  I used to love the more oaky or buttery California Chardonnays but after tasting several in Burgundy earlier this year I've come to better appreciate the un-oaked variety.  When it comes down to it, the Chardonnay varietal is my favorite white grape.

Reply by napagirl68, Jul 18, 2015.

Hmmm...  well, all I can say about this is that, personally, I prefer a Chard that is is mostly stainless steel, kissed with oak.  Oak is not a bad thing, but can be overdone.   I personally hate malo overload more so than oak.  Most buttery chard is actually sickening to me, especially when it happens to be high alcohol and high res sugar.  Recipe for a hangover or migraine.

Yes, the grape is malleable for sure, and many manipulate it to be appealing to the masses.  That said, I have had a few "oakey" and even "buttery" chards that I have enjoyed.  The difference?  Acidity.  The proper acidity makes a huge difference.  I can deal with some oak/butter on the initial taste, but don't let it linger in a flabby, rich horrible manner.  If it can finish nicely, I am cool with it.

Reply by GregT, Jul 19, 2015.

Yay NG! Good to hear from you!

OH, BTW, I pretty much agree with you.

Reply by vin0vin0, Jul 20, 2015.

NG, you're exactly right re: acidity making all the difference.

Just happen to be enjoying this lovely Newton Unfiltered Chard right now. There is some oak and some butter but it is very well balanced with plenty of fresh ripe apple and pear and just the right amount of acidity.

Reply by jamessulis, Jul 20, 2015.


Wasn't aware that you could get a chard that is both aged in stainless and also has oak? Do they put oak directly into the vat or does it empty from the stainless then serve time in oak casks?

This may seem like an elementary question but recently I opened my tastes to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals. I have within the last two years leaned my curiosity to new wines and to get my taste buds away from JUST the heavy Cabs.



Reply by GregT, Jul 20, 2015.

James it's not an elementary question. Originally oak barrels were used for storage. There was no such thing as stainless steel a thousand years ago. Oak was used for ships to keep water out, so why not for barrels to keep water in? To bend the oak staves into the round shape, the wood is heated over a fire. Among other things, the heat creates steam from the natural water that's always inside the wood, and it softens some of the harder components, and you can bend the wood, fit a metal ring around it, and let it cool into shape.

Although we don't realize it, wood is also slightly porous, so over time some wine would evaporate. When people opened the barrels, they saw less wine than they put in, so they called that the "Angel's Share".

Until your lifetime, people generally picked as soon as there was enough sugar in the grapes to ferment to wine. Waiting longer meant you might lose your crop to birds, animals, rain, hail, frost, etc. So most wine, red and white, was pretty acidic. For the most part, that only changed recently.

But about 200 - 300 years ago people started realizing that there was more going on with the wine itself. They started to figure out that if they kept the barrels full, replacing the Angel's Share every so often, the wine would not oxidize because there wouldn't be a large air space in the barrel. They figured out that if they poured the wine off the sediment into empty barrels, a process called racking, they could improve the wine.

As I mentioned before, Chardonnay on its own is kind of insipid, or as D says, malleable. In other words, it doesn't impose its own personality but and responds really well to some kind of manipulation. So people figured out that if they stirred up the sediment of dead yeast cells and bits of skin, etc., called lees, that were left after fermentation in the Chardonnay barrels, they could improve the texture, or mouthfeel, of the wine and give it some additional complexity in taste as well. So they stir the lees. Some people do it a lot, some not so much.

And they experimented with picking a little later, particularly after the work of Emil Peynaud in Bordeaux and later Napa, etc.

They also realized that if they used newly made barrels, they could get some flavor from the wood itself. In the old days, the barrel was solely for storage, not for flavoring.

One of the easiest flavors to synthesize is vanilla. And people love vanilla the world over.

Oak has vanillin, which smells and tastes similar and is what is sold as imitation vanilla extract. You can pick up some of that from the oak barrels, which is why a lot of wine has a vanilla note when you smell it.

Also, the amount of fire you use on the barrel matters. You can use green wood, which is only heated enough to bend but isn't really toasted, or you can use barrels that have been really charred to the point that the surface of the wood inside the barrel is pretty much charcoal, or you can have any point in between. That sometimes gives you the soft marshmallow and butterscotch flavors that people love.

When you make wine, the first thing is that the sugar ferments into alcohol. Yeast does that. And then there's a second fermentation, where the acetic acid is converted to lactic acid. Bacteria does that. Lactic acid isn't as harsh as acetic - think of a vinegar vs yogurt. The bacteria also produces two compounds - diacetyl and acetoin, that are exactly what is added to hydrogenated oils, or trans fats, to make margarine. They also add a little bit of yellow coloring. Those compounds in the wine will give you a buttery taste. You can let the ambient yeast and bacteria work, or you can inoculate the juice with some yeast and bacteria that will give you characteristics you want, e.g. more or less butter flavor.

And finally there is the place of fermentation. In the 1970s they came up with stainless steel tanks for wine. And many of those have refrigeration coils so you can keep the fermentation temperatures low. Fermenting at higher temps gives you a different result than fermenting at lower temps.

So to make the Chardonnay you like, I would pick the grapes a little later than my neighbor, just to be sure they had a bit of additional sugar. I would ferment it in wood - that tends to give it a nice round feeling in the mouth and I wouldn't ferment it utterly and completely dry - I'd leave a few g/l of residual sugar. I would stir the lees to give the wine a nice rich feeling. I would let it go through full malolactic fermentation, to develop those milky, buttery qualities, and I would then put it into new oak barrels for aging.

NG would probably hate that Chardonnay.

For her, I would pick a little earlier, I would still ferment it in wood because I like that and I want some wood influence but not something that you can really put your finger on and say "that's a lot of oak", and I would then put it in stainless steel and cool it to prevent malolactic fermentation, or put it into used oak barrels that are basically neutral and won't add any oak flavorings.

So there are all kinds of things that you can do to produce different effects.

And some people will make the wine in stainless steel all the way, and they will dump in wood chips like using a tea bag. Others will have the wine in square tanks and they can put in planks of oak because they don't think the chips really work as well. Or they might just dump in some sawdust and then strain it out. All those wines are likely to be the $6.00 wines at the supermarket made by the millions of cases. If you're tasting a cheap wine and you can pick up a lot of oak, chances are it's been made by adding oak, rather than by using oak barrels.

Hope this helps.

Reply by napagirl68, Jul 20, 2015.

Hi Lefty,

OK, calling GREGT!!!  He would be just the guy to get into the intricate details of Chardonnay fermentation/aging.  Maybe he'll even get into sur lie aging!   But basically, some Chards start fermentation in SS, and then are finished in oak barrels.  Several factors figure in to how much "oakiness" will impart to the wine- time, type of oak (French, American, etc, etc), age of barrels, size of barrels, and I'm sure more than that, of which I am unaware (and GregT can fill in).   A few of the Chards that I enjoy do not seem very oakey, but have actually spent all of their time in oak.   Again, it is the characteristics of the barrel, ie, smaller barrels, and more neutral oak, that keep the oak from becoming overwhelming.

The thought of using oak chips disturbs me, but perhaps that is my own personal issue.  I do know that  some wineries do use oak chips in their 100% SS Chards to impart a touch of oak.  I just don't like the idea of this, but maybe I am misguided in my thinking. 

It is the final product that matters for me.  Again, if the fruit is of high quality from a solid grower, picked just right, manipulated just right, weather was just right,  you may end up with a nicely balanced Chard that spent lots of time in oak, but didn't get "over-oaked".   KWIM? 



Reply by napagirl68, Jul 20, 2015.

You beat me to it, GregT ;-)  Was in editor as you were typing :-)


Reply by EMark, Jul 21, 2015.

Once again a tremendously interesting essay from Greg.

I have ask, though, Greg that you reiterate your explanation paragraph 11 of the "second fermentation, where the acetic acid is converted to lactic acid."   Subsequently, in paragraph 13 you use the nomenclature "malolactic fermentation."  

My understanding of malolactic fermentation is that it converts lactic acid to malic acid.  So, it seems that this is not the same as the the second fermentation that you described in paragraph 11.  I say this because I don't think (may be wrong) that acetic acid (acid component of vinegar) and lactic acid (which, if I'm not mistaken, is produced in oxygen-deprived muscles, not that that bit of trivia has any relation to this conversation) are the same thing.  Are they?  Or is malolactic fermentation a third fermentation?

For what it's worth, I am aware of at least one domestic Chardonnay (I'm sure there are others.) which is not allowed to proceed to ML fermentation, and I have consistenly liked that one.

Also, of course, for taking the time to compose a very interesting essay.

Reply by GregT, Jul 21, 2015.

Emark - you are quite correct.


I was thinking of diacetyl and acetoin and just typed acetic acid. And didn't proof read.

Malolactic fermentation is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid.

You want to prevent too much accumulation of acetic acid - that's going to give you vinegar. 

It's the citric acid that converts to those three things - diacetyl, acetoin, and acetic acid.

There are lots of wines that are made without going through malolactic fermentation. The stainless steel tanks can keep the wine cool and prevent it from happening. Those wines tend to be bright and crisp and the irony is that a lot of the "natural" wines that supposedly reflect their terroir so well because they're not oaky are only available today because the fermented juice was prevented from going through ML fermentation.

Good catch though, and sorry for the mix up.

Reply by jamessulis, Jul 25, 2015.

Wow, between EMARK & GREGT and NAPAGIRL68 there could be a book writing in the future?  And I might add, a best seller !

I am forever fascinated by what I learn here at SNOOTH.

I have experienced un-oaked Chards strictly SS and all the other types of ageing techniques to find my preferences. I like both oaked and not oaked, buttery and crisp, minerally and semi sweet. Rare with burnt edges to well done with or without ketchup.

One thing with wine, the target keeps moving because there are so many nuances/variables both with the wines and the ever changing of our palates. With that being said lies the excitement when opening a bottle of wine. After many bottles of many varieties, I have come to the conclusion that my taste choices have become as wide as the Mississippi

Thanks for all of your valuable comments on this post/thread.

Lefty - The Great Pacific Northwest. 

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