Understanding Oaked & Unoaked Chardonnay

Drink enough bottles or glasses of different chardonnay and your taste buds may start to notice flavours of butter, cream, roasted nuts or vanilla.

Now, depending upon how knowledgeable you are about the winemaking process, you might be forgiven for assuming that the presence of these flavours in the wine must mean that these ingredients were used at some point during the winemaking process.

Forgiven you might be but wrong you are as these flavours are almost always entirely the result of a special process that winemakers employ during the production process.

To learn more about how to spot a bottle that will or won’t have undergone this process, and to discover some of our top picks for both styles, read on and find out more.

What is the Difference Between Oaked & Unoaked Chardonnay?

This is one of the foremost questions asked of anyone working within the winemaking industry and one that is actually very easy to answer.

Put simply, the difference between these two styles is that an unoaked chardonnay has not spent any amount of time ageing or fermenting within an oak barrel or cask during the winemaking process whilst an oaked chardonnay, as you might expect, has.

Chardonnay Grapes
Chardonnay Grapes

What does this mean for you? Well, depending upon the style of wine you’re looking for, you will want a bottle of chardonnay that has seen time in oak, producing something noticeably more rich, with undertones of the flavours mentioned previously, or you will want one that has been aged and fermented in stainless steel, crafting a distinctly more fresh style of wine, with notes of apple, citrus, or other crisp fruit flavours.

What Does Ageing the Wine in Oak do to the Wine?

It is important to note that simply placing the wine in oak barrels or casks during the fermentation or ageing period is not what actually causes the wine to develop the rich flavourful undertones discussed above.

The technical reason that ensures the wine develops these flavours is a process called malolactic fermentation, which is a chemical reaction that converts the crisp malic acid found in wines into softer lactic acid, the same as is found in milk.

Row of Barrels Ageing Wine
Wine Ageing in Oak Barrels

Depending upon how long the winemaker chooses to keep their wine in oak and what percentage of the wine in the bottle has undergone malolactic fermentation, the resulting chardonnay will taste drastically different, guaranteeing that you will find a bottle to suit your preferences.

To learn more about how malolactic fermentation works check out this site, where the process is described in finer detail.

How do you Spot an Oaked or Unoaked Chardonnay?

Unfortunately, there is not one perfect solution to discerning whether or not a bottle of chardonnay you’re considering to buy is going to possess the buttery flavours you might be searching for.

That being said, there are some excellent pointers that you can follow when browsing in a bottle shop or looking at a wine list that can greatly improve your chances of finding the right bottle, being:

  • Look for warmer climate wines - winemakers from regions with warmer climates, think Napa Valley in the United States or the Coonawarra region in South Australia, tend to produce examples of chardonnay with more buttery characteristics
  • Read the label - though seemingly obvious, it is important to read the label and see whether it tells you if the wine has seen some time in oak as this will almost always indicate that the wine will be more buttery
  • Look at the colour - this is a slightly more risky method of telling whether a wine is buttery or not but if the colour of the wine appears to be more golden and deep, as opposed to light and lemony, then it will likely be more buttery
  • Find tasting notes - another seemingly obvious idea, researching the bottle online is a great way to discover how it will taste. Look for mentions of the flavours you want in sommeliers notes and whether they mention oak in the description.

See below for some of our top picks for oaked and unoaked chardonnay or go to our chardonnay complete guide here to learn more about this style of wine.

Recommended Bottles of Oaked Chardonnay

Here are our recommended bottles of oaked and buttery chardonnay. Please note that the prices displayed are guides and variances can occur.

Recommended Bottles of Oaked Chardonnay

Recommended Bottles of Unoaked Chardonnay

Here are our recommended bottles of unoaked and fresh chardonnay. Please note that the prices displayed are guides and variances can occur.

Recommended Bottles of Unoaked Chardonnay