Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Chardonnay is one of the popular white grapes produced around the world. In France, it’s called white Burgundy and Chablis. Chardonnay is matured in either oak barrels (oaked Chardonnay) or in stainless steel tanks (unoaked Chardonnay). This process makes a real difference in the color and flavor of the final product.
1. Cool Climate vs Warm Climate
The climate is a big determining factor in how Chardonnay is produced in the winery. This is because Chardonnay in warm climates develops fruit that becomes riper on the vine imparting strong fruit-forward flavors. Because of this most winemakers will mature Chardonnay in oak barrels to round out those flavors and create a better balance to the wine.
On the flip side, Chardonnay grapes produced in cool climates don’t stay on the vine as long which means the fruit doesn’t become as ripe as it’s warm climate neighbors. Winemakers opt to mature cool climate Chardonnay in stainless steel tanks which produces a crisp, light white wine with a pale straw color.
2. Effect of Oak on Chardonnay
That warm climate, fully ripe Chardonnay is aged in oak barrels because it rounds out the fruit-forward flavors and gives balance to the wine.
The oak gives the wine a deep golden color which is much darker in color than an unoaked Chardonnay. It makes the wine feel full-bodied and heavy on the palate. While unoaked Chardonnay is much lighter and zippier.
Oak aging imparts vanilla, toast, and butter flavors to the wine. You’ve likely heard of buttery Chardonnay. When you hear this, you’ll know the Chardonnay was aged in oak barrels.
3. Top Regions for Oaked Chardonnay
To find some fantastic Chardonnay that has been aged in oak, look for these warm climate regions.
France: Burgundy (labeled: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet) California: Napa Valley (Carneros), Paso Robles, Lake County Australia: Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills
4. Oaked Chardonnay Food Pairings
When pairing Chardonnay with food, it matters if it’s oaked or unoaked. An oaked Chardonnay pairs very well with cream-based sauces, earthy flavors, and with lightly seasoned chicken and fish. While unoaked Chardonnay will not pair well with the cream-based sauces and earthy flavors.
Oaked Chardonnay Wrap Up
Chardonnay can act like two very different types of wine depending on whether it was aged in oak or stainless steel tanks. Winemakers decide which method to use depending on what type of wine they are going for and climate plays a big part in that decision.
To identify an Oaked Chardonnay, the description will likely state that the wine has spent time in oak. If that isn’t the case, then look for clues in the tasting notes like descriptions of vanilla, toast, and butter. Santé!
Learn about Chardonnay: Learn the 3 styles of Chardonnay, the top regions for each, Tasting Recommendations, and typical tasting notes.
Chardonnay Taste Profile: Learn the typical flavors and how to identify Chardonnay without even seeing the bottle.