There’s no labeling system for whether chardonnay is oaked or unoaked. This is unfortunate, since people often favor one over the other. They often don’t know until they drink it whether they bought unoaked white wine or not. How can you figure your way through this when you’re looking for a moderate unoaked chardonnay?
Oaked vs. Unoaked White Wine
For those who aren’t as familiar with the difference, oaked chardonnay has spent some time aging in oak barrels. This gives them some flavors such as vanilla, butter, or even caramel. That sounds delicious, but it’s not ideal for every type of white wine – especially chardonnay.
Some chardonnays favor tropical fruit elements. You typically don’t find many vanilla-pineapple dishes because the two flavors just don’t go together. Similarly, you might not want a caramel flavor with many of the foods you pair chardonnay with. Who wants to taste caramel and salmon together?
This doesn’t mean oaked chardonnays are bad, it just means they’re better for different things. Moderate unoaked chardonnay and unoaked white wine in general can be more versatile in pairing with meals.
Which Am I Buying?
Many unoaked chardonnays will specify this. They’ll say they’re “unoaked” or “oak free”. They might say they’re “unwooded”. Rather than noting that they weren’t aged in oak barrels, they might specify what they were aged in “stainless” and “inox”: both refer to being aged in stainless steel containers. You may even see the wine called “pure” or “virgin”.
Wines from different regions have different oaking tendencies. This is because different regions bring out different taste profiles. Many Chilean and French chardonnays will be unoaked, while many from Australia and California will be oaked. These are just tendencies, however, and won’t apply to all wines from these regions.
Parsing Vague Descriptions
Look at the way the wine is described. “Refreshing” and descriptions of tropical flavors will often point to moderate unoaked chardonnay. Descriptions of “vanilla”, “caramel”, or “toast” will often point to oaked chardonnay.
It’s frustrating that you have to go to this extent just to figure out what you’re buying. It’s past time that white wine producers became more specific and adopted a regular system for identifying this quality. When you find a winemaker that communicates clearly that their chardonnay is unoaked (one like Natura), and you like the wine, that’s a brand to stick with.