The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner; Wine education for us all – Chardonnay; November 10th, 2012
Wooded vs. Unwooded
The world’s most famous white grape, Chardonnay is crafted in two major styles, with many shades of grey in between. The first includes Chardonnay where wood, usually oak, is used at some point during the winemaking process. The other is where no oak is used at all.
For winegrowers, the decision to use oak, typically French, is a very personal one, dictated principally by precedent, growing conditions, and winemaking inclinations. In Burgundy, the contrasts between Chardonnay containing oak and ones that do not could not be more transparent. On the one hand, you have the famous white Burgundies of the Côte de Beaune, where whites from the best vineyards such as Le Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne fetch some of the highest prices in the world. In virtually all cases, such wines are both fermented and matured in French oak barrels. On the other, you have the most prized vineyards of Chablis, where no oak is usually the norm, although some producers are now using small amounts for their best wines. Here, most wines are fermented and matured in stainless steel casks or ‘neutral’ oak barrels.
And therein lays the most fundamental difference between wooded and unwooded Chardonnay: the use of oak for fermentation and/or maturation. While generalizations are hard to establish, most Chardonnays containing oak are usually more concentrated and complex than their counterparts (the main exception being Chablis). At their finest, such wines usually contain a vast array of entrancing aromas, including subtle butterscotch/caramel, pears, green apples, apricots, quince, orange zest, hazelnuts, white flowers, lemon, and mineral nuances.
For winegrowers, the key thing is to ensure that the oak component in Chardonnay does not overwhelm the other components in the wine. This has been a cause for considerable concern among wine lovers and evaluators for well over a decade now—that too much emphasis is being placed on the use of oak in the winemaking process, resulting in Chardonnay tasting too buttery and one-dimensional, not to mention overtly oaky and (oftentimes) excessively tropical.
This is why many winegrowers have over the past several years decided to use less oak and concentrate on developing better fruit aromas instead. Some have even opted to use no oak in Chardonnay at all. While often much more simplistic than wines having been fermented and/or matured in oak barrels, such wines are nonetheless capable of delighting an eager audience in search of unoaked versions.
But a little oak influence can go a long way in this most malleable of grapes. As such, many producers have decided to adopt a ‘partial oak’ stance in their wines, fermenting their Chardonnay in stainless steel casks and then maturing it in oak barrels for only short periods of time. While such wines will often contain many of the same flavour characteristics as fuller-oaked bottlings, the undesirable butteriness, oakiness, and excessive tropical flavours are kept healthily in check. The best advice: taste every single Chardonnay in the world before deciding on a favourite. Alternatively, stick only with my recommendations and those of my fellow publishers…