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Unoaked Chardonnay

Can someone tell me what difference there is between a regular Chardonnay kept in an oak barrel, and one that is not? And in what kind of container is an unoaked wine being kept? Thanks!

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  1. Hard to summarize the difference in a sentence or two, as there are all kinds of factors at play: the type of oak the barrel is made from (different types give different flavours); the amount of charring or "toast" the barrels have been given (the more toast, the smokier and more caramelized the flavour imparted to the wine); the barrels' age (the flavours imparted by the barrels diminish from filling to filling as the wine leaches the wood and deposits tartrate crystals on its surface); the barrels' size (the smaller the barrel, the higher the ratio of wood to wine); and so on. Also, barrels are not airtight -- they allow a slow transfer of oxygen through the planks (though, again, the degree is determined by the skill of the cooper, the barrel maker, and the porosity of the wood) -- which slightly oxidizes the wine, among other things smoothing its sharp edges. And, of course, the wood adds its own flavours, tannins and other substances to the wine. Vanilla is a common aroma and flavour of oak, along with the scent and taste of -- duh -- wood.

    To avoid being overwhelmed by this treatment requires a wine of some substance, so barrel-aged Chardonnays tend to be richer and more flavourful to start with.

    Chardonnays not made or aged in barrels are usually fermented and held in vats made from stainless steel, concrete, glass-lined concrete, etc. Obviously, there is no interaction of wood and wine (unless the winemaker drops some oak planks or chips into the vat). And, oxygen transfer is minimized if not for all intents and purposes eliminated. The result tends to be a purer (in the sense of less adulterated), often sharper and sometimes less complex expression of Chardonnay, especially since the wine is often lighter-weight to begin with.

    2 Replies
    1. re: carswell

      Carswell, would vats made from concrete be more porous than SS or glass-lined vats? If so, to what, if any, effect on the wine, given the material?

      1. re: MaggieRSN

        The vats are not bare concrete, but are (nowadays) typically lined with a food-grade epoxy.

    2. If you're looking for an unoaked one (maybe you're not, but what the heck) I recommend Omrah from Australia.

      3 Replies
      1. re: iwantmytwodollars

        What would you say about the Hillebrand one?

          1. re: iwantmytwodollars

            We tried the oaked as well as the unoaked. I suppose it's a matter of taste, of course, but we prefered the unoaked. It tasted sweeter but the thought it was 'natural' might have been a factor. Thanks to you all for the infos.

      2. YMMV.

        Historically, and even now, Oak is used by *some* wine-makers to disguise the flavor of the wine itself, rather like putting a heavy garlic cream sauce on a poor piece of meat to disguise that this is a fairly poor, perhaps past its time steak.

        Ideally, oak is used to assist in flavoring the wine, more like a light marinade than a heavy sauce. It should not dominate, but merely accent some of the wine's qualities.

        French oak typically is a more seasoned older oak than American oak (we're talking barrels here), and will impart less of a strong odour/flavour to the wine. California has really messed with the reputation of Oak by waaaaay over-oaking a lot of cheap wine, not to mention that a certain portion of the population who don't really like "wine" like to drink over-oaked dry "light" white wines.

        Now me, I've only gotten more sensitive to Oak as I get older, and frankly I'm at the point where any wine which is dominated by the oak is not on my to drink list. Consquently, as a rule of thumb I prefer French chardonnay to New Zealand and New Zealand to Australian and Australian to Californian (though there are notable exceptions - good and bad).

        One of these exceptions would be Mayacamas chardonnay, from California. And I really kind of hate to mention these people because frankly there isn't enough Mayacamas to go around anyway, and so popularity of it hurts me personally. Anyway, they're an unoaked chardonnay and one of my top 5 chardonnays in the world.

        And no Maggie, I wouldn't call concrete "porous", not in the way it is used in vats.

        1 Reply
        1. re: fussycouple

          TY, fussy. I've never had the opportunity to see concrete vats; only visited wineries that use SS.

          Btw, when you say you've become more sensitive to oak, do you mean you've developed an allergy or other physical reaction, or instead that the aromas/flavors associated with it have become overbearing?

        2. A FEW ADDITIONS to the overall excellent comments you've already received.

          Think of the winemaking as cooking, and the use of oak as part of a chef's pantry.

          Say you're making soup. The specific type of soup would be the type of grape(s) the winemaker is using; in this case, Chardonnay.

          OK, so you slice and dice, chop your veggies, toss them in a stock pot, put the pot on the stove top and go away for four hours . . . what do you have? A bunch of raw, uncooked veggies sitting in cold water. You forgot to turn on the gas.

          This is analogous to keeping your wine in stainless steel. Very little happens to the wine, as stainless is inert, and the flavors of the newly fermented wine change very little.

          OK, so now you turn on the stove, and the water boils; the veggies cook, and eventually your soup is done. Oak is akin (in this analogy) to turning on the gas. The wine changes as it AGES in oak; something it doesn't do when it is STORED in stainless steel tanks. Aging in oak changes the wine.

          But this isn't what a chef does, is it? The chef will also add salt, pepper, different spices, various herbs, etc. New(er) wook will have its own inherent "bouquet garnis" of flavors it adds to the wine. Just as a trusty old stockpot is still perfect for cooking the soup, a 10-, 20-, 100-year old barrel is still perfect for aging the wine. However, an old barrel will not have its own "herbs and spices" to contribute. So winemakers use new(er) wood.

          And it doesn't have to be oak. Certainly oak dominates the wine world, but various woods are used around the world. But each oak is different, depending upon where the tree was grown; and each cooper (barrel maker) treats the wood a little differently -- so that (e.g.) a Limousin barrel from Damy will have a different character, a different effect upon the same wine than would a Limousin oak barrel made by Radoux, etc., etc.

          Most winemakers will use barrels from a variety of different coopers and/or different forests of origin to layer in additional flavors to the wine. But most wineries will ALSO keep many older barrels (known as "neutral wood") around, and use them on a regular basis. Why?

          Because if the first thing you taste is the salt, the chef screwed up the soup. You ordered vegetable soup, not salt soup, but it's the salt that dominates??? Bad cooking. If the oak dominates, bad winemaking. Oak is a "spice" in the winemaker's cabinet. The wine is, in this case, Chardonnay; it isn't "not oak wine."

          What constitutes too much oak? Ah, there's the problem -- it's up to the individual. Some people may think Chateau Cache Phloe Chardonnay is too oaky; others may think it's perfect.

          * * * * *

          By the way, some wineries will use oak chips in the wine. These are often like giant tea bags, and they are dropped into a stainless steel tank -- often, though not always by any means, Chardonnay. The oak "tea bag" steeps in the tank of wine and adds an oak flavor.

          This is NOT AGING. This is adding oak flavor. But wine AGES in oak; it doesn't in stainless. So, this is like adding salt to that mixture of diced veggies and cold water in the stock pot when you haven't turned on the gas -- you still haven't cooked the soup . . .

          * * * * *

          Hope this helps . . .


          1. Most important, ask your favorite wine shop for a recommendation for several unoaked Chardonnays. Then compare with something you are familar with. Drink what you enjoy.

            1. If you're interested in some sensory differences...Let's say you have the exact same wine from the same grapes, with the same sugar level, alcohol level, etc., and the only difference is one is oaked and one isn't.

              Viscosity: The unoaked chard may appear "leaner" or lighter in weight, the oaked chard more viscous.
              Color: The unoaked wine will be lighter in color, the oaked chard more yellowish.
              Sweetness: The unoaked chard may appear not as sweet as the oaked chard, even if the wines are of equal sweetness.
              Fruit Flavors: The fruit in the unoaked chard may appear more like tart green apples and pear, and the fruit in the oaked wine slightly more ripe, like golden delicious apples or baked apples/apple pie.
              Other Flavors that may come through in unoaked wine: minerality, fresh fruit, citrus.
              Other Flavors from oak: vanilla, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coconut, caramel, butterscotch.

              Oak requires a deft touch. More isn't better. Too much oak can easily kill a wine forever.

              You could do the same type of comparison -- all other things being equal in the wine -- for malolactic fermentation or residual sugar. But those would be other threads.

              You may also wish to read:

              9 Replies
              1. re: maria lorraine

                >> Too much oak can easily kill a wine forever.

                I am still looking for some Chardonnay with "too much" oak that would turn me off. But that's me ....

                1. re: olasek

                  Personally, I'm with Maria, BUT that's why I wrote

                  >>>What constitutes too much oak? Ah, there's the problem -- it's up to the individual. <<<

                  1. re: zin1953

                    For me, the issue is harmony. Not only in wine and in food, but in the design of a house, of a room, in a relationship, in everything. One of the key attributes of harmony is no one element sticks out, and no element dominates or eclipses another element.

                    When oak dominates the fruit rather than being supportive of the fruit, that's too much oak. When fruit elements are lost (eclipsed) by the oak, that's too much oak.When the flavor of oak and smoke and wood are the first recognizable flavors, that's too much oak.

                    [Uh oh, another cooking metaphor coming...]
                    Using too much oak is like adding too much of a particular spice to a dish.The use of cloves, for example. A little bit of clove -- a nice touch in some dishes. More than a little bit, and clove is the only thing you taste when you taste the dish. A lighter hand with the spice or oak would have produced a better product.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      But wouldn't you agree, Maria, that in some dishes, the spice is supposed to dominate...maybe even domineer? In a gingersnap or in Szechuan beef, for example. The dish is the vehicle to showcase the spice sometimes, right?

                      I take your point re the oak to be similar to the controversy surrounding Greek wines and the tendency of many of them to heavy resin. (Not talking about Retsina--after all, it is what it's supposed to be--but other wines that to non-Greeks often seem so turpentinish.) And that wasn't something that came from the grape, but from the process, the purposeful resinating of wines to approximate historic bouquet/flavor resulting from the former use of pine tar in preservation. That character became engrained in the collective preference. To me, the modern practice of resinating would be analogous to oaking the wine. To the Greek taste (speaking generally, always exceptions), when the pine/turpentine essence is pronounced the wine *is* in balance. But the industry discovered that that could be one of Greece's barriers to markets abroads, where the wine has been perceived to lack harmony (putting it gently).

                      Is it a better product with the new processes? To the rest of us, probably; but most likely it wouldn't be to the Greeks who loved their traditional wines.

                      1. re: MaggieRSN

                        >But wouldn't you agree, Maria, that in some dishes, the spice is supposed to dominate...In a gingersnap or in Szechuan beef, for example?

                        Well, no...
                        and in the case of the gingersnap, what you perceive as "ginger" is really the result of many spices and ingredients working in concert...

                        I think the argument could be made that a gingersnap is a molasses *spice* cookie with ginger as one of the spices.

                        I would suggest that one of the first flavors you taste in a gingersnap is not ginger but “spicy” or “zingy.” Ginger is merely one of the spices, along with allspice, cinnamon, and black or white pepper, that helps create that spiciness. Black pepper? You don’t taste black pepper – its purpose is to make the ginger taste more sharp and zingy – more ginger-y – than it already is. Using white pepper rather than black makes the ginger seem even zing-ier and ginger-ier. And allspice? Allspice is an aromatic grounding flavor, similar (but darker in flavor) to cinnamon and very similar to molasses. Even molasses contributes to the effect of spiciness. Recall its earthy, sharp sweetness.

                        So molasses is integrated into the gingersnap’s flavor– you can pick it out, but you can’t tell where it leaves off and the allspice, cinnamon and ginger begin. And you can’t tell where the sharp zinginess of the ginger leaves off and that of the white or black pepper begins. All of the flavors work together.

                        I’d call that harmony.

                        And the overall flavor, more precisely, isn't ginger, it's gingersnap.

                        Just to show the spicing structure to which I’m referring,
                        here’s Food & Wine magazine’s recipe for gingersnaps:

                        And since it’s so darn apropos, MaggieRSN, here’s your own current post on
                        "Best Storebought Gingersnap cookie?"

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Very good point re the flavor (gingersnap v. ginger).

                          But this, although it's about cookies, supports again some of the ideas that come up on this board about "what's good/bad wine": 1) There can be cultural differences that become imbued in us as a collective "taste memory" and influence how we evaluate flavors, flavor balance, maybe body (I'm not sure about that one, though?), etc.; 2) there's no denying or accounting for the subjectivity of personal preferences; and 3) we really have no way of knowing for sure what another person, who tastes the same cookie or the same wine, perceives.

                          As an example, I wrote "gingersnap", and to you, that conveyed the concept of a Moravian-tradition, molasses-based cookie that is widely known as a gingersnap in this country. I think you correctly characterized it as a "spice cookie". Reference my thread--and thanks for finding that, btw; I had no idea it had been moved--I know you know that I recognize that as what most of this country calls a gingersnap.

                          However, the cookie I grew up knowing as a gingersnap has no molasses. It is made with maple syrup, uses 4x the amount ginger as salt and cloves, which are the only other two spices. (Variations around households as to whether there may be a small addition of cinnamon.) This is because I came out of a northern New England cooking tradition, in which maple syrup was the convenient and pre-dominant liquid sweetener, versus molasses or honey, and often enough used instead of, or to replace some, granulated sugar. Grade for grade, amount for amount, maple syrup tends to rend a more delicate, less encompassing flavor foundation than molasses, and other flavors advance. When the lighter grades are used in some baked products, it's not always distinguishable as "maple syrup". (The southern New England tradition would have been more facile with molasses in its cookery, as well as the m.s., due to the major seaports' place in the Triangular Trade.)

                          Short story long, if you came to my house or those of my relatives/friends, you might taste one of our gingersnaps and say, no, that's a ginger cookie. I'd taste one out of the Moravian tradition and say, that's not a gingersnap; it's a molasses cookie (before I was let loose on the world, that is, and learned that most Americans do think of that as a gingersnap).

                          If you had a certain expectation, you might be disappointed in my gingersnap. The thing is, I'm sure that we could probably agree on a couple of flavor-providers (e.g., salt) that, when used with a heavy hand, at some point make a bad cookie.

                          But with many flavors, you may like degree of use, and I may not. How do we know what each other tastes, exactly? It's like both of us looking at a turquoise wall. Are you seeing more blue than I am, or more green? Is it lighter in value to you than it is to me?

                          Back to the idea of Greeks, wines and resin, and what's considered a good balance in country, but a imbalance outside and, hence, to many palates, an inferior wine. What is the point of the product? I guess you could say there is one wine that is supposed to feature pine flavoring. Is there a wine that is supposed to feature oak flavoring, not as an enhancer, but as a star?

                          1. re: MaggieRSN

                            Thank you for your response.

                            >>>1) There can be cultural differences that become imbued in us as a collective "taste memory"

                            I agree that within a certain culture/region/tribe there is frequently an established consensus on the definition of a food item or dish, or its ingredients and flavors. You identified both a consensus and regional variation on the gingersnap. As defined by most of America, a gingersnap is the Moravian molasses spice cookie, and not the New England regional version with which you are familiar that uses maple syrup (of course!) instead of molasses.

                            >>>2) there's no denying or accounting for the subjectivity of personal preferences
                            >>>3) we really have no way of knowing for sure what another person, who tastes the same cookie or the same wine, perceives.

                            No, there’s no denying variances in individual perception, but some consensus on flavor is established when a group of tasters independently find commonalities in their description of flavor or in the flavors of a dish. Yes, there will be those tasters whose perceptions are at variance with any consensus that appears, but my sense is that these are normal bell-curve variations.

                      2. re: maria lorraine

                        >>> Using too much oak is like adding too much of a particular spice to a dish. <<<

                        Isn't that the same as me saying:

                        >>> Because if the first thing you taste is the salt, the chef screwed up the soup. You ordered vegetable soup, not salt soup, but it's the salt that dominates??? Bad cooking. If the oak dominates, bad winemaking. Oak is a "spice" in the winemaker's cabinet. The wine is, in this case, Chardonnay; it isn't "not oak wine." <<<


                        In another context (tannin management), Louis P. Martini used to talk of a wine being in balance as being similar to a tightrope walker on the high wire. (Wouldn't that be a tight wire walker?) As long as he/she has their balance, that performer will make it from one side of the tent to the other. But if they are out-of-balance (think too heavily loaded with tannins in their youth, and not enough fruit), they will fall off the wire before reaching the other side (the wine will never develop fully, "properly" with age, but will be better in its tanni, rbust youth, while there is still some fruit present).

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          >> When oak dominates the fruit rather than being supportive of the fruit, that's too much oak.

                          I don't dispute that but I probably did not try enough Chardonnays in my life to find a wine like that.