To Oak or Not To Oak? Chardonnay’s Different Styles

As I’m entering the world of wine education (I’m in the middle of my intermediate level course for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification), I’ve been pondering different styles of wine and exploring more so than I typically do.  I’ve never been a fan of heavily oaked Chardonnay but as I learn more and more about the grape, its growing regions and high acidity levels I’ve come to discover I’m also not a fan of non-oaked versions. So what’s the answer, oak or no oak?

The argument for oak

I begin with the fact that chardonnay grapes from Napa Valley are worlds different from chardonnay grapes in Chablis and Burgundy. The warmer climate grapes like California, Burgundy and Australia can benefit from some oak fermentation and/or aging. Warm weather prompts higher yield levels and riper fruit. As chardonnay ripens, the sugar increases and forms strong flavors and aromas of tropical fruits like pineapple and banana. Oak fermentation balances the fruity characteristics and complements those flavors creating a well-balanced, complex wine. In this case, oak is a positive and delicious treatment for the wine…in moderation. Yes, I’m seen and tasted some very heavily oaked versions – many of which used either 100% new oak barrels (the flavors are stronger, the newer the barrels) or an inexpensive replacement to oak barrels, oak chips. The wines I have tasted that achieve the best demonstration of the grape in this style use a combination of new and used oak barrels or even a combination of oak and stainless steel batches.

The argument for no oak

There’s something special about a Chablis. The crispness, minerality, delicate peach flavors that just make you want to drink unoaked Chardonnay for the rest of your life. But I’m not sure if the style would work in a warmer climate. The cool growing region of Chablis and other new world regions – Washington, for example – restrict the yield and development of the grapes and the resulting fruit has higher acidity levels, a mineral characteristic and what reviewers refer to as ‘stone’ fruit (peaches for the layman). In this case, the use of oak in fermentation/aging could disrupt those delicate, yet strong fruit flavors and completely over power the wine. The result is something completely different and unique from its sister style in California & southern France.

Conclusion

I’m not sure there is one righteous path for winemakers in search of the perfect Chardonnay. What I’ve learned through my ‘research’ is Chardonnay is a much more complex variety than the big box brands demonstrate. It is highly reflective of the climate and terrior which it is grown which can also dictate a certain style of production. I found the key is balance in the wine, and achieving that – whether it requires oak or no oak – is the only important thing.

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Posted on June 14, 2011, in Wine and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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