Chardonnay is known as the winemaker’s grape.It does so incredibly well with a range of winemaking treatments that there are as many styles as there are types of wine drinkers.
If you prefer lean, steely whites, there’s a chard for that. If you prefer a creamy texture in the mouth but no telltale oak flavor, there’s a chard for that too. Then we have the toasty chards, and the buttery chards – you know the type, the ones that taste like you’re chewing on a stick of butter. Those are the ones I prefer, but that’s just me.
Truth be told, I have rarely met a chardonnay that I didn’t like, oaked or otherwise. It just depends on the day, what I might be eating, the time of day, or perhaps who I am enjoying it with. It makes me happy that my favorite grape has so many personalities, because as a wine drinker, I am also quite fickle.
The Human Element of Terroir
The fact that there really is no one way to finish a chardonnay means you will often be experiencing the human element of terroir above all else. Chardonnay on its own, unoaked and non-malolactic, can be rather uninteresting. At its best, you’ll get flavors of honeydew melon and green apple with notes of wildflowers.
At its most insipid, you would be hard pressed to distinguish it from so much jug wine. Adding oak into the equation complicates matters in a rather delicious way, and what’s exciting about that is that there is always the promise of change before us, as the length of time in barrel combined with bottle age will help the wine develop ever so slowly into flavor profiles that are as distinct as they are fascinating.
Have you ever sipped on a chardonnay and gotten the flavor of coconut, vanilla, butterscotch, caramel or brown sugar? How about hazelnuts or honeyed toast? These are all a product of oak aging, and if you can pinpoint exactly what you are tasting or smelling, you might just be able to determine a little about how the wine was made.
The Influence of Barrel Age
Newer barrels impart the most flavor, as their phenolic compounds are fresh and untapped. With each successive use of the barrel, the flavors become increasingly more subtle, until there is virtually no flavor coming from the barrel at all. A general guide to oak extract goes something like this:
Here is a great video from Patrick Fallon, Cellar Master for Jordan Winery describing the process of barrel aging from wood purchase in France to the cooperage and beyond.
• 100% new barrels will impart the greatest amount of oak influence
• 1 year old barrels (used once) will impart about 60% of the intensity
• 2 year old barrels give only 40%
• 3 year old barrels give only 20%
• 4 year old barrels leave oak impressions that are barely detectable
• 5 year old barrels are considered ‘neutral’, adding much to the mouth-feel of the wine, but little to the flavor
Creamy notes and nuttiness come from extended lees contact and battonage (lees stirring), and are not necessarily a result of oak, but we’ll get into that at another time. Chardonnay being such a fascinating subject, I’m sure you’ll be waiting with bated breath and glass in hand! Okay, moving on …
American or French Oak, or No Oak At All
Common characteristics of American oak are coconut, pineapple, dill, bacon fat and vanilla. Since the grain of American oak is much wider, the oak influence is often more intense. Tropical flavors and aromas are a banker for American Oak.
With French oak, the flavors are often more subtle and austere. This depends much on the originating forest and the level of toast, so you can’t hold me to this statement. There are plenty of French oaked wines that are as ham-fisted as can be. Vanillin, spun sugar and occasionally herbal tea aromas might be found in French-oaked chardonnays, although if the oak is a tighter grained wood from the Limousin forest, the effect may be quite austere, even to the point of bitterness.
Ultimately, the grapes themselves will have the biggest effect on the resulting wine. Climactic conditions and level of ripeness at harvest have the most profound effect, contributing to the acid profile and overall structure of the wine. How the wine was fermented also has a hand in the recipe: stainless-steel fermented chardonnays that are oak aged have a completely different character than barrel-fermented chardonnays, for example, but all of the different types of oak treatment can be quantified by the observation of a few key traits.
Types of Oak Ageing
- Oak chips or oak staves used on a stainless-steel fermented chardonnay will impart a hint of oak, but only in the short term. Eighteen months after bottling the ‘hints’ will be more like distant rumors.
- Matured in oak but fermented in something other than oak: the oak influence will be less integrated, and seem somehow ‘apart’ from the wine. Oak is upfront with vanilla and dill notes.
- Barrel Fermented and Aged: this treatment yields rich, complex and fully integrated wines with subtle oak and soft vanilla notes.
- Toasting barrels is a process by which barrel makers, or coopers, temper their oak barrels. The various toast levels introduce a whole other range of flavors into the mix:
High Toast: Intense, smoky, toasty, vanilla, coffee, bacon fat and clove
Medium Toast: Moderate vanilla flavors, sweet smoke and toast
Light Toast: softer oak flavors, sweet, integrated vanilla notes and spice
Since this is an abbreviated version of a much bigger story, we’ll leave it at this for now, but I’ll close with this thought: there are more ways than you can even imagine to finish a chardonnay, using techniques I have mentioned here and others on their own, or in combination with oak ageing. With so many variables to consider when quantifying what you perceive in your chardonnay, you can take heart in knowing that it will never, ever get old.