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What is Unoaked Chardonnay? A Definitive Guide

What is Unoaked Chardonnay? A Definitive Guide

iLoveWine Staff
A collection of chardonnay bottles.

For centuries the Chardonnay grape was a popular mainstay in specific parts of the world, namely France. Regional white wines such as Chablis, Corton-Charlemagne, and Montrachet arose from Chardonnay and stood as synonyms for the grape. Then, in the 1980s, Chardonnay exploded onto the world stage, took the limelight, and decided to stay. New world winemakers ran with this versatile grape as it happily adapted to climates worldwide.

They grew it, fermented it in oak barrels, and sent it out into the world. Chardonnay was everywhere and, for a time, it was the wine to drink. Despite all this popularity though, most people probably never really got to know the real Chardonnay. Most might say that Chardonnay tastes oaky or buttery, and they’d be right, but only half right. The other half of the story and the other half of the experience of Chardonnay is found in the lesser-known unoaked Chardonnay


Unlike ordinary chardonnay, unoaked chardonnay is not stored in new oak barrels.


What’s the difference between oaked and unoaked Chardonnay?

The differences between oaked and unoaked chardonnay are determined by how the wine is aged. If the wine is placed in oak barrels (often new oak barrels) and subjected to a process called malolactic fermentation it is considered oaked, otherwise, if the wine is stored in stainless steel containers, plastic tubs, or concrete vats it is said to be unoaked. It’s just that simple! The differences in the flavor profiles are quite different, however.

While oaked Chardonnays are known for being buttery or creamy the unoaked Chardonnays are more fruity, minerally, and dry, same grape varietal different process. The new oak barrels, as opposed to more aged oak, also contribute a unique toastiness to the oaked Chardonnay which is reminiscent of certain dessert spices, vanilla, or browned butter. These wide-ranging differences in Chardonnay make for a wine that can appeal to most tastes and preferences. If you haven’t tried it you most certainly should! 


What does it mean when a chardonnay is buttery?

If you have had a chardonnay before then chances are you had an oaked chardonnay. This is that creamy chardonnay which has unique flavors of vanilla, caramel or, most distinctively butter. When the chardonnay is oaked, and left to age, a process called malolactic fermentation (MLF) occurs which transforms the malic acid (the same acid found in some fruits such as apples)  from the chardonnay grapes into lactic acid. That is the very same lactic acid found in milk and other dairy products and that is what imparts a buttery flavor and creamy texture to the wine. Almost all red wines, and some other whites such as Viognier, undergo this process and that lends them a degree of velvety texture while tempering any tartness, all in favor of a creamier mouthfeel. 


Is unoaked chardonnay buttery?

Unoaked Chardonnay is definitely not buttery. It is left out in steel, concrete or plastic containers and never undergoes the chemical process (malolactic fermentation) which converts the fruity flavors of wine (due to malic acid) into the creamy buttery flavors of dairy (due to lactic acid). In a blind taste test of Chardonnay, you should be able to pick out the unoaked Chardonnay every time and maybe even guess what parts of the world it may have come from. More on that next.  


Like regular Chardonnay, unoaked Chardonnay also comes from green-skinned grapes.

What does unoaked chardonnay taste like?

The grape varietal, the winemaking process, and the terroir all culminate in the unique flavor of every wine. The Chardonnay wines are defined by fruit flavors of citrus, fruitiness, and berries with distinct tasting notes of apple, lemon, and pineapple. The exact flavor profile is determined by the ripeness of the grapes with very ripe Chardonnay having more tropical notes like pineapple or mango and less ripe Chardonnay tasting like lemons or green apples.

The terroir, or total climate in which the grapes were grown, as well as the winemaking process, both impact these flavors further with wineries in warmer climates opting for oak barrels and those in cooler climates placing the wine in stainless steel, concrete or plastic tubs.

This “cooler” process gives unoaked Chardonnay a medium-high acidity due to the fact that no malolactic fermentation occurs. This all brings the fruity flavors of the Chardonnay grapes to the forefront so that, depending on grape ripeness, the unoaked Chardonnay flavor can range from tart lemon or apple to sweeter mango or pineapple.

That flavor range is dictated by the amount of malic acid in the grapes. The more malic acid there is (the less ripe the grape is) the more it will taste like a lemon. These cool-climate unoaked Chardonnays typically come from wineries in places such as California, Oregon, France, Western Australia, Chile and even, albeit rarely, New Zealand. 


Is oaked or unoaked Chardonnay cheaper?

Sometimes the world of wine is shrouded in a blanket of ambiguity and no absolutes. Quality and price are two wine topics that typically fall under this shroud. Just considering unoaked Chardonnay from Sonoma, California it is possible to debate the question of ‘which is cheaper?’. 

Still, it stands to reason that unoaked Chardonnays should always be cheaper and here is why: barrels! Unoaked Chardonnays do not require oak barrels. That alone is a major cost saver, then you can add in the time saved by a shorter production process. The environmental impact of unoaked Chardonnays is even better than oaked when you consider the implications of transporting oak barrels around the world.

In terms of production costs, money and time are saved by not fermenting Chardonnay in oak barrels, ideally, these savings should be passed down to the consumer as reflected in the price per bottle. You should be able to get a cheaper bottle which is ultimately more sustainable, win-win! 


Why use oak at all?

We can blame the Romans and we can thank the Romans for the oak wine barrel. The switch to oak was a happy accident. Early in Roman history wine was transported in clay amphora pots. The clay amphorae were easier to shape and had the added benefit of creating airtight pots when done right. As the empire expanded away from the Mediterannean however, the clay amphorae became harder and harder to come by, while the abundant oak forests of Europe stood at the ready. When Romans eventually encountered the Gauls they found them using wooden barrels, some of which were made from oak. Romans soon realized the value of this idea. Sailors and land-dwelling Romans alike needed their nourishing wine so, by necessity, expansion led to the slow adoption of oak barrels. 

It is just a coincidence that oak has some unique properties which make some wines taste better. As the wine was transported in these barrels over longer and longer distances people began to notice the changes. The wine was coming out softer, smoother and better tasting. As part of the barrel production process, the oak would be lightly toasted to make it more pliable and this toasting would imbue it with certain spices which then transferred to the wine.

The oak itself naturally contains vanillin as well and as that soaked into the wine it created flavors of vanilla, butter, and caramel in some wines. The oak also imparted color to wines making the whites a darker gold hue and the reds darker as well. As word and jolly drunkenness spread, the use of oak barrels to age and flavor wine became common practice. This occurred throughout the Roman empire and eventually spread beyond that going on to become common practice for storing and aging the wine.  

It is only relatively recently that a return to unoaked wines has become more popular with some wines. In the 80s and 90s, as Chardonnay was becoming more and more widespread, new world wineries, predominantly in California, were aging their wines in oak barrels like it was going out of style. The oaked Chardonnays were so oaked, so overdone, that pejorative terms like “butterball” arose to describe the wines due to their extremely buttery flavor from malolactic fermentation. People simply became sick of these oak aged butter wines. The solution, of course, was to unoak the Chardonnay.


Unoaked chardonnay is perfect for drinking on a nice afternoon.


What is a good inexpensive Chardonnay?

The ‘Four Vines Naked Chard Unoaked’ out of Santa Barbara, California is often offered up as a great, low-cost example of an unoaked Chardonnay.  This crisp, light-bodied wine has flavors of apple, white peach, and pear with hints of citrus and mineral. There is a seemingly endless selection of good Chardonnays out there and when it comes to finding the best options near you, the internet can truly be your best friend. 


What is the best brand of Chardonnay?

Chardonnay, as a grape, is versatile. In a culinary sense, in some ways, it is like chicken. It can be made really well and very badly, it can be adapted, paired with new and old favorites, and even surprise you. This versatility and Chardonnay’s previous popularity have spread the wine to all corners of the Earth. Currently, there are more than 500,000 acres of Chardonnay vineyards worldwide. This widespread availability also means there are many, many, many brands and variations. So, in a sense, the best brand of Chardonnay comes down to personal preference. Do you like oaked or unoaked? More or less sweet? Notes of apple or pineapple? Etc. 

That all being said, there appears to be some consensus that the old world wineries in certain wine regions can still provide the “best” or purest experience. You could turn to a Chardonnay from Chablis, for example. This winemaking region in the northwest of Burgundy, France is one of the original homes of Chardonnay grapes. They specialize, predominantly, in cool climate unoaked Chardonnays. Most wines from the vineyards of Burgundy—Montrachet, and Corton- Charlemagne would suffice really.

If you prefer something a little more new world then you could easily turn to the Hanzell clone of Chardonnay from the Hanzell Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. With grapes grown on the 2-acre Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard, this is, hands down, the oldest continuously running vineyard in North America. 

Whether it be ancient Europe or old America there is just something about age and consistency which confers quality in wine. Sometimes, however, a new winery from an unexpected place can surprise you. The search for the best brand can be very personal and requires exploration and experimentation. Branch out, try new bottles, be surprised. 


What does Chardonnay pair with?

Bonnie & Clyde, Starsky & Hutch, Ross & Rachel, Wine & Food. Some things are just meant to be together! Certain wines paired with certain foods work to make each other better, one balancing or enhancing the flavors of the other. Call it a food pairing made in heaven. Alternatively, some things are most definitely not supposed to be together. The wrong wine with the wrong dish can ruin both. So is the case with oaked and unoaked Chardonnays. 

A less fruity, younger, unoaked Chardonnay would go well with lighter foods like crab, prawns, steamed or grilled fish, chicken, pasta, or risotto paired with spring vegetables. With a fruitier unoaked, or even lightly oaked, Chardonnay pairings could include something a little more robust such as fish cakes, fish pies, chicken, pork or pasta in a creamy sauce, and chicken, ham or cheese-based salads. The fuller-bodied oaked Chardonnays can pair with richer more savory dishes. Think eggs benedict, grilled shellfish, roast chicken, butternut squash, pumpkin, even foie gras. 

As a most important takeaway, oaked and unoaked Chardonnays do not pair with Chinese food, light cheeses, seared salmon, tomato dishes or Thai flavors. You’re welcome to try it but it is simply not a good idea. If this all becomes a bit much and you’re just not sure what pairing works best there are plenty of great guides available.


Grilled fish.
Grilled fish makes for a perfect pairing for unoaked Chardonnay.


What does it mean if a wine is ‘naked’? 

A naked wine is not a wine made by nudists, in case you were wondering. It also does not mean that it is best consumed while naked, although you are free to do so if you like! A naked wine is the same thing as an unoaked wine. Unoaked Chardonnay could be described as naked for example. “Naked” is a term used by vintners to refer to any wine which has predominant flavors of the grapes it was made from without any interference from oakiness.

Naked can be considered a synonym for unoaked/unwooded as well as for fresher or fruitier. This applies to all wines which were not barreled in oak, not subjected to malolactic fermentation, and instead preserved their fresh and fruity grape flavors. Some wine stores even have a ‘Naked’ wine section where you can find several wines in their purer, grapier form. So sure, go get your next bottle of wine naked! 


What other wines are good unoaked?

Chardonnay is not the only white wine, let alone the only wine, which is available oaked and unoaked. In fact, many whites and some reds are available in both forms. Unoaked whites are more common however simply because reds keep better in oak barrels over time. As a general rule with almost all wines, the unoaked bottle will be more minerally or fruit-forward while the oaked bottle will be creamier and more buttery, just like with Chardonnay. 

Consider Pinot Grigio, for example, this white wine when produced in cooler climates is unoaked, dry and minerally. The Pinot Gris is also higher in acidity so whatever fruit notes there are will typically fall in the range of lemon and apple. When this same wine is subjected to malolactic fermentation that acidity is tempered and the buttery or oily texture of lactic acid becomes more evident. Unlike with Chardonnay though, the differences in these Pinot Grigios are not as pronounced. Beyond Pinot Gris, it is possible to find many white wines, and rosés as well, which are unoaked. Red wines are where the real challenge is. 

When it comes to reds some might say that anything unoaked is anathema but unoaked red wine does exist. The company Simply Naked, for example, offers a selection of unoaked wines which includes an unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon as well as an unoaked Pinot Noir. These red are fruity, as you might expect. The unoaked Cabernet is described as having flavors of plum, black cherry, and cinnamon spice while the unoaked Pinot Noir has flavors of strawberry, pomegranate, and bing cherry! 


A wine field.
Like all the good wines, the grapes of unoaked chardonnays come from rich grape orchards.


Final Verdict:

 As far as white wines go there is a nice diversity of flavor and style with Chardonnay. You can go with a traditional oaked Chardonnay and enjoy those vanilla and buttery flavor notes or you can dive into a naked unoaked Chardonnay which is more fruit-forward, zesty, and minerally. For avid wine drinkers of the 80s and 90s, if you’ve permanently given up on what you think Chardonnay is because of “butterball” terror maybe it is time to give it another go. You just might be surprised. Chardonnay is also a new experience when paired properly with a meal.

This is a white wine that can’t be put into a box or a single class, it deserves experimentation, taste testing. Try a Western Australian unoaked Chardonnay made with ripe grapes, now a heavily oaked Chardonnay from California. What fish pairs best, what chocolate? Challenge someone to pick the oaked from the unoaked with their eyes closed, can you do it? 


Bonus tip: While you’re at it, check out this great video on the key differences between oaked and unoaked chardonnay!



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