Chardonnay: To Oak or Not to Oak

For a very long time winemakers noted something mysterious happening to their wine as it was aged in oak barrels – if the wine was left in the barrel for a while after it had fully fermented, it took on a soft and supple character. It wasn’t until a Frenchman named Pascal discovered the bacteria responsible for this transformation that winemakers understood the concept of malolactic fermentation.

Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is the process by which certain bacteria that are naturally occurring convert the tart lactic acid that is inherent to grapes like Chardonnay (think green apples and unripe peaches) into something that is creamy, supple, and rich. It’s not the oak that causes MLF, but rather exposure to the necessary bacteria while aging in oak, naturally or through the winemaker’s introduction, that allows this process to occur. Chardonnay that is fermented in steel tanks is typically done so to specifically avoid exposure to the bacteria and MLF. Whenever anyone mentions a Chardonnay that is buttery and smooth they’re speaking about a Chardonnay that has undergone malolactic fermentation.

Wine was aged in oak for centuries before the word “America” was even uttered. Today, however, it is hard to think of anything but America and specifically California when the topic of oak comes up. As is the American way, winemakers in California found a bigger way to incorporate oak into their wine – making it a pronounced quality of the wine rather than just a step in the whole process.

Winemakers discovered that by using barrels made from new American oak, rather than aged French oak barrels, they could imbue their wines with exciting flavors of vanilla and leather. Then, they experimented to see what would happen if they lightly charred those barrels and were rewarded with flavors of smoky caramels and rich butterscotch.

Unoaked Chardonnay is typically wine that has not gone through malolactic fermentation. Wine that retains lactic acid is fresh, zippy, and bright. This type of Chardonnay is more about the fruit than the combination of oak and butter. While oaky malo-processed Chardonnay is, for many, a much more pleasurable quaff on its own, it’s actually a wine that is terribly unfriendly to most foods. Unoaked Chardonnay, however, with its bright acid and crisp flavors, is perfectly suited to accompany a meal.

Neither is better than the other – it’s merely a matter of taste and occasion. Many winemakers of the “New World” (Australia, South America, South Africa etc.) have taken to unoaked Chardonnay – and it has been considered the “up and coming” iteration of this popular grape. What is ironic, of course, is that this style is representative of the way that Chardonnay had been made and drunk for much longer than the “California” style that became so ubiquitous!

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Wine Commission