Oaked or unoaked? Flavor distinctions vary in chardonnays

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world and one of the most widely planted grape varieties. With the diversity of regions, soils, climate and winemaking styles, chardonnay grapes can take on many different flavor characteristics.

From the austerity and crisp acidity of the French Domaine des Chazelles Viré-Clessé to the creamy rich vanilla flavors of Hendry Napa Valley Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, the flavor dimensions for this grape seem to be neverending. For me, it comes down to oaked or unoaked chardonnay.

An oaked chardonnay is a wine that has spent time in oak barrels while it is fermenting and aging before being bottled . The more time a wine spends in barrel, the more flavors and aromas it will inherit from the influence of the wood. Toast, vanilla, butter, spice and sometimes smokiness are common flavors and aromas given to chardonnay by the oak. Oak adds complexity and richness as well, but if used incorrectly, can really mask the true and beautiful flavors of this renowned grape.

One of my favorite oaked chardonnays is the Hendry Ranch Barrel Fermented Chardonnay from Napa Valley. During a Hendry tasting a few years ago, I discovered my breakfast wine. We served the Hendry Oaked Chardonnay with a sunny-side up egg served in a pancetta cup with an asiago cheese crisp. The richness of the runny egg paired amazingly well with this wine. The baking spice flavors and creamy richness of the oaked chardonnay was spot on with the egg and pancetta. This wine spent 11 months on oak. This wine is a great example of oak being used to create balance and harmony with the wine.

A unoaked wine is more likely to be lighter-bodied than its oak counterpart. The Hendry Ranch Unoaked Chardonnay was fermented entirely in stainless steel at a cold temperature to preserve the fresh fruit flavors. This wine is like summer in a bottle with aromas of honeysuckle, nectarines and granny smith apple. It has a refreshing acidity that makes your mouth dance a little when sipping. The true flavor of the chardonnay grape is in full force with this wine, and if you’ve never had a “naked” chardonnay, this is a great wine with which to start.

Another chardonnay flavor profile — my favorite — is French Chablis. This wine is fermented in stainless steel, and the juice rarely touches oak. The clay and limestone hillsides and farmlands of Chablis give chardonnay from this region a flavor all its own. The soil imparts the unmistakable aroma of crushed shells and rock and give the wine a pronounced minerality from the limestone. The Francine et Olivier Savary Chablis is a perfect example of an extremely complex wine created not through the infusion of oak influences, but rather the influences of soil and place. Because of the cool climate of the northernmost region of Burgundy, this chardonnay is known more for its purity of flavor and is far less fruity than its California unoaked counterparts.

Food plays a major role in which chardonnay I will chose for any given occasion. The world is your oyster, so to speak, with chardonnay. A creamy rich oyster stew would be wonderful with the Hendry Barrel Fermented, fried oysters or oyster stuffing would be tasty with the Hendry Unoaked and Oyster Rockefeller with the Savory Chablis would rock.