What’s the Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay?


Chardonnay has a reputation for being, well, a bit much. Chardonnay earned its controversial reputation during the 1980s and ‘90s when winemakers oaked wines with a heavy hand, resulting in wines lovingly nicknamed “butterball” because of their strong buttery flavor. What many don’t know is that chardonnay can be light and minerally as well as sweet and buttery. The difference develops in the process of casking a wine. 

What’s the difference between oaked and unoaked chardonnay? Let’s explore.  

Characteristics of Chardonnay  

All chardonnay wine is made from chardonnay grapes that can taste like apples, lemons, or something sweeter off the vine, depending on the region. The variation in the final wine is primarily based on the climate and how the grapes were treated: whether they’re oaked or unoaked. So, if you tried chardonnay and didn’t like it, there’s a good chance you don’t’ like oaked chardonnay. 

The Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay 

The difference between oaked and unoaked chardonnay is that oaked chardonnay is aged in new oak barrels, while unoaked is not. When chardonnay spends time in oak barrels instead of steel or plastic tanks, the oak imparts flavors into the wine that resemble sweet vanilla, caramel, and butter. Yes, butter.  

The Science Behind Chardonnay’s Butter Flavor: Malolactic Fermentation 

The creamy texture and flavor of oaked chardonnay is a result of a natural chemical process called malolactic fermentation that happens when wine is stored in oak barrels. During this process, the malic acid found in many fruits changes into lactic acid, which is usually found in milk. This gives oaked chardonnay its distinct buttery qualities.  

Oaked Chardonnay – Worth Another Chance 

Oaked chardonnay is a great option for those who enjoy smooth, rich wine. Since the over-oaking follies of decades past, most oaked chardonnay is now more balanced and drinkable while preserving its signature smoothness. 

How to Find Oaked Chardonnay by Region 

A good chardonnay usually comes from warmer wine-growing regions. Look for your next bottle of oaked chardonnay from southern or eastern Australia; Napa Valley or Lake County, California; Mendoza, Argentina; Burgundy, France; or Puglia, Italy.  

Oaked Chardonnay Pairing Options 

Oaked chardonnay is complex, and pairing it with a dish that’s too sweet, too spicy, or too salty is a fast way to make your wine tasting experience less than ideal. One way to make sure your meal and your wine shine is to stick to simply prepared seafood. Try seared scallops or other mollusks, or shellfish prepared as plainly as possible. The complexity in the wine will support the restrained approach to the meal, and the flavors of the food and wine will pop.  

Oaked Chardonnays: Our Recommendations 

  • Concha y Toro “Casillero del Diablo” Chardonnay (Chile) 
    The chardonnay grapes from the Casablanca Valley in Chile are aged in oak for a delicate sweetness balanced with a touch of minerality. 
  • Alamos Chardonnay (Argentina)  
    Concentrated flavors of apple and pear are complemented by rich vanilla and spice – evidence of malolactic fermentation in the oak aging process. 

Unoaked Chardonnay – A Refreshing Alternative 

If you prefer your chardonnay on the dryer, more minerally side, consider trying an unoaked bottle. 

How to Find Unoaked Chardonnay by Region 

There are a few great regions to look for if you’re interested in unoaked chardonnay. Cooler wine-growing climates like Sonoma, California; Loire and Chablis, France; Western Australia; Colchagua and Casablanca Valley, Chile; and Oregon are all known for high-quality unoaked chardonnay.   

Unoaked Chardonnay Pairing Options 

There’s really no way to go wrong when it comes to unoaked chardonnay food pairings. We recommend simple, classic fare like oysters and shellfish, seared white fish, meat dishes like grilled chicken, or rich pasta. Charcuterie board offerings of veggies, olives, cured meats, and cheeses are also good friends with an unoaked chardonnay. Choose aged Alpine-style cheeses – hard cheeses made with milk from cows that grazed on seasonal flowers, herbs, and grasses, typically at higher elevations. Emmental, gruyere, challerhocker, and vacherin friborgeios are all great Alpine-style cheeses.  

Unoaked Chardonnays: Our Recommendations 

  • Four Vines Naked Unoaked Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County)  
    A fresh example of unoaked chardonnay, “Naked” has distinct apple flavors and a crisp minerality. 
  • Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay (Western Australia)  
    An appealing, drinkable wine, you can expect citrus notes and aromas of pear, apple, and peach. 

Try a New Chardonnay and Pick Up All Your Favorite Wines at Family Fresh Market

One great place to start tasting chardonnays is by exploring one winemaker’s iterations on a varietal. Rodney Strong winery makes a variety of great bottles of chardonnay, all from different AVAs in the Sonoma region of California. Their bottles are a mix of oaked, lightly oaked, and unoaked varieties, so there’s something for everyone. Can’t decide? Ask one of our in-store experts which Rodney Strong chardonnay is best for you. Even better, they’re on sale in our stores this week!  

You can always find an amazing selection of wines and foods in our stores. Plus, you can always check our weekly ad for deals on your favorites.