Buttery. Vanilla. Charred. When I read these words on a bottle of Chardonnay, I put it right back down. The label might as well read “Oaky, with a hint of oak, and a mouthful of wood.”
Big oaky Chardonnays (California is especially guilty) need to join the other 1980’s trends like shoulder pads and slap bracelets and die a quick death.
When used correctly, oak is critical to the wine making process and nearly as important as the grape itself. When used incorrectly, it overpowers what could have been a beautiful wine. I also suspect it is used to cover the flavor of not-so-great wine (lazy winemaking).
Before you @ me and send angry emails, let me say that there is nothing wrong with liking oaky Chards. They are just not for me and the reason is that unoaked or unwooded Chard can be magical. They can burst with tropical fruit, melons, and similar lush happy mouth stuff.
Go forth and ask your wine retailer for lightly wooded, unoaked, or unwooded Chardonnays and let me know what you think.
Pro Tip: A lot of French white table wine is actually Chardonnay and rarely involves oak.
Oak is used extensively in wine making. The most common ways winemakers get that oak flavor in to a wine are barrel aging and treating. Barrel aging is exactly what you imagine when you think of large wood barrels tucked away in a cool dark cellar. Treating is adding oak chips to the wine and later filtering them out leaving behind the oak taste, less sexy but effective.
The intensity of the wood flavors are controlled by the amount of time the wine spends in contact with the wood and the number of times the barrel has been used. Each time a barrel is used the oak flavor is reduced. A shiny new barrel means big oak flavor. Barrels are REALLY expensive so you they are used over and over. Many winemakers will only employ previously enjoyed barrels because they want a more subtle woody goodness.
An old, but new again trend is using barrels that previously held other liquors (port, cognac, bourbon, etc.) which also lends an interesting flavor to the wine. We’ve tasted a few of these…I have some thoughts…but we will save that for another day.