Unoaked Chardonnay

‘E’ Wine of the Week

By Bruce Cochran

This week, let’s go back a couple years to a topic that’s still timely today and may be helpful to some of our newest wine fans.

Try a new wine this week!


If the title were “Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc” or “Unoaked Riesling,” it would sound curious, but the term “unoaked chardonnay” is one that we see on more and more wine labels, especially during the summertime. It’s not really a new idea. Winemakers have bottled chardonnay without aging it in oak barrels for as long as they’ve made wine from this grape. What has changed to make it now something of a badge of honor? And, for that matter, why did they ever age it in oak barrels in the first place?

Let me give you “Bruce’s Condensed History of Oak Aged Chardonnay.” First, everything was once stored and shipped in barrels. Even eggs were. One of my old farming books has this, as does a farm magazine from 1950. That’s what we had. That’s where names like “cracker barrel” and “pickle barrel” came from.

Greece’s most infamous wine, Retsina, is named for the resinous taste the wine picked up from storage in pine barrels. I think it’s an acquired taste.

In the 1970s (before wine scores) a wine gained fame by winning gold medals. The chardonnays that stood out at competitions were the biggest, fullest-bodied, most highly extracted and oakiest.

I remember back in 1981 two of the terms on everyone’s tongue were “nouvelle cuisine” and “food wines.” To me, the plates had a lot of empty space on them, and the wines were thin. Thankfully both efforts evolved to a better place.

About 1990, vineyard maladies in California caused grapes to be more expensive than barrels. The term of that time was “toasty.” That meant “not much fruit flavor, so how about some oak instead.” One thing I hear from time to time is “I don’t like chardonnay.” As the U.S. wine industry has matured, many versions of chardonnay have appeared, from light to heavy, dry to sweet, with flavors reminiscent of everything from apples to tropical fruit.

Now, there’s a somewhat general consensus that winemaking begins in the vineyard. Vines are trained, pruned, thinned and harvested with quality in mind. Yeast strains, acid levels, even a soil’s mineral content are considered and discussed. Chardonnay really is the greatest grape when given the chance. Can you name a great single vineyard sauvignon blanc?

And with vibrant, pure, intense and concentrated fruit flavor, do you really want to cover it with oak? Oak is more of a seasoning, to complement the flavor of the grape. But if you want to taste the flavor that made chardonnay famous, try a great unoaked version, like Kenneth Volk’s “Jaybird” from Santa Maria Valley’s ideal climate, and one of America’s finest winemakers. It retails for about $20.

Bruce Cochran has traveled to every major wine region on four continents. A 30-year veteran of the wine trade, he taught continuing education wine classes for 26 years at colleges throughout Arkansas.

Categories: Legacy Archive