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Oaked vs. Unoaked Chardonnay: What's the difference?

A favorite for winemakers, the Chardonnay grape is best known for its adaptability and is cultivated across the globe.

Ginger Bellamy

By Ginger Bellamy

October 5, 2021

Chardonnay has earned its place at the wine tasting table. The most popular white wine worldwide, Chardonnay features boundless flavor profiles, from light and fruity to full-bodied and toasty. The biggest difference in the way the wine tastes depends on whether it’s aged in oak barrels or stainless steel—oaked vs unoaked.

oaked and unoaked chardonnay comparison

How can you tell if Chardonnay is unoaked?

Take a look at which keywords are used in the wine’s description. Is it light and fruity? Chances are it’s an unoaked Chardonnay. Is it smoky with vanilla notes? That’s most likely an oaked Chardonnay. Generally speaking, there’s more complexity to an oaked flavor profile, while unoaked Chardonnay highlights the natural flavor of the grape.

Unoaked Chardonnay

Unoaked Chardonnay wine showcases the natural grape and is the type that people usually first associate with Chardonnay. When producing it, winemakers often use stainless steel barrels during the fermentation and aging process. The steel vessels don’t impart the added woodsy notes present in its oaked counterpart.

Unoaked or “naked” Chardonnay is usually characterized as crisp, floral, or fruity with fresh notes of green apple or lemon. While unoaked Chardonnay is now produced globally, you’ll often see bottles from France, historically in Burgundy, specifically the Chablis appellation.

Oaked Chardonnay

Aged in oak barrels, oaked Chardonnay is traditionally described as toasty or buttery with dessert-like notes of vanilla, caramel, or spices. Traditionally, oaked Chardonnay is made in barrels crafted of oak staves that add complexity and texture to the wine. The flavor profile can depend on whether the Chardonnay is produced using American or French oak and if the barrel is new or old.

In lieu of an oak barrel, oak flavor can be created by adding wood chips to the stainless steel barrels used to age unoaked white wine. Many oaked Chardonnays are produced in California, although you can now find them internationally.

white grapes

Additional differences

The way a wine matures makes all the difference. Chardonnays develop their distinctive flavor profiles during the fermentation and aging process.

A buttery Chardonnay gets its flavor from a process called malolactic fermentation, which reduces the wine’s acidity and adds creamy, layered notes. Typically, unoaked Chardonnay doesn’t undergo malolactic fermentation and retains its naturally fruit-forward flavor. A good unoaked Chardonnay features flavors that focus on the simplicity of the grape itself.

Is unoaked Chardonnay better?

Both oaked and unoaked Chardonnays are delicious! The best way to find out which you prefer is to try both styles. Chardonnays are perfect for white wine tastings, because they cover such a wide range of flavor profiles. Plus, you can experiment with different cheese pairings and dining recipes. Oaked Chardonnay is perfect for smoked dishes, while unoaked Chardonnay pairs well with light fish or chicken. Find your favorite combinations.

glass of chardonnay pour