There are few things in the world of wine more divisive than Chardonnay. The same grape, treated in different ways produces wine with almost zero similarities to each other. One end of the spectrum is rich, oaky and buttery, while the opposite end is fresh, light and acidic. And while many wine drinkers are familiar with the rich and creamy version of Chardonnay, they have no idea there is a fresh, non-oaked version, made from the same grape, waiting for them to enjoy.
The divisiveness of Chardonnay can be attributed to the “butter bombs” that flooded the wine market in the ’80s and ’90s. These wines were aggressively oaked, displaying strong flavors of butter, toasted marshmallows, wood, and vanilla. Malolactic fermentation, which happens when a wine is aged in oak barrels, has been around for hundreds of years. It adds additional texture, body, and flavors to the wine. For many wine drinkers, an oaky, buttery Chardonnay was their first taste of this popular grape. And if it wasn’t their style, they ruled out Chardonnay all together.
While there is no shame in enjoying a glass of wine so buttery that you could almost pour it over a bowl of popcorn, there is another side of Chardonnay that is bright, acidic, delicate and most importantly, delicious.
Similar to the signature grape of Oregon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay also comes from the Burgundy region of France. Burgundy and the Willamette Valley are located on similar latitudes on the globe, so it makes sense that the same grapes planted in both regions produce amazing wine.
As Oregon winemakers have started to hone in on this versatile grape, they’ve gained a reputation for creating unique and exciting versions of Chardonnay. Many Oregon winemakers are producing unoaked wines that are excitedly crisp and aromatic, others are looking to connect to the history of the white grape of Burgundy, and are applying just a kiss of oak to the wine.
TRAITS AND CHARACTERISTICS
If you ever (are lucky enough to) find yourself with two different glasses of Chardonnay in front of you, you will notice that the oaked version is more full-bodied. It will appear a bit darker in color and more viscous than its unoaked counterpart. But even unoaked Chardonnay is categorized as medium-bodied.
Though Chardonnay can display many big flavors, it falls relatively low on the sweetness scale. Even oaked Chardonnays that have notes of desserts like toffee, butterscotch, and crème brûlée, they aren’t necessarily sugary sweet, but rich and creamy.
Tannins in wine come from the grape skins and seeds. Since white wine is macerated and fermented without the skins, the astringent bitterness from tannins is not present in white wine. Aging wine in oak can sometimes add tannic characteristics to a wine, but Chardonnay is still very low on the tannin scale.
Medium to High-Acid
The acid level of a Chardonnay is directly related to how it is treated. Oaked Chardonnays will display much lower acid compared to a Chardonnay that doesn’t see any oak. As unoaked Chardonnays from Oregon are starting to make a splash with wine drinkers across the country, many drinkers note its pleasant brightness and acidity.
Chardonnay bottles can range from 13.5-15% ABV (Alcohol by Volume.) Oaked Chardonnays will be just a tad bit higher in alcohol than unoaked.
TASTING AND PAIRING
If it hasn’t become obvious yet, Chardonnays can taste very different from each other. Unoaked versions can display bright fruit notes such as lemon, yellow apple, pear star fruit and pineapple. Oaked versions will have more richness in its fruit notes, along with vanilla, pie crust, butter, and burnt sugar.
When shopping for Chardonnay, it is very important to look for tasting descriptions on the bottle or surrounding labels. “Minerally, fresh and crisp” will describe unoaked wine, while “buttery, rich, and brioche” will describe oaked wine. But the easiest thing to do when drinking at a winery or shopping at a wine shop is to ask! A good winemaker, bartender or wine shop employee should easily be able to tell you what kind of Chardonnay they have to offer.
Seafood is a great option for both oaked and unoaked Chardonnay. Raw oysters with unoaked Chardonnay is a classic pairing, as is lobster and shellfish paired with a rich and buttery oaked Chardonnay.
Semi-soft cow and goat’s milk cheeses are delicious served with a glass of any style of Chardonnay.
Whether you are looking for a Chardonnay dripping in butter or dancing with acidity, you can find it all in Oregon. Check out all the Chardonnay options Willamette Valley has to offer.