Unoaked Chardonnay: Flavors, Food Pairing & Wine Regions

Unoaked Chardonnay
Summer picnic or outdoor lunch with tasting of white wine on green vineyards in Lazio, Italy

Good unoaked Chardonnay is made using stainless steel and other non-wood methods. If you don’t’ like the buttery flavor in oaked Chardonnay, unoaked Chardonnay is well worth trying.

What Does Unoaked Chardonnay Taste Like?

The Chardonnay grape is made in many different styles and winemaking techniques, so it isn’t easy to generalize. The taste will change when you avoid using an oak barrel and store wine in stainless steel tanks.

Flavor Profiles

Tasting notes for unoaked Chardonnay typically highlight a few points, including green apple and pineapple.

The Main Differences Between Oaked Chardonnay and Unoaked Chardonnay

Chardonnay wine made in stainless steel barrels has a few key differences. Keep these points in mind with your next glass of wine.  

1 Taste Preference.

Some people do not like the buttery-vanilla flavor (i.e., the flavor of oak) on their Chardonnay wine. If you dislike this buttery-vanilla flavor, try unoaked Chardonnay instead. Further, unoaked Chardonnay tends to have more of a mineral note which can be quite pleasant. The fresh acidity in an unoaked Chardonnay can be pretty refreshing. For a glass of wine on a hot day, an unoaked Chardonnay is a better choice because the balanced acidity will feel refreshing.

2 Wine Snob Effect.

Oak barrels, especially French Oak Barrels, have been part of the winemaking tradition for centuries. As a result, some traditionalist wine snobs avoid wine produced in stainless steel. I can’t entirely agree with this argument. Oak barrels are great, but innovations in winemaking are also significant.

3 Affordable Wine.

Stainless steel tanks last much longer than an oak barrel. That means winemaking techniques that emphasize steel tend to be cheaper. If you are looking for a bottle of affordable wine, looking for an unoaked Chardonnay can be a good start. That said, this rule of thumb does not apply in every case. For example, the Burgundy region of France makes a delicious wine from Chardonnay grapes. Only some of those bottles could be considered inexpensive wines.

Common Food Recommendations

There are a few ways to enjoy the delicious flavors of unoaked Chardonnay. Try the following ideas with your next bottle. Unoaked Chardonnay is an excellent complement to seafood dishes. The salty nature of seafood tends to match well with Chardonnay. Sushi and unoaked Chardonnay also work well together. If you’re looking for something different, try red wine with sushi.

Beyond seafood, your best bet is to choose white meats like chicken and pork. Keep the seasoning light, though. Unoaked Chardonnay is not a good choice for spicy dishes. Instead, keep your seasonings very light (i.e., butter and herbs).

What if you prefer creamy dishes like pasta dishes with heavy sauces? In that case, it is best to choose an oaked chardonnay. The flavor profile of a well-oaked Chardonnay is better suited to heavier creamy dishes.

Three Ways Oak Changes Chardonnay

Putting wine in oak barrels is a traditional winemaking method, but you might wonder about its effect on the wine. The precise effect varies depending on a few points, including barrel size and barrel age. Generally speaking, small new barrels add the most flavor while older, well-used barrels add less flavor.

Wine Folly helpfully points out three main ways that oak contributes to wine.

1 Oak adds flavors

In my view, this is the most exciting part of oak. Oak can add flavors like vanilla, toasted bread, clove, and other spices. In Chardonnay, oak tends to add a buttery flavor. Some wine producers take a shortcut to achieve this effect by adding artificial flavors or wood chips. They do this because oak barrels are expensive. A single wine barrel can cost anywhere from $1000 to $2000 with French oak (American oak is historically much cheaper).

2 Oxygen effect

Some people complain about the bitter taste in some red wines. Oak aging can play a role in reducing this effect substantially by allowing small amounts of oxygen. A small amount of oxygen exposure is critically important. Too much oxygen exposure can ruin a wine.

3 Encourages malolactic fermentation

Oak helps to convert acidity into creaminess. If you dislike acidity in wine, oak aging is your friend. In malolactic fermentation, one type of acid (i.e., malic acid) is converted into another type of acid (i.e., lactic acid). Most people find that lactic acid has a smoother, less tart taste compared to malic acid.

Wine Regions For Unoaked Chardonnay

Multiple wine regions produced unoaked wine. I first discovered unoaked Chardonnay in Ontario, Canada’s largest wine region. Here are some winemaking regions to take a closer look at in your wine tasting journey.

French Wines 

This website focuses on French wines so let’s take a closer look at the French approach. If you want to try the French interpretation of unoaked Chardonnay, I recommend picking up a bottle of Petit Chablis. Find out more about Petit Chablis in my previous post: Petit Chablis: 5 Things To Know About This Classic Burgundy White Wine.

A French unoaked wine like Chablis usually tastes like green apple, lemon, and other citrus flavors.

Geographically, the Petit Chablis and Chablis wines are produced in the Burgundy region of France. To find this type of complex wine in your wine shop, start in the French wines section and then look for the white wines. In some cases, the wine bottle label might use “Bourgogne” (i.e., the French word for Burgundy). Sometimes, you may also notice flavors of pineapple in these French wines as well.

American Chardonnays

When most people think of American Chardonnays, heavily oaked Chardonnay from California comes to mind. However, there are other options available. Here are some of the best-unoaked Chardonnay options available in the US.

  • Balletto 2019 Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay (Russian River Valley, California)
  • Four Vines 2019 Naked Chardonnay (Central Coast, California)
  • Tolosa 2019 No Oak Heritage Chardonnay (Central Coast, California)

Italian Wines

When you think of Italian white wines, Pinot Grigio probably comes to mind first (find out more about it in the Sauv Blanc vs Pinot Grigio guide). However, the Wine Buying Guide points out that Chardonnay has been grown in Italy since the 19th century.

Look for the “DOC Langhe” Italian wine region as a shortcut to finding good Chardonnay in Italy. This wine appellation was created in 1994. The wine region is located in the northwest of Italy (i.e., nearby Genoa and Monaco). The winemaking region also produces multiple red wine grapes, such as Italy’s noted Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Freisa.

The Audio Wine Course That Changed Everything

Earlier this year, I listened to a fantastic 24 part audio wine course. It covered nearly everything you might want to know about wine, like winemaking techniques, becoming a knowledgeable wine buyer, and what to drink with dessert. The course is The Everyday Guide To Wine Great Course. To find out more and see if the course is right for you, check out my full review here: The Everyday Guide to Wine (Audible Great Course): 24 Lectures That Guide You Through The World’s Wines.

Unoaked Chardonnay: Flavors, Food Pairing & Wine Regions

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