Oak, Steel & Beyond: Where a Chardonnay gets its Flavors

Despite a stint of stigma, Chardonnay is the most popular variety of wine in America. But a Chardonnay can be a lot of different things. There are any number of different flavors and approaches to a Chardonnay – the most common including oak, butter, fruit or mineral flavors. But while it may seem obvious that an oaked Chardonnay gets its oakiness from oak, there are many ways for a winemaker to shape a Chardonnay.

To be a Chardonnay, a wine simply has to be made with primarily Chardonnay grapes. Many California Chardonnays are made with only 75% Chardonnay grapes. How they evolve beyond that is completely up to the winemaker.

Buttery wines, for example, get their flavor from malolactic fermentation. A process that takes place after primary fermentation. Maloactic fermentation converts the malic acid into lactic acid, which gives the wine a buttery, dairy taste.

Crisp and tangy Chardonnays are unoaked, and typically fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Stainless steel doesn’t impart any flavors on to the wine, though the wine can still undergo maloactic fermentation and grow buttery in flavor. If the winemaker can avoid maloactic fermentation, they are left with a highly controllable product — a blank slate of Chardonnay goodness to which they can add any fruity or experimental flavors.

Oaky or toasty Chardonnays are, of course, flavored with oak. But nowadays winemakers have a number of oak options to choose from. There’s the traditional oak barrel route, or an oak alternative such as staves and chips. Oak alternatives are increasingly more popular as winemakers have started to explore the benefits of fermenting and aging their Chardonnays in stainless steel barrels.

Stainless steel wine barrels, like the ones we offer here at Skolnik, have offered winemakers an unparalleled opportunity to play, experiment and truly control their art. Lucky for us wine-lovers, the result is a seemingly endless variety of flavors of Chardonnay!