It is a question I get asked a lot by wine drinkers. Let’s take a look at what is involved in production and what impact that has on price.
Chardonnay is such a versatile grape variety and it presents differently in both different regions, different climates and in the way it is fermented.
Grown in warm climate wine producing regions, these white wine grapes will have tropical fruit characters with less acidity, whereas when grown in a cooler climate region it will present with more citrus and mineral characters.
If you are a Pinot Grigio or Savvy B drinker you might want a crisp, lean, refreshing Chardonnay, often called Chablis in style, then you are looking at an unoaked or unwooded Chardonnay, they both mean the same thing. It just means it’s had little or no oak treatment. This is usually fermented in a stainless steel tank. When fermented this way it has a crisp refreshing style with none of the rich buttery characters that some people often associate with Chardonnay.
Chardonnay produced by fermenting in oak barrels often goes through malolactic fermentation (MLF) and develops the brioche and creamier style of some of the finest quality (and most expensive Chardonnays) in the world. That’s where the descriptor of “buttery” can come from.
However, not all oaked Chardonnays are made the same way. You can create that oak character in a Chardonnay in a very cheap way by literally throwing chips of wood into a tank. There are many methods of adding oak characters and they range from a tea bag style, to planks of wood and even little round balls. This is a much cheaper method of creating the oak characters than using real oak barrels.
Oak barrels vary in price quite dramatically. American oak is around $600 a barrel. Whereas an aged tight grain premium French oak barrel is around $2,000 a barrel. Given a barrel usually holds 225 litres to 300 litres, you only get 300 to 400 bottles out of a barrel.
Now you can reuse that barrel but when you see the term “new oak” that is typically a first year barrel. Some people will stretch “new” to second year as well but the amount of oak characters you get from a barrel after the first use changes.
Think of it like a tea bag. You can reuse a tea bag but the second time you use that tea bag you only get a fraction of the flavour. Therefore the cost to produce a premium barrel fermented chardonnay using new and old barrels is dramatically different to an “oak flavoured” wine or unoaked wine.
So when you’re looking for a bottle of white wine, if you want a lean, crisp, spritely drink instead of your usual Sauvignon Blanc, look for an unoaked or unwooded Chardonnay but if you like your Chardonnay with a bit more body and elegancy, particularly with food, then look for Chardonnay that has been fermented in real oak barrels for the best chardonnay experience.